Hermann and Dorothea by Goethe

by Paul Mathers


Upon finishing Goethe’s long poem”Hermann and Dorothea,” I was, at first, uncertain how I felt about it.  Dr. Eliot waxed rhapsodic in his introduction to the piece:

“There are few modern poems of any country so perfect in their kind as the “Hermann and Dorothea” of Goethe.  In clearness of characterization, in unity of tone, in adjustment of background and foreground, in the conduct of the narrative, it conforms admirably to the strict canons of art; yet it preserves a freshness and spontaneity in its emotional appeal that are rare in works of so classical a perfection in form.”

There is nothing in what he said that I disagree with, not even his childlike enthusiasm.  It is a masterful narrative poem and an absolute joy to read.  As a poet, I stand in awe.  And so forth.

But the issue I wrestled with was the message the story presents to the reader.  The story is of a young man of prosperous parents living around the southwestern border in Germany during the French Revolution (indeed, there are clear political undertones.  Dorothea’s first betrothed was killed by Madam Guillotine).  The strife caused by the revolution has displaced a large group of people and there is a certain band of expellees traveling through the outskirts of town.  The young man, Hermann, falls in love with a young lady, Dorothea, in said group, on sight and without introduction.  He sends spies to the encampment to gather information about the girl in order to appease his understandably doubtful father.  Then, after surreptitiously gleaning positive character witnesses (some of which are paid for and all of which, I would remind you, are unbeknownst to the young lady), he goes to the encampment to offer the young lady a job as a housekeeper.  She accepts and says goodbye to the sick and suffering who she had been in the saintly act of caring for to seek a new life of living indoors and three squares a day.  Hermann takes her to meet his parents without bothering to clue anyone in to his scheme.  Naturally, his parents assume that she is the woman he plans to marry and treat her accordingly.  Dorothea takes this as a great insult, of rich people rubbing her nose in her state of poverty, which is understandable given the circumstances.  The father is made angry, befuddled, and sleepy by her outburst.  The minister steps in to “test” the young woman by further prodding her emotions.  All is revealed.  Dorothea instantly accepts the turn of fortune without reflecting upon the circuitous and deceptive machinations of Hermann.  The father shifts immediately from angry to happy (or, more likely, relieved that there is no longer a sobbing stranger-woman yelling at him).  All ends… well?

Clearly my retelling reveals some of what I found problematic about the piece.  Bear in mind that I adore Goethe and am predisposed to continue to want to adore Goethe.  Eliot also begins the piece by saying:

“Taken as a whole, with its beauty of form, its sentiment, tender yet restrained, and the compelling pathos of its story, “Hermann and Dorothea” appeals to a wider public than perhaps any other product of its author.”

At least at the time in which Dr. Eliot was writing.  I would suspect that Faust is likely his most read work today.

As I closed the book, I wondered what I was to take away from the piece, especially in light of Eliot’s suggestion.  The piece lead me to reflect on the subject of class more than any other piece in the series so far, even The Wealth of Nations!  Am I to be happy that the rich kid got everything he wanted?  Does this appeal to a wider public because the wealthy get to feel fairly good about themselves while the poor readers (if any) are extended the hope that if they are virtuous, a wealthy person might deign to lavish them with their riches?  That latter impulse is the driving force behind the lottery, casinos, and any other number of execrable industries.  False hope is extended to the destitute that they too are, as Steinbeck put it, temporarily embarrassed millionaires, so that they will continue to support (and not overthrow) the existing upper-classes.  This is false hope because money always sticks with money, because often money is all they have going for them.  There is no prince charming, no Valjean, no deus ex machina for the poor.  The virtuous poor woman dies a virtuous poor woman and is found in her apartment five days later only once the smell becomes unbearable to her neighbors.

However, my reflection then shifted to Dorothea, which I now believe is the key.  Much like Shaw, Goethe’s female characters seem to be the “secret heroes” of the piece (in that you are misdirected by convention to think that the male in the forefront of the POV as the “hero.”  This reveals your own latent prejudices formed by societal conventions).  Goethe’s women are beautiful without and within.  They seem to be frequently suffering from the ill effects of the bad behavior of the male “protagonist.”  But they bear their burdens with the utmost grace.  Viewed through this filter, I think we see Goethe’s keen eye toward the human condition.  We see humankind’s fallen nature and, in the self-sacrificing characters of Dorothea and Gretchen, we see echos of Christ in their behavior.  To extend the theological metaphor even further, it begins by misdirecting you with a false Christ who intends to give you all kinds of good stuff, which is so often the misinterpretation of the story of Christ.  Goethe seeks to report the human condition accurately, to be sure, but he also exhorts humankind to higher aspirations.