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Goethe's Families of the Heart by Professor Susan E. Gustafson

Goethe's Families of the Heart

Part of the New Directions in German Studies Series

RRP £28.99

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Goethe's Families of the Heart by Professor Susan E. Gustafson

Throughout his literary work Goethe portrays characters who defy and reject 18th and 19th century ideals of aristocratic and civil families, notions of heritage, assumptions about biological connections, expectations about heterosexuality, and legal mandates concerning marriage. The questions Goethe's plays and novels pose are often modern and challenging: Do social conventions, family expectations, and legal mandates matter? Can two men or two women pair together and be parents? How many partners or parents should there be? Two? One? A group? Can parents love children not biologically related to them? Do biological parents always love their children? What is the nature of adoptive parents, children, and families? Ultimately, what is the fundamental essence of love and family? Gustafson demonstrates that Goethe's conception of the elective affinities is certainly not limited to heterosexual spouses or occasionally to men desiring men. A close analysis of Goethe's explication of affinities throughout his literary production reveals his rejection of loveless relationships (for example, arranged marriages) and his acceptance and promotion of all relationships formed through spontaneous affinities and love (including heterosexual, same-sex, nonexclusive, group, parental, and adoptive).


Susan Gustafson's central thesis is attractive and persuasive ... This book offers a good deal of illumination. Modern Language Review Goethe's Families of the Heart presents us with a revolutionary and experimental Goethe, one whose literary depictions of unconventional family groupings and love relationships seem radical even today. In her original readings of well-known texts, Susan Gustafson uncovers, throughout Goethe's works, a consistent emphasis on fluidity: shifting bonds between lovers, or parents and children, that transcend established categories of biology, gender and social status. Resonating with 21st-century debates about definitions of the family, gender and sexuality while remaining attentive to the historical and cultural context of Goethe's works, this book is sure to provoke discussion among thoughtful and curious readers. Eleanor ter Horst, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Modern and Classical Languages and Literature, University of South Alabama, USA Goethe's Families of the Heart proposes a refreshingly clear and entirely convincing reading of the complex nature of the family in Goethe's oeuvre. Through nuanced interpretations of some of Goethe's major literary works, Gustafson shows how Goethe advocates for a model of family that belies bourgeois norms for marriage and family based on blood, heterosexuality and economic alliance. With aplomb, Gustafson points to Goethe's many elective families, families of the heart. Gustafson offers a vital intervention into scholarship of the Goethezeit, reminding us through her close readings of Goethe's works of the autonomy of literary discourses vis-a-vis dominant ideologies. Goethe's Families of the Heart makes an eloquent and compelling case for the centrality of love in all its forms, traditional and queer, within Goethe's literary oeuvre. Heidi Schlipphacke, Associate Professor of Germanic Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA Goethe's work is famous for its unorthodox or 'fractured
families, but Gustafson pursues a new line of argument about human connections in the novels and plays, locating multiple

'elective families,'
groupings based primarily on choices dictated by love. For Gustafson, attractions in Goethe are fluid, non

-exclusive, and person-based rather than fixed, monogamous, and gender-based. Her readings of major canonical texts such as Elective Affinities, the Wilhelm Meister novels and Stella provide crucial additions and corrections to our understanding of these works. Gustafson's arguments are as novel as they are convincing. An important book. Gail Hart, Professor of German, University of California, Irvine, USA Susan Gustafson's most recent work is truly novel in its approach and refreshing for its ecumenical breadth. She borrows from yet broadens queer and gender theory in examining Goethe's expansive concept of desire. Lucidly written, Goethe's Families of the Heart is thrilling to read for its discovery of the ever-shifting affinities and relationships in Die Wahlverwandtschaften, Stella, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. According to Gustafson, Goethe consistently challenges bourgeois family norms of constancy and biological inheritance. His families are radical ones, composed of adoptive children and same-sex adult households. What is decisively unique about Goethe's Families of the Heart is that it brings back love to the table. This is a courageous, life-affirming book that does not shy away from addressing the topics of commitment and the connections of the heart. Alice Kuzniar, Professor of German and English, University of Waterloo, Canada Gustafson (Univ. of Rochester) analyzes familial relationships in Goethe's key works, primarily Elective Affinities and the two Wilhelm Meister novels. She argues that all three works describe familial relations corrupted by suffocating bourgeois or aristocratic values or issues of prestige and money. Happiness is found only when one escapes the constrictions of society and follows one's innate affinities (Wahlverwandtschaften). The starting point for this interpretation is Goethe's famous device linking the tendency of certain elements to displace others in a chemical reaction with the human displacement depicted in Elective Affinities. Happily married Charlotte and Eduard invite the Captain and Ottilie to their estate. Eduard is attracted to Ottilie, Charlotte to the Captain. Tragedy ensues, not happiness. Gustafson finds similar actions in the two Meister novels, concluding that Goethe outlines the fundamental need to remove all obstacles to all love relationships including heterosexual, same-sex, nonexclusive, group, and adoptive families. New relationships are motivated among dozens of Goethe's figures by these all-powerful elective affinities. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. CHOICE

About the Author

Susan E. Gustafson is Karl F. and Bertha A. Fuchs Professor of German Studies at the University of Rochester, USA. Her areas of research include 18th-20th-century German literature, aesthetic theory, conceptions of families, gender studies, psychoanalysis, and feminism. She is the author of Absent Mothers and Orphaned Fathers: Narcissism and Abjection in Lessing's Aesthetic Production (1995) and Men Desiring Men: The Poetry of Same-Sex Identity and Desire in German Classicism (2002).

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Book Info

Publication date

24th August 2017


Professor Susan E. Gustafson

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Author 'Like for Like'


Bloomsbury Academic USA an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc


208 pages


Literary studies: fiction, novelists & prose writers
Gender studies, gender groups



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