[(essay date 1984) In the following essay, Gelley examines the variety of narrative structures simultaneously at play in Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, noting that the novel defies neat classification in this regard. Gelley also draws upon the narrative theories of Walter Benjamin and Mikhail Bakhtin to shift the discussion from “what the story is about” to how and why the numerous stories that compose Wilhelm Meister’s Travels are told.]
In relation to Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796), the Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre], (first version, 1821, revised and expanded version, 1829) represents a marked divergence from the model of a Bildungsroman, that is, a narrative focused on a single protagonist and utilizing encounters and illustrative tales to mark the stages of his development. In the Wanderjahre the frame story, with Wilhelm at its center, is of course still operative, but instead of the teleological progression of the earlier novel, we now have a series of episodes and interpolated texts whose relation to the main strand is by no means self-evident. The very status of the frame has been put into question by the fact that many of the stories occupy an intermediate position, both inside and outside. In calling attention to the hybrid structure of the Wanderjahre I do not intend to make a value judgment but to explore ways of identifying and analyzing its diverse generic and formal elements.
The function of a story as exemplum, as illustration or instance, becomes problematic in a work like the Wanderjahre where the principal narrative strand, what should be the authoritative level of meaning, is ambiguous or weakly articulated. But such a problematization itself gives rise to a different kind of thematic focus, one involving the production and dissemination of narratives rather than their truth value or ethical import. Here Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the storyteller is pertinent. Further, Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogic novel, of the medley of styles and attitudes that constitute the fabric of a certain kind of prose fiction, will help us to consider some of the narratives in the Wanderjahre not so much in terms of their content—what the story is about—but of their modes of enunciation and transmission—how they are told, by whom, and for what purpose. (AG)Mit solchem Büchlein aber ist es wie mit dem Leben selbst: es findet sich in dem Komplex des Ganzen Notwendiges and Zufälliges, Vorgesetztes and Angeschlossenes, bald gelungen, bald vereitelt, wodurch es eine Art von Unendlichkeit erhält, die sich in verständige and vernünftige Worte nicht durchaus fassen noch einschliessen läßt1
More than once Goethe spoke of the symbolic method of his later work in terms of a multiperspectivism, of “contrastive and mutually reflective forms” designed to disclose a “more secret meaning” (“durcheinander gegenüber gestellte and sich gleichsam ineinander abspiegelnde Gebilde den geheimeren Sinn … zu offenbaren”).2 In statements like these regarding the method of his later work Goethe projects an ideally suited instance of reception, an audience or readership capable of penetrating the complexities of this body of work....