(the central work of Goethe’s career, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is) the story of a young man’s vacillations between the demands of business and the enchanting world of the theatre, it is the original Bildungsroman, the novel of a person’s moral education in the school of life, and thus the progenitor of one of the richest seams in European literature that includes Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale, Dickens’s David Copperfield and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is not reasonable, the novel seems to be telling us, to expect the world to be arranged for our convenience; difficult and painful though it may be, it is up to us to fit ourselves for the world as it is, so that we can help, in no matter how small a way, to make it a better place.
It is precisely this aspect of Goethe’s world-view, which on the one hand makes him so difficult for us to grasp, that makes him so valuable. The problem is not that it is hard to understand, but that it is hard to accept. Since the Romantic movement, we have wanted our artists to be damaged, dysfunctional and doomed. Byron, famously, was mad, bad, and dangerous to know; Goethe was eminently sane, and strove throughout his long and successful life to be a good and useful member of society. If cultivated people are too fastidious to dirty their hands with the compromise, he believed, intelligence will be impotent and power will be left in the hands of villains and fools.