From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Elective Affinities (German: Die Wahlverwandtschaften) is an 1809 novel written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, condemned by contemporaries for its "immoral" thesis that love and human bonding has chemical origins. The novel is based on the metaphor of human passions being governed or regulated by the laws of chemical affinity, and examines whether or not the science and laws of chemistry undermine or uphold the institution of marriage, as well as other human social relations.
The book is situated around the city of Weimar. Goethe’s main characters are Eduard and Charlotte, an aristocratic couple both in their second marriage, enjoying an idyllic but semi-dull life on the grounds of their rural estate, who invite the Captain, Eduard’s childhood friend, and Ottilie, the beautiful, orphaned, coming-of-age daughter of Charlotte’s deceased best-friend to live with them. The decision to invite Ottilie and the Captain is described as an "experiment" and this is exactly what it is. The house and its surrounding gardens are described as "a chemical retort in which the human elements are brought together for the reader to observe the resulting reaction."
- When the passionate Eduard meets the youthful, energetic Ottilie, and the stoical Charlotte meets the likewise prudent Captain - the scientific principle of elective affinities that gives the novel its name begins to take effect.
In early nineteenth century chemistry, the phrase "elective affinities" or "chemical affinities]" was used to describe chemical elements that only interacted with each other under select circumstances. Goethe used this as an organizing metaphor for marriage, and for the conflict between responsibility and passion, resulting in fidelity or adultery/divorce.
In the book, people are described as chemical elements whose amorous affairs and relationships were pre-determined via chemical affinities similar to the pairings of alchemical species. Goethe outlined the view that passion, marriage, conflict, and free will are all subject to the laws of chemistry and in which the lives of human species are regulated no differently than the lives of chemical species.
In the novella, the central chemical reaction that takes place is a double displacement reaction (double elective affinity), between a married couple Eduard and Charlotte (BA), at the end of their first year of marriage (for each their second marriage), and their two good friends the Captain and Ottilie (CD), respectively. The first marriages, for both Eduard and Charlotte, are described as having been marriages of financial convenience, essentially arranged marriages. Specifically, when they were younger, Eduard was married off to a rich older women through the workings and insatiable greed of his father; Charlotte, likewise, when her prospects were none the best, was compelled or obliged to marry a wealthy man, who she did not love.
In the fourth chapter, the characters detail the world’s first ever verbally-depicted human double displacement chemical reaction. The chapter begins with description of the affinity map (reaction map) or ‘topographical chart’ as Goethe calls it. On this reaction map, we are told that on it ‘the features of the estate and its surroundings were clearly depicted, on quite a large scale, in pen and in different colors, to which the Captain had give a firm basis by taking trigonometrical measurements’.
Next, to explain the reaction, we are told:
- ’provided it does not seem pedantic,’ the Captain said, ‘I think I can briefly sum up in the language of signs. Imagine an A intimately united with a B, so that no force is able to sunder them; imagine a C likewise related to a D; now bring the two couples into contact: A will throw itself at D, C at B, without our being able to say which first deserted its partner, which first embraced the other’s partner.’ This is shown below:
- AB + CD → BD + AC
- ‘Now then!’ Eduard interposed: ‘until we see all this with our own eyes, let us look on this formula as a metaphor from which we may extract a lesson we can apply immediately to ourselves. You, Charlotte, represent the A, and I represent your B; for in fact I do depend altogether on you and follow you as A follows B. The C is quite obviously the Captain, who for the moment is to some extent drawing me away from you. Now it is only fair that, if you are not to vanish into the limitless air, you must be provided with a D, and this D is unquestionably the charming little lady Ottilie, whose approaching presence you may no longer resist.’
Beauty according to Goethe, from his 1809 Elective Affinities, is “everywhere a welcome guest”. Goethe stated that human beauty “acts with far greater force on both inner and outer senses, so that he who beholds it is exempt from evil and feels in harmony with himself and with the world.”
References in culture and theory
- Max Weber, in opposition to Karl Marx, described the rise of capitalism as subject to a number of social, cultural and historical elective affinities rather than purely economic material, most notably the Protestant Work Ethic.
- Walter Benjamin wrote an essay entitled "Goethe's Elective Affinities". Published in Neue Deutsche Beiträge in 1924. It is one of his important early essays on German Romanticism.
- In 1933, René Magritte executed a painting entitled "Elective Affinities".
- In French New Wave director François Truffaut's 1962 movie Jules et Jim, one of the two male characters, Jim, who is visiting his friend Jules, is lent the book, but Jules' wife, Catherine, suddenly asks him to return it. She then becomes Jim's lover.
- It was filmed in 1996 by director Paolo Taviani.
- In Michael Ondaatje's novel, Anil's Ghost, the book is dicussed as being placed with other novels in the doctors' common room of a Sri Lankan hospital, but remaining unread.