Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter XV

J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Book IV

Chapter XV

NEXT morning Wilhelm went to visit Frau Melina; but found her not at home. On inquiring here for the other members of the wandering community, he learned that Philina had invited them to breakfast. Out of curiosity, he hastened thither; and found them all cleared up and not a little comforted. The cunning creature had collected them, was treating them with chocolate, and giving them to understand that some prospects still remained for them; that, by her influence, she hoped to convince the manager how advantageous it would be for him to introduce so many clever hands among his company. They listened to her with attention; swallowed cup after cup of her chocolate; thought the girl was not so bad after all; and went away proposing to themselves to speak whatever good of her they could.

“Do you think then,” said our friend, who stayed behind, “that Serlo will determine to retain our comrades?” “Not at all,” replied Philina; “nor do I care a fig for it. The sooner they are gone the better! Laertes alone I could wish to keep: the rest we shall by and by pack off.”

Next she signified to Wilhelm her firm persuasion that he should no longer hide his talent; but, under the direction of a Serlo, go upon the boards. She was lavish in this establishment: she spoke so flatteringly to Wilhelm; with such admiration of his gifts, that his heart and his imagination were advancing towards this proposal, as fast as his understanding and his reason were retreating from it. He concealed his inclination from himself and from Philina; and passed a restless day, unable to resolve on visiting his trading correspondents, to receive the letters which might there be lying for him. The anxieties of his people during all this time he easily conceived; yet he shrank from the precise account of them; particularly at the present time, as he promised to himself a great and pure enjoyment from the exhibition of a new piece that evening.

Serlo had refused to let him witness the rehearsal. “You must see us on the best side,” he observed, “before we can allow you to look into our cards.”

The acting of the piece, however, where our friend did not fail to be present, yielded him a high satisfaction. It was the first time he had ever seen a theatre in such perfection. The actors were evidently all possessed of excellent gifts, of superior capacities, and a high clear notion of their art: they were not equal; but they mutually restrained and supported one another; each breathed ardour into those around him; throughout all their acting, they showed themselves decided and correct. You soon felt that Serlo was the soul of the whole; as an individual he appeared to much advantage. A merry humour, a measured vivacity, a settled feeling of propriety, combined with a great gift of imitation, were to be observed in him the moment he appeared upon the stage. The inward contentment of his being seemed to spread itself over all that looked on him; and the intellectual style, in which he could so easily and gracefully express the finest shadings of his part, excited more delight, as he could conceal the art which, by long-continued practice, he had made his own.

Aurelia, his sister, was not inferior; she obtained still greater approbation, for she touched the souls of the audience, which it was his to exhilarate and amuse.

After a few days had passed pleasantly enough, Aurelia sent to inquire for our friend. He hastened to her: she was lying on sofa; she seemed to be suffering from headache: her whole frame had visibly a feverish movement. Her eye lighted up as she noticed Wilhelm. “Pardon me!” she cried, as he entered: “the trust you have inspired me with has made me weak. Till now I have contrived to bear up against my woes in secret; nay, they gave me strength and consolation: but now, I know not how it is, you have loosened the bands of silence; you must, against your will, take part in the battle I am fighting with myself.”

Wilhelm answered her in friendly and obliging terms. He declared that her image and her sorrows had not ceased to hover in his thoughts; that he longed for her confidence, and devoted himself to be her friend.

While he spoke, his eyes were attracted to the boy, who sat before her on the floor, and was busy rattling a multitude of playthings. This child, as Philina had observed, might be about three years of age; and Wilhelm now conceived how that giddy creature, seldom elevated in her phraseology, had likened it to the sun. For its cheerful eyes and full countenance were shaded by the finest golden locks, which flowed round in copious curls; dark, slender, softly-bending eyebrows showed themselves upon a brow of dazzling whiteness; and the living tinge of health was glancing on its cheeks. child by me,” said Aurelia: “you are looking at the happy child with admiration, in truth, I took it into my arms with joy; I keep it carefully: yet by it too I can measure the extent of my sufferings; for they seldom let me feel the worth of such a gift.

“Allow me,” she continued, “to speak to you about myself and my destiny: for I have it much at heart that you should not misunderstand me. I thought I should have a few calm instants, and accordingly I sent for you; you are now here, and the thread of my narrative is lost.

“One more forsaken woman in the world!’ you will say. You are a man; you are a man; you are thinking: ‘What a noise she makes, the fool, about a necessary evil; which, certainly as death, awaits a woman, when such is the fidelity of men!’ O my friend! if my fate were common, I would gladly undergo a common evil; but it is so singular: why cannot I present it to you in a mirror, why not command some one to tell it you? O, had I, had I been seduced, surprised, and afterwards forsaken, there would then still be comfort in despair: but I am far more miserable; I have been my own deceiver; I have wittingly betrayed myself; and this, this is what shall never be forgiven me.”

“With noble feelings, such as yours,” said Wilhelm, “you can never be entirely unhappy.”

“And do you know to what I am indebted for my feelings?” asked Aurelia. “To the worst education that ever threatened to contaminate a girl; to the vilest examples for misleading the senses and the inclinations.

“My mother dying early, the fairest years of my youth were spent with an aunt, whose principle it was to despise the laws of decency. She resigned herself headlong to every impulse; careless whether the object of it proved her tyrant or her slave, so she might forget herself in wild enjoyment.

“By children, with the pure clear vision of innocence, what ideas of men were necessarily formed in such a scene! How stolid, brutally bold, importunate, unmannerly, was every one whom she allured! How sated, empty, insolent and tasteless, when he left her! I have seen this woman live, for years, humbled under the control of the meanest creatures. What incidents she had to undergo! With what a front she contrived to accommodate herself to her destiny; nay, with how much skill to wear those shameful fetters!

“It was thus, my friend, that I became acquainted with your sex: and deeply did I hate it, when, as I imagined, I observed that even tolerable men, in their conduct to ours, appeared to renounce every honest feeling, of which Nature might otherwise have made them capable.

“Unhappily, moreover, on such occasions, a multitude of painful discoveries about my own sex were forced upon me: and in truth I was then wiser, as a girl of sixteen, than I now am; now that I scarcely understand myself. Why are we so wise when young; so wise, and ever growing less so?”

The boy began to make a noise; Aurelia became impatient, and rung. An old woman came to take him out. “Hast thou tooth-ache still?” said Aurelia to the crone, whose face was wrapped in cloth. “Unsufferable,” said the other, with a muffled voice; then lifted the boy, who seemed to like going with her, and carried him away.

Scarcely was he gone, when Aurelia began bitterly to weep. “I am good for nothing,” cried she, “but lamenting and complaining; and I feel ashamed to lie before you like a miserable worm. My recollection is already fled; I can relate no more.” She faltered, and was silent. Her friend, unwilling to reply with a commonplace, and unable to reply with anything particularly applicable, pressed her hand, and looked at her for some time without speaking. Thus embarrassed, he at length took up a book, which he noticed Iying on the table before him: it was Shakspeare’s works, and open at Hamlet.

Serlo at this moment entering, inquired about his sister; and looking in the book which our friend had hold of, cried: “So you are again at Hamlet? Very good! Many doubts have arisen in me, which seem not a little to impair the canonical aspect of the piece as you would have it viewed. The English themselves have admitted that its chief interest concludes with the third act; the last two lagging sorrily on, and scarcely uniting with the rest: and certainly about the end it seems to stand stock-still.”

“It is very possible,” said Wilhelm, “that some individuals of a nation, which has so many master-pieces to feel proud of, may be led by prejudice and narrowness of mind to form false judgments: but this cannot hinder us from looking with our own eyes, and doing justice where we see it due. I am very far from censuring the plan of Hamlet; on the contrary, I believe there never was a grander one invented; nay, it is not invented, it is real.”

“How do you demonstrate that?” inquired Serlo.

“I will not demonstrate anything,” said Wilhelm; “I will merely show you what my own conceptions of it are.”

Aurelia rose up from her cushion; leaned upon her hand, and looked at Wilhelm; who, with the firmest assurance that he was in the right, went on as follows: “It pleases us, it flatters us to see a hero acting on his own strength; loving and hating as his heart directs him; undertaking and completing; casting every obstacle aside; and at length attaining some great object which he aimed at. Poets and historians would willingly persuade us that so proud a lot may fall to man. In Hamlet we are taught another lesson: the hero is without a plan, but the piece is full of plan. Here we have no villain punished on some self-conceived and rigidly-accomplished scheme of vengeance: a horrid deed occurs; it rolls itself along with all its consequences, dragging guiltless persons also in its course; the perpetrator seems as if he would evade the abyss which is made ready for him; yet he plunges in, at the very point by which he thinks he shall escape and happily complete his course.

“For it is the property of crime to extend its mischief over innocence, as it is of virtue to extend its blessings over many that deserve them not; while frequently the author of the one or of the other is not punished or rewarded at all. Here is this play of ours, how strange! The Pit of darkness sends its spirit and demands revenge; in vain! All circumstances tend one way, and hurry to revenge; in vain! Neither earthly nor infernal thing may bring about what is reserved for Fate alone. The hour of judgment comes: the wicked falls with the good: one race is mowed away, that another may spring up.”

After a pause, in which they looked at one another, Serlo said: “You pay no great compliment to Providence, in thus exalting Shakspeare; and besides, it appears to me, that for the honour of your poet, as others for the honour of Providence, you ascribe to him an object and a plan, which he himself had never thought of.”