Goethe’s Classical Bildungsroman: Mastering the Art of Living
“[E]ach reader becomes his own Wilhelm Meister, an apprentice, a traveller, on his own account; and as his understanding is large or small, will Wilhelm and the whole work be real or the contrary.” Thus to the young Henry James—he was only 22—was Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship a high example of how a novelist could allow his hero to cultivate himself with wide open eyes and ears, and thereby could prompt us, his readers, to cultivate ourselves. The larger our understanding, the better, obviously, but a certain receptive blankness won’t be amiss either. Goethe has endowed Wilhelm with such intelligence, well enhanced by the people he meets, that in most cases however smart we are when we open the book, we will be even smarter when we close it.
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