It is a very dubious link in Goethe’s fiction that this child, while the genuine offspring of Edward and Charlotte, has the features of Ottilie and the Captain. From the moment of the drowning Ottilie is a changed being. Her character quickly matures; like a wakened sleep-walker she sees what a dangerous path she has been treading. She feels that marriage with Edward would be a crime. She resists his passionate appeals, and her remorse takes on a morbid tinge. It becomes a fixed idea. Happiness is not for her. She must renounce it all. She must atone—atone—for her awful sin. For a moment they plan to send her back to school, but she cannot tear herself away from Edward’s sinister presence. At last she refuses food and gradually starves herself to death. The wretched Edward does likewise.
Any just appreciation of Goethe’s art in The Elective Affinities must begin by recognizing that it is about Ottilie. For her sake the book was written. It is a study of a delicately organized virgin soul caught in the meshes of an ignoble fate and beating its wings in hopeless misery until death ends the struggle. The other characters are ordinary people: Charlotte and the Captain ordinary in their good sense and self-control, Edward ordinary in his moral flabbiness and his foolish infatuation. His death, to be sure, is unthinkable for such a man and does but testify to the unearthly attraction with which the girl is invested by Goethe’s art. The figure of Ottilie, like that of her spiritual sister Mignon, is irradiated by a light that never was on sea or land. She is a creature of romance, and we learn without much surprise that her dead body performs miracles. One is reminded of that medieval lady who is doomed to eat the heart of her crusading lover and then refuses all other food and dies. That Edward is quite unworthy of the girl’s love, that the death of the child is no sufficient reason for her morbid remorse, is quite immaterial, since at the end of the tale we are no longer in the realm of normal psychology. A season of dreamy happiness, as she moves about in a world unrealized; then a terrible shock, and after that, remorse, renunciation, hopelessness, the will to die. Such is the logic of the tale.
TRANSLATED BY JAMES ANTHONY FROUDE AND R. DILLON BOYLAN
Edward—so we shall call a wealthy nobleman in the prime of life—had been spending several hours of a fine April morning in his nursery-garden, budding the stems of some young trees with cuttings which had been recently sent to him.
He had finished what he was about, and having laid his tools together in their box, was complacently surveying his work, when the gardener came up and complimented his master on his industry.