The novel is a continuation of the “Years of Wilhelm Meister’s Teaching.” The hero who, at the end of the previous book, became a member of the Tower Society (or the Renouncers, as they call themselves), receives from his comrades the assignment to go on a journey. At the same time he is given the condition not to stay under one roof for more than three days and to retire at least every mile from his former retreat – to avoid the “temptation of a settled way of life”. In wanderings, Wilhelm must better understand the world, find his final vocation and, to the extent possible, contribute to the establishment of noble, moral relations between people. He is accompanied by the son Felix. With Natalia, the hero is temporarily separated, but he “belongs to her forever” and tests his experiences in regular letters.
The novel begins with the fact that on the way to Wilhelm there is a completely unusual family – a husband, wife and
children. The man was leading on the occasion of the donkey, and in the saddle was a quiet, pretty woman, enveloped in a blue cloak, under which she pressed to the breast of a newborn baby and looked at him with unspeakable tenderness. ” This easily guessed picture of the holy family immediately denotes the universal, deeply generalized nature of the material that constitutes the essence of the novel. If in the “Years of Learning…” the plot developed around the fate of Meister, the characters were alive and full-blooded, and the action took place in modern Goethe Germany with its specific signs, this time the whole story is much more arbitrary. The novel is devoid of a single plot and is a series of short stories, almost unrelated to each other.
Such a free form – which at first appears to be careless and almost raw – gave the writer the opportunity to put into the novel his most expensive, deep and complex reflections on what worried him throughout his life. A free composition alternating with prose, poems, pages of direct aphorisms, an open ending – the book ends with the
remark “To be continued” – this is not so much a lack of work as the foreword of a new type of novel of the 20th century.
The worldview of the protagonist is now deprived of the tragedy and Hamlet self-centeredness that distinguished the young Wilhelm. Having recognized personal happiness, having found a son and friends who are like-minded, Meister in The Years of Travel… appears as a man, wise in experience and accepting reality in all its infinite completeness and diversity. Now he is not a fighter with the whole world, but a fighter for this world, for his reasonable and human device. He distinguishes elements of deep intelligence in the very foundations of being, and this is the most important idea of the book, which gives it deep optimism. Here, for example, what thoughts Wilhelm brings to a meeting with an astronomer who from his observatory showed the hero a starry sky. “What am I compared to the Universe?” Wilhelm told himself, “how can I oppose myself to it or put myself in its midst.”
The characters of the novel, the stories told in it, the traces of fate are a figurative expression of how, in Goethe’s understanding, it is necessary to conduct careful construction of a more perfect way of life. Through all the narrative there passes the image of the clairvoyant Makarii – a woman, beneficially acting on others, transmitting her spiritual strength and altruism. Just like the friends of Meister on the Society of the Tower, she renounced selfishness and self-interest. The goal and meaning of the life of Goethe’s favorite heroes is serving humanity, helping people and affirming moral principles.
Some stories recall the “new people” Chernyshevsky – the characters are free from selfishness, able to rise above the momentary passions and overcome the limits of seemingly desperate situations. These are the heroes of the novel “A Fifty-Year-Old Man.” The essence of it is that Gilariya, who since childhood was destined for the bride’s cousin Flavio, realized that in reality she loves not the groom, but his father, his uncle, a widower major. Perhaps the girl was affected by the fact that her mother was always enthusiastic about her brother. And so my uncle at the next meeting also felt a fervent love for Gilary. When the father went in embarrassment to explain his son, it turned out that the son in turn is in love with a certain young widow and does not at all seek to marry Gilaria. However, having met with the major, this young widow begins, like Gilaria, to experience very tender feelings for him. The major is also impressed by the meeting with this charming woman. After a quarrel with her confused Flavio comes to the house of Gilaria, where he becomes very ill. The girl starts courting him. And it is now that true love that meets reciprocity awakens in it… It is important that in these unpredictable intricacies of feelings the characters do not give power to anger or jealousy, they remain noble and deeply sensitive to each other, as if challenging standard approaches to the complexities of life.
Another novel – “New Meluzina” – tells about a fantastic or fantastic story. Once the storyteller of this novel met a beautiful stranger in a rich carriage. She asked him for one favor – that he would carry her casket with him. For this the lady lent the young man money and gave her crew. After a while the narrator spent all his money and was sad. The stranger again suddenly appeared before him and again gave him a purse with gold, warning that he was thrifty. Finally, the young man persuaded the beautiful lady not to leave him. She actually became his wife. And one day he recognized her secret – it turns out that the beauty was a princess of the elves, she belonged to a tribe of tiny little people, her life passed in a casket, and only occasionally she accepted the usual human form. The lady needed a knight, faithful and loving, to save his dying people. At first the narrator agreed to become a tiny elf in the heat of the senses. However, soon he could not stand the test and fled from the magic forest… He himself remembers this in the novel with a feeling of deep remorse, and it is clear that the past has changed his whole life and attitude to the world.
In general, the image of the magic casket, closed for a while from prying eyes, and the key that can open this casket, is present throughout the novel. This is an expressive symbol of wisdom, life, the human soul and nature, which open only with skillful treatment and appropriate preparation.
One of the aphorisms of the clairvoyant Macarius, the selection of which ends the novel, is this: “What is tragedy, as not transferred to the poems of passion of those who from external circumstances does God knows what?”
A special place in the book is the theme of education. Felix is determined to study in a special school, more precisely, in the Pedagogical Province. This is Goethe’s social utopia. The pedagogical province represents an ideal example of a beneficial effect on the young person. The principle of local teachers is the desire to promote the education of the public, with a strong sense of dignity and respect for the world around them. “Wise teachers imperceptibly push the boys to what responds to their nature, and reduce the circular ways in which it is so easy for a person to get lost and deviate from his vocation.”
Thus, in the novel two themes constantly interact and resonate, forming a harmonious unity, the theme of moral self-improvement of an individual and the idea of educating the collective consciousness, the development of social skills and the feeling of universal unity.
“There is nothing more precious than one day” – this is also an important aphorism from the “Archives of Macarius”. The characters of the novel strive to realize their mission as fully as possible, actively and at the same time carefully and wisely invade life. An example of such a decisive action is the intention of several of Wilhelm’s comrades to emigrate to America at the head of a group of weavers, to whom the new industrial relations carry the threat of ruin. At first, Wilhelm is also going to leave the country. But then he remains at home to create here for the workers something like an exemplary labor colony. Before us again is a utopia, which marks Goethe’s persistent efforts in the sphere of the social world order.
And of course, as a regularity, we perceive the fact that the protagonist of the novel, after a long search for vocation, stopped at the surgeon’s profession – to create a “miracle without miracles”, relying on experience and knowledge of human nature.
Later he tells us that a great sculptor played a great role in mastering his mastery. It was difficult for Wilhelm to dissect the human tissues and organs, studying the anatomy, but “this feeling was in conflict with the demand that any knowledge-seeking person sets himself…”. Having become friends with the sculptor, he heard from him profound judgments that “more can be learned, building, rather than dismembering, uniting, rather than severing, animating the deceased, rather than further killing him.” These principles became the most important for Wilhelm, symbolizing his attitude to nature, including human nature.
The last chapters describe an exciting episode – Felix fell from a steep river into the river with his horse. The boaters who arrived in time pulled out the young man and carried him ashore, but Felix did not show any signs of life. “Wilhelm immediately grabbed a lancet to open the vein on his arm, the blood splashed with a heavy current.” Life returned to the young man, and as soon as the sympathetic surgeon finished the dressing, he rose vigorously to his feet, threw a piercing glance at Wilhelm and exclaimed: – If you live, so with you! “