I realized that when I talk about “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” and recommend it to people constantly, there isn’t actually any summary or description of what the book is about on let’s say wikipedia, so I started summarizing the actual story in case people were interested:
Wilhelm is a young man from a middle class commercial family, his father is a moderately successful businessman and entrepreneur, his closest friend, Werner, is the son of his father’s business partner. Unlike Werner, Wilhelm has little interest in following in the footsteps of his and Werner’s fathers, business to him appears narrow-minded and materialistic. He believes he is intended for a higher pursuit of some kind, namely, that of an actor and professional poet in the contemporary institution of the German theatre. To this end, Wilhelm has fallen in love and plans to elope with a young actress, Mariane, what he does not know however is that Mariane is also being pursued by a wealthy merchant named Norberg. Mariane’s servant, the shrewd, practical minded Barbara encourages her to give up on Wilhelm in favor of the financial security and assurance which Norberg brings to the table. Marianne is torn though between what she knows is the rational decision of Norberg, and Wilhelm, who she believes herself to genuinely love. Book I concludes with Wilhelm discovering Mariane’s affair with Norberg.
The second book picks up two or three years after the conclusion of book I, Wilhelm has, mostly recovered from his heartbreak, but those closest to him, his mother, Werner, can tell that he has given up on life to an extent and is trapped, languishing in a period of depression and self-pity from which he seems unable to rouse himself. In a conversation with Werner at the outset of the second book, Wilhelm begins tossing his manuscripts and assorted poetic juvenilia into the fireplace. When Werner attempts to console Wilhelm, Wilhelm has a sort of nervous breakdown, lamenting his fate with Mariane and expressing a sense of resignation about working for his father. He takes the breakdown of his relationship with Mariane as an omen that his destiny does not lie in the theatre, as he once thought, but with the more prosaic business of following in his father’s bourgeois footsteps.
After Wilhelm’s outburst his family decides to send him on an extended business trip to collect debts for his Father. Wilhelm obliges and after travelling a few days stops at a small town to rest at the inn. A travelling gypsy circus happens to be in town, as do the remnants of a recently disbanded troupe of professional actors, and Wilhelm soon makes the acquaintance of two of these, Philine and Laertes. Laertes is described as a misogynist, bitter over a broken engagement. As for Philine, to use Laertes’ words: “When she undertakes something or promises something to somebody, it is only on the tacit understanding it will also be convenient for her to carry out the intention or to keep her promise … I am her friend because she represents for me so purely the sex which I have so much reason to hate. I see her as the true Eve, the ancestor of the female sex; that’s what they’re all like, only they won’t admit it.”
Philine is a master of using femininity and sex to ingratiate herself with everyone and advance her own position in society, and despite this, Wilhelm finds himself immediately attracted to her against his better judgement. Philine is further accompanied by another character, her “servant”, an adolescent boy named Fredrick who professes to be deeply and madly in love with her. Philine, of course, does not reciprocate, but somewhat cruelly, allows him to go on being her servant despite this.
Not long after another pair of characters is introduced, Mignon, and the Harper. Together they’re perhaps the book’s most well-known characters. Mignon is an adolescent-aged gypsy girl who Wilhelm “purchases” from the abusive manager of the travelling circus. The Harper, on the other hand, is a wandering Jew type who, throughout the novel, seems desperate to escape some terrible retribution of fate. These characters are joined by several minor ones to form the basis of a new acting troupe with Wilhelm at the center.
Wilhelm idles for several days with his new friends. Though he knows he should probably extricate himself the situation and continue on his way as soon as possible, he finds himself hard pressed to do so. Soon enough he finds himself being pressured by the actors to finance the formation of a new troupe using his father’s money, and he reluctantly allows himself to be talked into doing so…
Book II ends when a local Baron and his wife get word of the formation of their new theatrical group. They pay Wilhelm and the actors a visit and contract them out to provide entertainment at the residence of their friend, “The Count”, while he hosts their visiting Prince. The troupe, thrilled at this unexpected stroke of good fortune agree and set up shop in the dilapidated old wing of the Count’s residence. This book is the novel at its most satirical and ironic as the ‘low’ manners of the ramshackle troupe of actors is juxtaposed with the haughty idleness of their superiors.
With the departure of the Prince the company is sent away by the Baron, he pays them handsomely for their services, especially Wilhelm. Despite the oftentimes satirical tone of the third book, and the many missteps and misadventures therein contained, the troupe is, on the whole, quite satisfied with itself, and Wilhelm finally works up the courage to write home about the progress of his business trip believing his negligence will be more easily forgiven in light of the Baron’s generosity, which was more than enough to cover the sum Wilhelm had loaned the actors in book II.
High off their success, Wilhelm formally accepts an invitation from the rest of the troupe to become their official leader and together they leave the Count’s estate for the theatre of a nearby city managed by an acquaintance of Wilhelm’s named Serlo. Wilhelm accepts responsibility for the troupe, promising them they’ll be taken care of and offered contracts by Serlo on the basis of his recommendation of their talents. Before setting off however, the troupe is warned that the region they’re travelling through could prove dangerous to them, on account of military skirmishes in the area. The troupe decides to risk it and rather than hiring professional bodyguards to accompany them safely to their destination, instead equip themselves with swords and pistols to defend themselves with should the need arise.
At first the company is in high spirits, treating the whole thing like a little adventure, but before long they meet with a detachment of hostile soldiers intent on plundering their money and belongings. The actors do their best to defend themselves and a disastrous battle ensues. The troupe, including Wilhelm, see all their possessions looted, the presents given to them by the aristocrats, the money Wilhelm received from the Baron etc. Worse yet Wilhelm is shot and seriously wounded during the engagement and only Philine and Mignon remain with him after the other actors run away.
Luckily a mysterious noblewoman (“The Amazon”) happens upon them in their moment of need. She covers Wilhelm with her coat and orders her personal surgeon to attend to him. Wilhelm is taken to the next inn where the rest of the troupe has also regrouped to consider its next move. Having lost everything the actors blame their leader, Wilhelm, for all their misfortune. They demand he make good on his assurances to them and Wilhelm does his best, providing them letters of recommendation to Serlo. Philine and Mignon stay behind with Wilhelm to care for him during his convalescence at the inn while the rest of the actors go on ahead to seek employment at Serlo’s theatre.
After recovering Wilhelm catches up with the rest of the troupe at the theatre Serlo manages towards the end of book IV. Serlo has taken care of the actors and given contracts to the better ones among them. Serlo does not share Wilhelm’s artistic love of the theatre, rather, he’s more of a shrewd businessman like Wilhelm’s father who peddles entertainment to a public he’s long since given up all hope for. Serlo’s sister, Aurelie, is the theatre’s premier actress, talented and passionate, she suffers from a hysterical, histrionic personality and dramatically carries on throughout the fifth book over her betrayal by an ex-lover named “Lothario”. Aurelie also cares for a young child, 3-5 years old or thereabouts named Felix, who Wilhelm assumes his Aurelie’s bastard son.
Wilhelm and Serlo strike up a vigorous professional relationship and unlike the unprofessional and disorderly acting troupe of book III, at Serlo’s theatre Wilhelm finds himself among real professionals and connoisseurs of acting and the theatre. Having been introduced to the works of Shakespeare at the Count’s residence by a mysterious officer named Jarno, Wilhelm presses Serlo to stage a performance of Hamlet as the theatre’s next production. Much of book V is taken up with the preparations and rehearsals of the play, and the characters engage throughout in a series of theoretical discussions about Hamlet, acting, culture, drama, the difference between tragedy and novels etc.