A Summary of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister

This page, this summary of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is, to my surprise, one of the more popular pages on this blog. People searching for Cliff’s Notes or summaries of the novel are brought here on a daily basis as I suppose there aren’t many resources relating to this book readily available online. I have therefore gone back and expanded this page somewhat to increase its usefulness to people attempting to do research on Wilhelm Meister.

In the study of literature there is the somewhat problematic question as to the identity of the ‘first’ (modern) novel. Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Tom Jones are the works most commonly cited in answer to this question while Wilhelm Meister is unfortunately usually overlooked or disregarded by English-language scholars and critics of the novel. It is my opinion however that Wilhelm Meister is the first truly modern novel, and is properly considered as the prototype of model for all subsequent novel writing of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Originally conceived of in the 1770s as Wilhelm Meister’s Theatrical Mission, the novel took Goethe some twenty years to complete. Its conception dates to around 1775, when Goethe first began work on the plays Egmont and Faust, and he worked intermittently on the novel over the course of his first decade in Weimar without great success. It was not until the 1790s, when Goethe first began associating with Post-Kantian figures like Schiller and Fichte that he received the impetus to finally finish Wilhelm Meister and the final work, especially the last two books of the novel, were greatly influenced by Kant’s Critique of Judgement and Schiller’s work of Post-Kantian aesthetics On the Aesthetic Education of Man.

The novel is extremely diverse in its situations and characters and is of an immense historical interest for its penetrating portrayal of contemporary society. At the same time though the work is also profound in its philosophical and intellectual depth, in the way in which it relates the various incidents, conversations, and characters of its plot to its central idea.

“A strange feeling like that in an unheard of dream runs through Goethe’s romantic Meister,” the Romantic critic and novelist Jean Paul Richter wrote, “as if a dangerous spirit ruled over the accidents therein, as if he would step any minute from his storm cloud, as if one looked down from  mountain at the gay bustle of men, in short as if a natural catastrophe were at hand.”

The book is often called a Bildungsroman by critics and historians of literature, and is usually cited as the originator of this particular genre of the novel. The term, which was first popularized by the historian and philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey in an 1870 essay on Friedrich Schleiermacher, is frequently controversial as a neologism, but has, nonetheless, remained popular in reference to many European novels of the 19th century, especially those directly modeled after the influence of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Modern critics, like Franco Meretti, in his study The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture, have even gone so far as to identify the Bildungsroman as the characteristic form of European literature during the modern era.

The term Bildungsroman may in fact be imperfect, but the phenomena it sets out to describe is significant enough to certainly merit consideration and recognition. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the central work in a long a distinguished tradition of German novels beginning, arguably, with Christoph Martin Wieland’s 1766 novel, The History of Agathon. This tradition was continued by subsequent novels of major German writers and intellectuals over the next several decades with works such as Karl Moritz’s Anton Reiser (1785), Friedrich Schiller’s The Apparitionist (1787), and Friedrich Jacobi’s Allwill (1792).

After the publication of Wilhelm Meister in 1795 and 1796 this tradition was taken up by a slew of imitators among the generation of young Post-Kantians with novels like Friedrich Holderlin’s Hyperion (1797), Ludwig Tieck’s Franz Sternbald’s Wanderings (1798), Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde (1799), Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1799-1801), Jean Paul’s Titan (1800-1803), Clemens Brentano’s Godwi (1801), Friedrich Schelling’s Clara (1811), E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1819-1821).

Later additions to this tradition include Eduard Morike’s The Painter Nolten (1832), Adalbert Stifter’s The Indian Summer (1857), and Gottfried Keller’s Green Henry (1855, 1879), as well as 20th century works by Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse like The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus, Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game.

The influence of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship goes beyond Germany however. It was translated into English by Thomas Carlye and was widely read during the Victorian era by English and American audiences.

What makes Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship remarkable is that it marks the beginning of the modern theory of the novel. The English-American critic Ian Watt, and his influential 1959 work The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding erroneously attributes this beginning of novelistic theory to 19th century French criticism, but in reality it was contemporary German criticism on Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship where the theory of the novel truly begins, especially in the critical writings of Friedrich Schlegel.

The modernity of Wihelm Meister’s Apprenticeship derives from its presentation of the novel form as solution to the central question it poses to itself: Where is Society to be found? The tension underlying the novelistic form is the relationship between Society and its parts, the individuals and institutions which constitute it. How is it possible to integrate individuals into a whole while at the same time respecting and safeguarding their individuality and autonomy as discrete subjective agents.

In Schiller’s On Naive and Sentimental Poetry he presents a general model for the development of artistic, and more specifically poetic, forms. The history of anything, in Transcendental Philosophy, begins with the first separation of the reality of a thing from its own idea. Preceding this idea mind and matter, objectivity and subjectivity, sensuousness and rationality exist in a completely homogenous and undistinguished way. In the history of every institution, practice, art form, society and individual there is the same pattern of development, progressing from this initial separation to self-awareness of the idea as something apart from the reality of how that idea manifests itself sensuously as phenomena, to a reconciliation of the idea and the what that idea is an abstract generalization of.

Earlier novels, called Romances, like Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Gil Blas and even Tom Jones function as encyclopedias of society. They feature a protagonist who travels through a society exploring the diversity of its members and occupations. In these works the idea of the whole of Society is not yet entirely distinct from these individual manifestations of it. The pure Idea of (a) Society may be thought of as the totality of every possible manifestation of that Idea, and represents an inexhaustible infinity of potentialities. These encyclopedias of society go on an on presenting different permutations of the idea of a society in every possible context and setting and tend to be quite linear in their character. The protagonists of these novels search everywhere for Society but find everywhere only fragments of it, and always there is a pervasive sense of irony in them that the parts, in their summation, do not in fact constitute a harmony or a whole.

During the 18th century then, as the Idea of Society becomes more abstracted and generalized by the ongoing procedure of Human Rationality the Naive Romance is succeeded by the Elegiac Sentimental novels, including the works of Defoe, like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, the works of Richardson, such as Pamela and Clarissa, as well as other works, like Rousseau’s The New Heloise and Goethe’s own first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. These works are frequently of an epistolary nature, or alternatively, tend to take the form of fictional confessions, memoirs or travelogues. Book Six of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Confessions of a Beautiful Soul, may be considered a Sentimental Novel unto itself, and is conclusion exists to highlight the inadequacies of this kind of form.

In the Sentimental Novel there is a real sense that the Idea of Society, the whole harmonious integration of all of its parts, has become irretrievable and lost to the world of actuality. These novels are often tragic, or semi-tragic, and are intensely subjective, dealing with characters writing in the first person attempting to interpret a place for themselves into the world around them.

The development of the Sentimental Novel coincides with the collapse of Enlightenment Rationalism into Nihilistic Subjectivism. Kant terms his philosophy “Transcendental” or “Critical” Idealism in order to distinguish it from two other forms of Idealism which he has identified: The “Dogmatic” Idealism of thinkers like Bishop Berkeley and Gottfried Leibniz, and the “Problematic” Idealism of David Hume. The former, according to Kant, rejected the independence of reality from our thoughts, while the latter remained eternally agnostic about it. Kantian Idealism is characterized by the unequivocal assertion of the existence of such a reality, and in so doing, Kant hoped to preserve subjectivity by limiting it within a universal framework of mitigating objectivity which was beyond the mind’s ability to transgress. This is the purpose of the Critical Philosophy, or German Idealism as it is called.

In a novel like Richardson’s Clarissa there is mitigating objectivity, there is no shared social reality connecting the subjective interpretations of the characters to one another. There are only four minds, endlessly competing to determine their shared reality, and, therefore also eachother. This is indicative of a central problem of contemporary philosophy, the problem of intersubjectivity and the existence of other minds.

Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship may be considered, properly, the first modern novel because it is a Kantian, or Critical Novel. The book is more than a simple coming of age story, it attempts, using Schiller’s Aesthetics, to present the novel genre as the single point at which individual interpretations of our social world are allowed to co-exist simultaneously and be reconciled with one another.

The primary insight of Wilhelm Meister is not that life is a novel, but that society is a novel, which the library of the Tower Society in Book Seven serves as a metaphor of. In this sense Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is more than a history or narrative of its protagonist, but rather is the intersection of all such stories of development, and this is what the Tower Society and the Uncle’s Estate at the end of the book represent. Wilhelm Meister is not Goethe, he is only a part of Goethe, along with Jarno and Lothario, these parts are separated and developed by the novel individually and then reconciled as a Society in the conclusion.

This is the brilliance and significance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.


Book I:

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.

Book II:

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 is 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.

Only one problem stands in the way of their successful production of the tragedy: the trope cannot find an appropriate actor to play the part of the Ghost. Wilhelm is assured however by a pair of strangers that if he has faith, someone will make themselves known on opening night who will step into the role. He is, of course, anxious at first but sure enough, on opening night a mystery figure appears and plays the role to great effect, though he leaves before his true identity can be ascertained.

That night, after drinking and celebrating with the other members of the company, an inebriated Wilhelm returns to his darkened room to find a unknown female figure there waiting to seduce him and it remains, of course, a mystery until later as to who precisely this happened to be, though Wilhelm has his suspicions, and fears it at times to be Mignon.

The next day the entire company is caught off-guard when by a fire which destroys their lodgings, and in the chaos the Harper lapses into a fit of madness and attempts to kill the child Felix. Subsequently the Harper is sent away to receive treatment for his insanity. The rest of Book V proceeds along at a brisk pace, as Aurelie drives herself, finally, into a condition of hysteria and fever and finds her life threatened. Wilhelm visits the Harper and learns of the unfortunate consequences of his prank during the third book, and returns with the manuscript of Confessions of a Beautiful Soul, which he reads to Aurelie and which provides her some comfort in her final moments of life.

The book concludes with Wilhelm riding off to meet Aurelie’s lover, Lothario, at his estate in order to reprimand him for his betrayal and the subsequent death of the woman who loved him.

VI: Confessions of a Beautiful Soul

The sixth book consists entirely in the manuscript which Wilhelm was given towards the conclusion of Book V while visiting the Harper during his convalescence. The book is a self-contained sentimental confession or memoir written by a woman identified only as The Canoness. The Canoness relates, in a deeply subjective fashion, the particulars of her life.

She explains how she suffered from illness and physical frailty since the time of childhood, and how, after falling in love, she decided against marrying in order to pursue a life of virginal spirituality. Goethe described this book as the ‘Religious’ book of the novel, and eventually The Canoness becomes a respected leader of a Moravian community.

When her sister marries The Canoness attends the ceremony at the estate of a character known as The Uncle, and comes there into contact with various members of his circle. She then talks about her sister’s children and their various personalities.

It is revealed later that these children are Natalie (The Amazon), The Countess (from Book III) and Lothario, and that Wilhelm had met The Uncle previously accompanying Natalie during Book IV.


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