[(essay date 1994) In the following essay, Dowden argues that the apparently “slapdash” structure of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels is in fact a deliberate authorial attempt to shift interpretive responsibility to the reader. Dowden further suggests that Goethe shared with his eighteenth-century predecessors, including Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding, a sense of the potential of irony in portraying the ambiguities of life.]
Goethe ended the revised edition of his Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre] with a promise: “Ist Fortzusetzen.” This twist came as a surprise to the novel’s first readers, and it has continued to surprise. It poses an obvious question about a writer who is eighty years old. Did Goethe expect to live long enough to write a third Wilhelm Meister novel and so complete the series with a Meisterjahre? The matter has proved so vexing for his solemn editors that even major editions, such as the Hamburger Ausgabe, leave out Goethe’s self-ironic jest. One supposes they thought it an editorial blunder, a sign of mental faculties enfeebled by advanced age, or of some other lapse in literary judgment. Whatever their individual reasons may have been, they seemed reluctant to take it seriously, or at least in the way that a good joke ought to be taken seriously.
The novel as a whole has not fared much better with readers than its parting words. Summing up the views of many, the founder of the Goethe-Jahrbuch, Ludwig Geiger, wrote this about the Wanderjahre: “Die Komposition und Darstellung ist wenig gelungen. Überall bemerkt man die Altersmüdigkeit, die Notwendigkeit, zu Ende zu kommen.”1 Contemporary commentators are more circumspect, of course, but the novel remains well outside of the canon. It is the province of specialists in the German-speaking world, outside of the German world it is scarcely known at all.
The bafflement of Goethe’s editors over the question of “Ist Fortzusetzen” embodies the larger failure of literary critics in general to make sense of the novel’s place in the tradition of the European novel. Goethe’s ironic stance in the Wanderjahre, I will argue, belongs to an identifiable European tradition. As for the specific instance of the “Ist Fortzusetzen” jest, it seems likely to me that Goethe’s promise to continue the novel was written in the spirit of high irony. If this is so, then the end of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre deserves to be taken seriously as a parting gesture worthy of Goethe’s imagination. In a novel whose main theme is “Entsagung,” it should hardly come as a surprise that Goethe should grasp and be able to express his own finitude with a light, self-ironic touch. The experience that gave rise to his Trilogie der Leidenschaft lay only a few years behind him. And one of the Wanderjahre’s most prominent themes is the acknowledgement of human limitations. Death, obviously, is the ultimate limit of human striving. We think of Faust, old and blind, as death approaches. It would be strange indeed if Goethe were unwilling to admit this limitation as his...