115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

In Body and Spirit: Travel Writing in German Literature around 1800

Susanne Gomoluch, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

This paper takes a close look at the empowering force of travel in the concept of the beautiful soul. The first case is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1795/6 novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The second, Die Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele-von ihr selbst geschrieben, was penned by Friederike Unger and substitutes Goethe’s fragile recluse with a woman not afraid to venture out into the public space. 


The beautiful soul is mostly known from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1795/6 novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Scholarship has traditionally focused on either the understanding of the beautiful soul as the embodiment of a desirable independence and emancipation, a character that consciously refuses to entertain friendly, marital or sexual relationships in order to retain her independence. Or, she becomes a representation of mental illness that reduces her to a recluse, a lonely woman blinded through repression, unable to liberate herself to live a life of platonic as well as amorous relationship and fulfill thus societal expectations. Goethe’s beautiful receives a counterpart a decade after her creation. In 1806, Friederike Helene Unger publishes her novel Die Bekenntnisse einer schönen Seele-von ihr selbst geschrieben. Written by the beautiful soul herself – Ungers subtitle is not so much meant to complementary, as corrective. As her Goethean predecessor, Unger’s beautiful soul is regarded as a young and admirable woman, virtuous, beautiful, intelligent, and yet unmarried. But that is about how far the parallels go. Unger substitutes Goethe’s fragile recluse with a young woman not afraid to stand her ground. Unger surrounds her with loving friends and sends her on a journey through Europe – a privilege Goethe’s beautiful soul literally only dreams of. The result is a woman who in her physical and mental health, her ability to recognize flaws and strengths in herself as well as her surroundings constitutes an unparalleled role model at that time. Her travels, as I argue, are a decisive element of her empowerment because they are transformative – for the heroine as much as for her female readers.


Literary scholarship on both beautiful souls is abundant. Yet as ample as it is, the fact that both characters travel, in their imagination and in the reality, receives very little attention. For both heroines’ travels are the most decisive moment in the process of defining their identity and not succumbing to the gridlock of bourgeois patriarchy. In my presentation, I intend to focus in particular on Unger’s beautiful soul and shed new light by arguing that the agency Unger bestowed on her heroine had a transformative power on the literary production of other women writers and on the lives of her readers alike. By sending a financially independent woman on a journey to Rome with a number of friends and no male company, Unger transgresses more than one social norm and undercuts thus patriarchal structures in real life as well as art production. Simultaneously, with her bestselling novel Unger creates a viable role model for generations of women. Being independent and living by your own rules, claiming the public space is no longer sanctioned with a life in solitude, but becomes a lifestyle worthy of imitation. With my presentation, I hope to make a historically nuanced contribution to scholarship on German travel, women writing, and gender studies and introduce a novel and original take on one of the most traditional motifs in German literature.


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