In the spring of the year 1807 Goethe began work on the second part of Wilhelm Meister. He had no very definite plot in view, but proposed to make room for a number of short stories, all relating to the subject of renunciation, which was to be the central theme of the Wanderjahre. In the course of the summer, while he was taking the waters at Karlsbad, two or three of the stories were written. The following spring he set about elaborating another tale of renunciation, the idea of which had occurred to him some time before. But somehow it refused to be confined within the limits of a novelette. As he proceeded the matter grew apace, until it finally developed into the novel which was given to the world in 1809 under the title of The Elective Affinities.
When that which should be a short story is expanded into a novel one can usually detect the padding and the embroidery. So it is certainly in this case. Those long descriptions of landscape-gardening; the copious extracts from Ottilie’s diary, containing many thoughts which would hardly have entered the head of such a girl; the pages given to subordinate characters, whose comings and goings have no very obvious connection with the story,—all these retard the narrative and tend to hide the essential idea. The strange title, too, has served to divert attention from the real centre of gravity. Had the tale been called, say, “Ottilie’s Expiation,” there would have been less room for misunderstanding and irrelevant criticism; there would have been less concern over the moral, and more over the artistic, aspect of the story.
What then was the essential idea? Simply to describe a peculiar tragedy resulting from the invasion of the marriage relation by lawless passion. As for the title, it should be remembered that there was just then a tendency to look for curious analogies between physical law and the operations of the human mind. Great interest was felt in suggestion, occult influence, and all that sort of thing. Goethe himself had lately been lecturing on magnetism. He had also observed, as no one can fail to observe, that the sexual attraction sometimes seems to act like chemical affinity: it breaks up old unions, forms new combinations, destroys pre-existing bodies, as if it were a law that must work itself out, whatever the consequences. Such a process will now and then defy prudence, self-respect, duty, even religion,—going its way like a blind and ruthless law of physics. But if this is to happen the recombining elements must, of course, have each its specific character; else there is no affinity and no tragedy.