Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Elective Affinities

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Elective Affinities Summary

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Elective Affinities (1809) is German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s third novel. The title is a reference to the scientific phenomenon in which types of chemicals show a preference to combine with certain substances over others. Goethe extends this idea to human attraction and compatibility to explore whether the laws of chemistry or science provide support for the institutions of marriage and monogamy.

The characters at the center of the novel are Edward and Charlotte, two young nobles who have long been in love with each other. However, both are forced by their families to marry other people. Their first marriages are short-lived, as their spouses die in short order. Edward and Charlotte are married to each other soon after and settle down to a peaceful and happy life together. Charlotte’s daughter from her first marriage, Luciana, is placed in a good boarding school.

Edward receives word from his good friend, the Captain, informing him that the Captain has fallen on hard times and needs a place to live. Edward wants to invite the Captain to stay with them. Though Charlotte at first objects, she eventually gives in with the condition that she is allowed to invite Ottilie, the orphaned daughter of a close friend, to stay with them as well.

When the Captain arrives, he and Edward begin work on a scientific project. In order to maximize the time they can spend working, Edward moves out of the part of the estate he shares with Charlotte and moves in with the Captain. Shortly afterward, Ottilie arrives as well, since Charlotte is in desperate need of companionship. One evening, the group reads about elective affinities and discusses the different reasons people are attracted to one another.

One evening, the Captain and Charlotte share an illicit kiss. However, they quickly regain control of themselves and resolve to go on as if nothing happened. Ottilie and Edward also fall for each other, and since they are less mature and more emotional, they consummate their love without exercising restraint. Later, when Edward and Charlotte make love, each imagines that they are with someone else.

Ottilie’s birthday arrives and with it a large celebration at the estate. Edward behaves like a fool in his pursuit of Ottilie, and everyone, including Charlotte, becomes aware of his true feelings. Charlotte insists that Ottilie be sent away, but Edward leaves the estate, instead, vowing that he will not return until Ottilie is gone. Soon after, the Captain receives a promotion and leaves the estate to return to work.

Charlotte discovers she is pregnant with Edward’s child. She asks Herr Mittler, a marriage counselor, to help her reconcile with Edward, but Herr Mitler declares that the situation is hopeless as long as Edward and Charlotte are both in love with other people. Edward, who is used to doing what he wants, refuses to give up Ottilie. Edward leaves and joins the army, where he wins many honors. If he survives, he intends to leave Charlotte and marry Ottilie.

Luciana returns from school with a large group of friends. She is cold to Ottilie, excluding her from activities; Ottilie, in turn, becomes increasingly suspicious of Charlotte. Two men court Ottilie: a teacher at her former school and an architect who is renovating the estate. She rejects both of them because she only has feelings for Edward.

Charlotte gives birth to a son who strongly resembles the Captain. Knowing she has only had sex with Edward, she assumes her vivid fantasies about the Captain are the cause for the resemblance. She names the boy Otto, as a symbol of both parents’ affairs.

When the war ends, Edward pays a visit to the Captain. He proposes that he and Charlotte divorce so that everyone can be with the person they most love. The Captain does not like the idea ethically, but agrees to discuss it with Charlotte. Meanwhile, Edward meets with Ottilie in secret. The meeting upsets her, and when she returns to the estate, she murders baby Otto, though she convinces Charlotte that it was an accident. When the Captain arrives, Charlotte shows him the corpse that resembles him so much.

Ottilie tries to leave, but Edward convinces her to return to the estate. All four lovers live there together for a time, but Ottilie is severely depressed. She refuses to eat or leave her room and soon starves to death. Edward dies of a mysterious illness soon after. Charlotte and the Captain bury him next to Ottilie so that they can be united in death. Likewise, Charlotte and the Captain are finally able to be together in life.