Elective Affinities | Part two: Chapter seven

Ottilie as the Madonna
Description: "Ottilie as the Madonna" (HB:324/25).
In Elective Affinities (IAD), Part two: Chapter seven (add synopsis)

Part two: Chapter seven
In so far as the architect desired the happiness of his kind patronesses, it was a pleasure to him, now that at last he was obliged to go, to know that he was leaving them in good society with the estimable assistant. At the same time, however, when he thought of their goodness in its relation to himself, he could not help feeling it a little painful to see his place so soon, and as it seemed to his modesty, so well, so completely supplied. He had lingered and lingered, but now he forced himself away; what, after he was gone, he must endure as he could, at least he could not stay to witness with his own eyes.

To the great relief of this half-melancholy feeling, the ladies at his departure made him a present of a waistcoat, upon which he had watched them both for some time past at work, with a silent envy of the fortunate unknown, to whom it was by-and-by to belong. Such a present is the most agreeable which a true-hearted man can receive; for while he thinks of the unwearied play of the beautiful fingers at the making of it, he cannot help flattering himself that in so long-sustained a labor the feeling could not have remained utterly without an interest in its accomplishment.

The ladies had now a new visitor to entertain, for whom they felt a real regard, and whose stay with them it would be their endeavor to make as agreeable as they could. There is in all women a peculiar circle of inward interests, which remain always the same, and from which nothing in the world can divorce them. In outward social intercourse, on the other hand, they will gladly and easily allow themselves to take their tone from the person with whom at the moment they are occupied; and thus by a mixture of impassiveness and susceptibility, by persisting and by yielding, they continue to keep the government to themselves, and no man in the cultivated world can ever take it from them.

The architect, following at the same time his own fancy and his own inclination, had been exerting himself and putting out his talents for their gratification and for the purposes of his friends; and business and amusement, while he was with them, had been conducted in this spirit, and directed to the ends which most suited his taste. But now in a short time, through the presence of the assistant, quite another sort of life was commenced. His great gift was to talk well, and to treat in his conversation of men and human relations, particularly in reference to the cultivation of young people. Thus arose a very perceptible contrast to the life which had been going on hitherto, all the more as the assistant could not entirely approve of their having interested themselves in such subjects so exclusively.

Of the impersonated picture which received him on his arrival, he never said a single word. On the other hand, when they took him to see the church and the chapel with their new decorations, expecting to please him as much as they were pleased themselves, he did not hesitate to express a very contrary opinion about it.

“This mixing up of the holy with the sensuous,” he said, “is anything but pleasing to my taste; I cannot like men to set apart certain especial places, consecrate them, and deck them out, that by so doing they may nourish in themselves a temper of piety. No ornaments, not even the very simplest, should disturb in us that sense of the Divine Being which accompanies us wherever we are, and can consecrate every spot into a temple. What pleases me is to see a home-service of God held in the saloon where people come together to eat, where they have their parties, and amuse themselves with games and dances. The highest, the most excellent in men, has no form; and one should be cautious how one gives it any form except noble action.”

Charlotte, who was already generally acquainted with his mode of thinking, and in the short time he had been at the castle had already probed it more deeply, found something also which he might do for her in his own department; and she had her garden children, whom the architect had reviewed shortly before his departure, marshaled up into the great saloon. In their bright, clean uniforms, with their regular orderly movement, and their own natural vivacity, they looked exceedingly well. The assistant examined them in his own way, and by a variety of questions, and by the turns which he gave them, soon brought to light the capacities and dispositions of the children; and without its seeming so, in the space of less than one hour he had really given them important instruction and assistance.

“How did you manage that?” said Charlotte, as the children marched away. “I listened with all my attention. Nothing was brought forward except things which were quite familiar, and yet I cannot tell the least how I should begin, to bring them to be discussed in so short a time so methodically, with all this questioning and answering.”

“Perhaps,” replied the assistant, “we ought to make a secret of the tricks of our own handicraft. However, I will not hide from you one very simple maxim, with the help of which you may do this, and a great deal more than this. Take any subject, a substance, an idea, whatever you like; keep fast hold of it; make yourself thoroughly acquainted with it in all its parts, and then it will be easy for you, in conversation, to find out, with a mass of children, how much about it has already developed itself in them; what requires to be stimulated, what to be directly communicated. The answers to your questions may be as unsatisfactory as they will, they may wander wide of the mark; if you only take care that your counter-question shall draw their thoughts and senses inwards again; if you do not allow yourself to be driven from your own position—the children will at last reflect, comprehend, learn only what the teacher desires them to learn, and the subject will be presented to them in the light in which he wishes them to see it. The greatest mistake which he can make is to allow himself to be run away with from the subject; not to know how to keep fast to the point with which he is engaged. Do you try this on your own account the next time the children come; you will find you will be greatly entertained by it yourself.”

“That is very good,” said Charlotte. “The right method of teaching is the reverse, I see, of what we must do in life. In society we must keep the attention long upon nothing, and in instruction the first commandment is to permit no dissipation of it.”

“Variety, without dissipation, were the best motto for both teaching and life, if this desirable equipoise were easy to be preserved,” said the assistant, and he was going on further with the subject, when Charlotte called out to him to look again at the children, whose merry troop were at the moment moving across the court. He expressed his satisfaction at seeing them wearing a uniform. “Men,” he said, “should wear a uniform from their childhood upwards. They have to accustom themselves to work together; to lose themselves among their equals; to obey in masses, and to work on a large scale. Every kind of uniform, moreover, generates a military habit of thought, and a smart, straightforward carriage. All boys are born soldiers, whatever you do with them. You have only to watch them at their mock fights and games, their storming parties and scaling parties.”

“On the other hand, you will not blame me,” replied Ottilie, “if I do not insist with my girls on such unity of costume. When I introduce them to you, I hope to gratify you by a party-colored mixture.”

“I approve of that entirely,” replied the other. “Women should go about in every sort of variety of dress; each following her own style and her own likings, that each may learn to feel what sits well upon her and becomes her. And for a more weighty reason as well—because it is appointed for them to stand alone all their lives, and work alone.”

“That seems to me to be a paradox,” answered Charlotte. “Are we then to be never anything for ourselves?”
The Assistant Instructing Charlotte and Ottilie
Description: "The Assistant Instructing Charlotte and Ottilie" (HB:325).

“Oh, yes!” replied the assistant. “In respect of other women assuredly. But observe a young lady as a lover, as a bride, as a housewife, as a mother. She always stands isolated. She is always alone, and will be alone. Even the most empty-headed woman is in the same case. Each one of them excludes all others. It is her nature to do so; because of each one of them is required everything which the entire sex have to do. With a man it is altogether different. He would make a second man if there were none. But a woman might live to an eternity, without even so much as thinking of producing a duplicate of herself.”

“One has only to say the truth in a strange way,” said Charlotte, “and at last the strangest thing will seem to be true. We will accept what is good for us out of your observations, and yet as women we will hold together with women, and do common work with them too; not to give the other sex too great an advantage over us. Indeed, you must not take it ill of us, if in future we come to feel a little malicious satisfaction when our lords and masters do not get on in the very best way together.”

With much care, this wise, sensible person went on to examine more closely how Ottilie proceeded with her little pupils, and expressed his marked approbation of it. “You are entirely right,” he said, “in directing these children only to what they can immediately and usefully put in practice. Cleanliness, for instance, will accustom them to wear their clothes with pleasure to themselves; and everything is gained if they can be induced to enter into what they do with cheerfulness and self-reflection.”

In other ways he found to his great satisfaction, that nothing had been done for outward display; but all was inward, and designed to supply what was indispensably necessary. “In how few words,” he cried, “might the whole business of education be summed up, if people had but ears to hear!”

“Will you try whether I have any ears?” said Ottilie, smiling.

“Indeed I will,” answered he; “only you must not betray me. Educate the boys to be servants, and the girls to be mothers, and everything is as it should be.”

“To be mothers?” replied Ottilie. “Women would scarcely think that sufficient. They have to look forward, without being mothers, to going out into service. And, indeed, our young men think themselves a great deal too good for servants. One can see easily, in every one of them, that he holds himself far fitter to be a master.”

“And for that reason we should say nothing about it to them,” said the assistant. “We flatter ourselves on into life; but life flatters not us. How many men would like to acknowledge at the outset, what at the end they must acknowledge whether they like it or not? But let us leave these considerations, which do not concern us here.

“I consider you very fortunate in having been able to go so methodically to work with your pupils. If your very little ones run about with their dolls, and stitch together a few petticoats for them; if the elder sisters will then take care of the younger, and the whole household know how to supply its own wants, and one member of it help the others, the further step into life will not then be great, and such a girl will find in her husband what she has lost in her parents.

“But among the higher ranks the problem is a sorely intricate one. We have to provide for higher, finer, more delicate relations; especially for such as arise out of society. We are, therefore, obliged to give our pupils an outward cultivation. It is indispensable, it is necessary, and it may be really valuable, if we do not overstep the proper measure in it. Only it is so easy, while one is proposing to cultivate the children for a wider circle, to drive them out into the indefinite, without keeping before our eyes the real requisites of the inner nature. Here lies the problem which more or less must be either solved or blundered over by all educators.

“Many things, with which we furnish our scholars at the school, do not please me; because experience tells me of how little service they are likely to be in after-life. How much is not at once stripped off; how much is not at once committed to oblivion, as soon as the young lady finds herself in the position of a housewife or a mother!

“In the meantime, since I have devoted myself to this occupation, I cannot but entertain a devout hope that one day, with the companionship of some faithful helpmate, I may succeed in cultivating purely in my pupils that, and that only, which they will require when they pass out into the field of independent activity and self-reliance; that I may be able to say to myself, in this sense is their education completed. Another education there is indeed which will again speedily recommence, and work on well-nigh through all the years of our life—the education which circumstances will give us, if we do not give it to ourselves.”

How true Ottilie felt were these words! What had not a passion, little dreamed of before, done to educate her in the past year! What trials did she not see hovering before her if she looked forward only to the next—to the very next, which was now so near!

It was not without a purpose that the young man had spoken of a helpmate—of a wife; for with all his diffidence, he could not refrain from thus remotely hinting at his own wishes. A number of circumstances and accidents, indeed, combined to induce him on this visit to approach a few steps towards his aim.

The lady superior of the school was advanced in years. She had been already for some time looking about among her fellow-laborers, male and female, for some person whom she could take into partnership with herself, and at last had made proposals to the assistant in whom she had the highest ground for feeling confidence. He was to conduct the business of the school with herself. He was to work with her in it, as if it was his own; and after her death, as her heir, to enter upon it as sole proprietor.

The principal thing now seemed to be, that he should find a wife who would co-operate with him. Ottilie was secretly before his eyes and before his heart. A number of difficulties suggested themselves, and yet again there were favorable circumstances on the other side to counterbalance them. Luciana had left the school; Ottilie could therefore return with the less difficulty. Of the affair with Edward, some little had transpired. It passed, however, as many such things do, as a matter of indifference, and this very circumstance might make it desirable that she should leave the castle. And yet, perhaps, no decision would have been arrived at, no step would have been taken, had not an unexpected visit given a special impulse to his hesitation. The appearance of remarkable people, in any and every circle, can never be without its effects.

The count and the baroness, who often found themselves asked for their opinion, almost everyone being in difficulty about the education of their children, as to the value of the various schools, had found it desirable to make themselves particularly acquainted with this one, which was generally so well spoken of; and under their present circumstances, they were more easily able to carry on these inquiries in company.

The baroness, however, had something else in view as well. While she was last at the castle, she had talked over with Charlotte the whole affair of Edward and Ottilie. She had insisted again and again that Ottilie must be sent away. She tried every means to encourage Charlotte to do it, and to keep her from being frightened by Edward’s threats. Several modes of escape from the difficulty were suggested. Accidentally the school was mentioned, and the assistant and his incipient passion, which made the baroness more resolved than ever to pay her intended visit there.

She went; she made acquaintance with the assistant; looked over the establishment, and spoke of Ottilie. The count also spoke with much interest of her, having in his recent visit learned to know her better. She had been drawn towards him; indeed, she had felt attracted by him; believing that she could see, that she could perceive in his solid, substantial conversation, something to which hitherto she had been an entire stranger. In her intercourse with Edward, the world had been utterly forgotten; in the presence of the count, the world appeared first worth regarding. The attraction was mutual. The count conceived a liking for Ottilie; he would have been glad to have had her for a daughter. Thus a second time, and worse than the first time, she was in the way of the baroness. Who knows what, in times when passions ran hotter than they do now-a-days, this lady might not have devised against her? As things were, it was enough if she could get her married, and render her more innocuous for the future to the peace of mind of married women. She therefore artfully urged the assistant, in a delicate, but effective manner, to set out on a little excursion to the castle; where his plans and his wishes, of which he made no secret to the lady, he might forthwith take steps to realize.

With the fullest consent of the superior he started off on his expedition, and in his heart he nourished good hopes of success. He knew that Ottilie was not ill-disposed towards him; and although it was true there was some disproportion of rank between them, yet distinctions of this kind were fast disappearing in the temper of the time. Moreover, the baroness had made him perceive clearly that Ottilie must always remain a poor portionless maiden. To be related to a wealthy family, it was said, could be of service to nobody. For even with the largest property, men have a feeling that it is not right to deprive of any considerable sum, those who, as standing in a nearer degree of relationship, appear to have a fuller right to possession; and really it is a strange thing, that the immense privilege which a man has of disposing of his property after his death, he so very seldom uses for the benefit of those whom he loves, out of regard to established usage only appearing to consider those who would inherit his estate from him supposing he made no will at all.

Thus, while on his journey, he grew to feel himself entirely on a level with Ottilie. A favorable reception raised his hopes. He found Ottilie indeed not altogether so open with him as usual, but she was considerably matured, more developed, and, if you please, generally more conversible than he had known her. She was ready to give him the fullest insight into many things which were in any way connected with his profession; but when he attempted to approach his proper object, a certain inward shyness always held him back.

Once, however, Charlotte gave him an opportunity for saying something. In Ottilie’s presence she said to him, “Well now, you have looked closely enough into everything which is going forward in my circle. How do you find Ottilie? you had better say while she is here.”

Hereupon the assistant signified, with a clear perception and composed expression, how that, in respect of a freer carriage, of an easier manner in speaking, of a higher insight into the things of the world, which showed itself more in actions than in words, he found Ottilie altered much for the better; but that he still believed it might be of serious advantage to her if she would go back for some little time to the school, in order methodically and thoroughly to make her own forever what the world was only imparting to her in fragments and pieces, rather perplexing her than satisfying her, and often too late to be of service. He did not wish to be prolix about it. Ottilie herself knew best how much method and connection there was in the style of instruction out of which, in that case, she would be taken.

Ottilie had nothing to say against this; she could not acknowledge what it was which these words made her feel, because she was hardly able to explain it to herself. It seemed to her as if nothing in the world was disconnected so long as she thought of the one person whom she loved: and she could not conceive how, without him, anything could be connected at all.
Charlotte replied to the proposal with a wise kindness. She said that she herself, as well as Ottilie, had long desired her return to the school. At that time, however, the presence of so dear a companion and helper had become indispensable to herself; still she would offer no obstacle at some future period, if Ottilie continued to wish it, to her going back there for such a time as would enable her to complete what she had begun, and to make entirely her own what had been interrupted.

The assistant listened with delight to this qualified assent. Ottilie did not venture to say anything against it, although the very thought made her shudder. Charlotte, on her side, thought only how to gain time. She hoped that Edward would soon come back and find himself a happy father, then she was convinced all would go right; and one way or another they would be able to settle something for Ottilie.

After an important conversation which has furnished matter for after-reflection to all who have taken part in it, there commonly follows a sort of pause, which in appearance is like a general embarrassment. They walked up and down the saloon. The assistant turned over the leaves of various books, and came at last on the folio of engravings which had remained lying there since Luciana’s time. As soon as he saw that it contained nothing but apes, he shut it up again.

It may have been this, however, which gave occasion to a conversation of which we find traces in Ottilie’s diary.


“It is strange how men can have the heart to take such pains with the pictures of those hideous monkeys. One lowers one’s self sufficiently when one looks at them merely as animals, but it is really wicked to give way to the inclination to look for people whom we know behind such masks.”

“It is a sure mark of a certain obliquity, to take pleasure in caricatures and monstrous faces and pigmies. I have to thank our kind assistant that I have never been vexed with natural history; I could never make myself at home with worms and beetles.”

“Just now he acknowledged to me, that it was the same with him. ‘Of nature,’ he said, ‘we ought to know nothing except what is actually alive immediately around us. With the trees which blossom and put out leaves and bear fruit in our own neighborhood, with every shrub which we pass by, with every blade of grass on which we tread, we stand in a real relation. They are our genuine compatriots. The birds which hop up and down among our branches, which sing among our leaves, belong to us; they speak to us from our childhood upwards, and we learn to understand their language. But let a man ask himself whether or not every strange creature, torn out of its natural environment, does not at first sight make a sort of painful impression upon him, which is only deadened by custom. It is a mark of a motley, dissipated sort of life, to be able to endure monkeys and parrots and black people about one’s self.”

“Many times when a certain longing curiosity about these strange objects has come over me, I have envied the traveler who sees such marvels in living, every-day connection with other marvels. But he, too, must have become another man. Palm trees will not allow a man to wander among them with impunity; and doubtless his tone of thinking becomes very different in a land where elephants and tigers are at home.”

“The only inquirers into nature whom we care to respect, are such as know how to describe and to represent to us the strange wonderful things which they have seen in their proper locality, each in its own especial element. How I should enjoy once hearing Humboldt talk!”

“A cabinet of natural curiosities we may regard like an Egyptian burying-place, where the various plant gods and animal gods stand about embalmed. It may be well enough for a priest-caste to busy itself with such things in a twilight of mystery. But in general instruction, they have no place or business; and we must beware of them all the more, because what is nearer to us, and more valuable, may be so easily thrust aside by them.”

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form. For what is the result of all these, except what we know as well without them, that the human figure pre-eminently and peculiarly is made in the image and likeness of God?”

“Individuals may be left to occupy themselves with whatever amuses them, with whatever gives them pleasure, whatever they find useful; but the proper study of mankind is man.”

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On monkey comment and evolution theory discussion, see Stefani Engelstein:

● Engelstein, Stefani. (2008). Anxious Anatomy: the Conception of the Human Form in Literary and Naturalist Discourse (pgs. 36-37). SUNY Press.

See also
Goethe’s affinity table | Used to make Elective Affinities.
Goethe timeline | Historical overview of the construction of Elective Affinities.
Goethe’s human chemistry | Goethe's version of human chemistry.
Goethean philosophy | Goethe's philosophy.
Goethe-Helmholtz equation | Connection between Elective Affinities and chemical thermodynamics.

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