Since the mid-20th century, Dilthey’s generally accepted characterization of Goethe’s most influential novel—Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre as the ‘prototypical bildungsroman’—has come under multiple attacks. The more the novel’s intricate structure and the symbolism of the hero’s relationships to all other characters were disregarded, the more Wilhelm’s identity became ambiguous. Forgotten was the author’s description of the fruitful years of 1794- 96 as a “new spring, a persevering progression of philosophical learning and aesthetic activity,” when, cherishing Schiller’s friendship and enthusiastic comments, he completed Lehrjahre.
After providing an overview of recent scholarship and probing the issue of genre as a major key to understanding the novel, this essay examines Goethe’s classical aesthetics and morphological principles to make sense of the ‘masks’ the author employs to hide and reveal Wilhelm’s identity as a maturing creative poet/artist. It asks, for example, why Wilhelm receives the ‘Lehrbrief,’ which deals with basic insights into art and the artist, and why he merits the inheritance of his grandfather’s sold art collection only after he has replaced the theater with the Tower Society’s ‘aristocracy of the mind.’ Wilhelm’s eye-opening encounters with socially and culturally challenging as well as increasingly sophisticated figures reflect his own cognitive development. The painful yet creative healing response to his personal trauma leads the hero to the solid foundations for and to the manifest expressions of his creative imagination. With this novel Goethe produced nothing less than the paradigmatic bildungsroman of the thinking and self-healing poet.