Analysis of “The Adventure of the German Student”

Argues that the theme of Washington Irving’s “The Adventure of the German Student is to warn against lack of reason and balance, along with excessive enthusiasm; it also is a criticism of the French Revolution, which ties into the first part of the theme. This work demonstrates how Irving does this through the use of various literary elements.

Washington Irving’s short story The Adventure of the German Student is a warning against lack of balance, lack of reason, and enthusiasm through this, Irving also criticizes the French Revolution, tying it to the first theme to make it one he does this through the use of the literary elements of setting, plot, and characterization.

The first aspect of the theme is demonstrated through Irving’s use of plot and symbolism, while the second aspect is demonstrated more through the use of setting and characterization. Ultimately, all the elements are combined towards the end of demonstrating the theme.

The protagonist of the story, Gottfried Wolfgang, has the traits which Irving warns against: enthusiasm, lack of reason, and lack of balance. One writer has noted that, Gottfried Wolfgang is an “enthusiast,” one given to extremes rather than carefully expressed actions (Arnold). This enthusiasm proves to be dangerous to the mind, and leads to Gottfried’s near-derangement. This dangerous enthusiasm, which itself, as can be noted in the previous passage, also results in his loss of both balance or reason, indicated by the fact that he is prone to extremes (which according to Aristotle, is the antithesis of balance), which in turn leads him to not take actions which are carefully expressed an indicator of loss of reason as well.

All this leads Gottfried to do certain things:

He has devoted himself to unhealthy studies, and they have made him into a kind of monster, a “literary ghoul,” as Irving bluntly puts it, feeding on dead and putrid thoughts just as an actual ghoul would feed on dead bodies. Thus, the student is shown from the beginning to be of unsound mind, bordering precariously on the edge of madness (Arnold).

This is further reinforced by a passage from the story itself, where the narrator describes Gottfried as being of a visionary and enthusiastic character (Irving). This description of Gottfried, and the necessity to stop this before such enthusiasm destroyed him, sets the stage for what comes later in the story. Other writers have agreed with this. For example, another writer wrote, The “Adventure of the German Student” results from the derangement and the delusions that give us a horribly false view of the world (Clendenning 257). However, there is more to this than there at first seems.

The traits of enthusiasm, lack of reason, and lack of balance also were the traits of the French Revolution, which had occurred a couple of decades before the story was written, and whose effects were still being felt at the time across Europe, and even all the way in America. The French revolutionary governments can be clearly seen to have possessed the aforementioned negative traits. As one historian noted as to the state of the French revolutionaries, It was all carried by acclamations, amid scenes, in Barre’s words, of delirium (Doyle 251). The thought process of the revolutionaries can be further shown by Doyle to paraphrase him: Terror was the order of the day and the revolutionaries were killing all even suspected of not supporting the revolution enthusiastically, out of an inflamed passion and irrationality (Doyle 251).

It now needs not be mentioned that the revolutionaries in France were radicals. The radical mind is one which has the traits which Gottfried has, and which Irving warns against. In describing the radical mind, a noted conservative philosopher stated that, in a comparison to conservatives, he does not have the inflamed zeal of his counterpart, the radical revolutionist, who thinks that he must cut off the heads of his opponents because he cannot be objective about his own frustrations (Weaver 77). In referring to the modus operandi of radicals, their use of force rather than reason, he notes that it is what makes the radical dangerous, and perhaps in a sense demented (Weaver 73). It can be seen that the radical is enthusiastic through these passages he also lacks reason and is in a sense demented. This and his extreme nature also denote his lack of balance. Inasmuch as Gottfried displays these traits, he is meant to characterize the French Revolution. The revolution epitomizes the disaster that can result from these traits, which is in part why Irving warns against them.

By characterizing Gottfried as an example of the French Revolution, Irving is able not only to warn others about having the traits previously mentioned, but also is able to criticize the French Revolution, as to warn about something is essentially to criticize it. Thus, this example of characterization on the author’s part plays an important role in the story. While Gottfried is perhaps not a radical he nonetheless displays many of the same traits as the radicals which led the French Revolution. Still, he initially does see the revolution in a good light: The popular delirium at first caught his enthusiastic mind, and he was captivated by the political and philosophical theories of the day (Irving). However, his attitude towards it does change, which can be somewhat tied to the feelings of the author, thus briefly making Gottfried characterize Irving himself when he continues, but the scenes of blood which followed shocked his sensitive nature, disgusted him with society and the world (Irving). Finally, with the following passage, we are set up for the grisly occurrences which are central to the story:

At the outset of the story we learn that young Gottfried Wolfgang, a student of German philosophy who literally believes that he is dwelling among spiritual essences had been sent by his family to Paris to regain his mental stability. (Clendenning 256)

Before moving on to the story, it should be noted that the setting is also used by Irving as a way to demonstrate the part of the theme whereby he criticizes the French Revolution and the things which characterized it, namely, as mentioned before, the enthusiasm, lack of reason, and lack of balance. It is no coincidence that the story takes place in Paris, France during the French Revolution. It takes place there and during that time because this not only allows for the situation which made Gottfried do what he did, but it also makes the reader think about how the French Revolution ties into the story. The French Revolution at that time, and what characterized it, was very well known during the time period in which this story was written, and people would have drawn the connections between the story and the character of Gottfried in terms of the traits which they shared. This is because of the major worldwide ramifications of the French Revolution disgust towards the aforementioned negative traits was shared by many during this time, both in Europe, and in the United States as well (where the story was written).

One major work which influenced many Americans was Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France where Burke harshly criticized the French Revolution. In it he discussed how it would end in disaster because it was founded on abstract notions that purported to be rational but in fact ignored the complexities of human nature and society (Wikipedia). His work especially became influential when his predictions for the outcome of the revolution came true (Wikipedia). It had popular appeal in America, which resulted in it influencing the author, and also ensuring that his readers would understand the connections between the character of Gottfried and the use of the French Revolution as a setting this use of setting helps greatly to demonstrate this aspect of the theme.

Now we return to the story. Gottfried, after having become disgusted with the revolution, pursued various dark speculations, and he fed on old literature which were meant to satiate what Irving describes as an unhealthy appetite (Irving). His enthusiasm, and lack of balance or reason, eventually led to him to have wild imaginations, and when combined with his seeming inability to have relationships with women, would have him lose himself in reveries on forms and faces [of women] that he had seen, and his fancy would deck out images of loveliness far surpassing the reality (Irving). A face eventually popped into his mind, and it haunted him all of the time. She was, in his mind, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. By the time the main part of the story takes places, the negative traits warned against in the theme could clearly be seen to have had a detrimental effect upon his mind. It is one of the consequences which lead one to warn against lacking the previously mentioned traits.

Gottfried is found to be returning home late one stormy night and walking past the guillotine here, Irving again wastes no time to insert another subtle criticism of the French Revolution, as the guillotine is described as continually running with the blood of the virtuous and the brave (Irving). Here he finds a woman dressed in black seated on the scaffold of the guillotine, her head in her lap. It turns out to be the woman that had been haunting him in his dreams and fancies. He eventually gets her to come over to his room and tells her his story about how he had dreamed about her. His irrationality is evident in the following passage:

It was the time for wild theory and wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away everything was under the sway of the Goddess of Reason. Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honorable minds. Social compact were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day. (Irving)

He engages in wild theories and actions certainly not the actions of a man who has reason or balances, or can curb his enthusiasm. This passage also serves as a sort of commentary by Irving on what he feels about the French Revolution, as he describes the liberal doctrines as having tainted Gottfried, and in almost a sarcastic manner describes customs borne through tradition (the antithesis in many ways of the French Revolution) as rubbish. A commentary on the above passage is apt in describing it as I have done:

Ironically, at a time when everything [is said to be] under the sway of the “Goddess of Reason”, Wolfgang comes under that of the Goddess of Unreason is overpowered by his own thoughts, his obsessive reveries of an ideal woman. It is clearly stated, from the very beginning, that Wolfgang’s mental faculties are impaired his imagination diseased that he indulges in fantasies and lives in an ideal world of his own (Bordier)

Gottfried’s mind has clearly become impaired out of his lack of reason and balance, and out of his enthusiasm, and reason is simply no longer present in any way.

Gottfried supposedly makes a pledge with her to be with her forever, which she reciprocates. They sleep together and he leaves early in the morning to find better accommodations for the two of them, as he is no longer on his lonesome. When he returns he finds her in a strange position. When Gottfried tries to wake her up, he finds that she is cold and without a pulse she is dead. He summons the authorities, and the policeman asks how the woman came to be there. When Gottfried asks him if he knows anything about her, he replies that she had been guillotined the day before, whereupon he removes a band she is wearing around her neck and her head falls off. This leads Gottfried to go insane, as he believes that a demon reanimated her and did this so as to possess him, having previously felt that a demon was after him. The following passage states it well:

As he is wandering through the streets in this excited and sublimated state, he finds a woman’s corpse, sees in it the embodiment of his dreams when he is in fact projecting his fantasies on it, and takes it home, all the while imagining it is alive. This necrophiliac act is the final step into madness and appropriately marks the death of the sane mind. (Bordier)

During the story, though, we are given clues that what Gottfried perceives as reality is not really so. For example, when Gottfried asks the woman at the guillotine if she has a home, she responds, Yes in the grave! (Irving). There is an indication even that he may have been seen dragging or carrying the woman’s dead body around while at the hotel this does not seem to be a clue until one reaches the conclusion of the story, but it serves as one nonetheless, when it is said that, The old portress who admitted them stared with surprise at the unusual sight of the melancholy Wolfgang, with a female companion (Irving). It is wholly possible that what she stared in surprise at was the body that Gottfried was carrying or dragging, and not the fact that he was with a woman.

The woman is described thus: Her face was pale, but of a dazzling fairness, set off by a profusion of raven hair that hung clustering about it. Her eyes were large and brilliant, with a singular expression approaching almost to wildness (Irving). Her pale face could be a clue that she was dead, as could her eyes. Her eyes are described as being of singular expression (eyes do not change expressions once someone is dead) and the expression is said to be almost approaching wildness.

This could possibly be because she was executed such a look could be that of a person who was decapitated. The fact that he is blind (or seemingly so) to the woman’s dead state seems to indicate that his mind is lost already by this point at best it is on the eve of death. Ultimately, it leads to the revelation which seals the fate of his mind. As was previously said, this represents the death of the sane mind.

And here we have the lesson that Irving is trying to impart on the reader. The reason he is warning against lack of reason, lack of balance, and lack of enthusiasm, is that what it ultimately leads to is the death of the sane mind. Such a state is neither good for the individual or for society, and this is more than ample reason to warn against the traits which lead to it. The whole plot is dedicated to teaching this lesson, this warning, which is ultimately the main theme of the work it is also used simultaneously to criticize the French Revolution. By characterizing Gottfried as a person lacking reason and balance, and also with great enthusiasm (or at the least, unchecked enthusiasm), and by also characterizing him as one of those involved in the French Revolution (essentially, he comes to characterize the French Revolution himself) and tying the two things together (through both the use of setting and characterization, combined with subtle snipes at the French Revolution and its principles themselves), Irving can and does use the plot to give his lesson. This is the manner in which he demonstrates his theme.

The theme of Washington Irving’s short story The Adventure of the German Student is that of a warning against three things. Irving warns against having enthusiasm, lack of balance, and lack of reason. Irving also, as part of the theme, criticizes the French Revolution, in which the traits Irving is warning against were highly prevalent. He uses the literary elements of characterization and setting, among other things, to tie this into the main part of his theme, that being the warning against the three above mentioned traits. This essentially turns it into one larger theme, and to the end of demonstrating this theme, Irving uses the literary elements of setting, plot, and characterization. With this it can be seen that the dangers of irrationality is the warning of Washington Irving.

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