Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Modern Foreign Languages

Major Professor

Stefanie Ohnesorg

Committee Members

David Lee, Maria Stehle, Misty Anderson


This dissertation examines Goethe’s portrayal of femininity in Die Wahlver-wandtschaften and how his depiction of all three central female characters relates to feminine ideals that were promoted through the theoretical gender debate of the late 1700s in Germany and Western Europe. I analyze Charlotte’s, Luciane’s, and Ottilie’s actions and interactions in various triadic character constellations in order to offer new insights into Goethe’s portrayal of femininity. In so doing, I argue that Goethe’s depiction of Charlotte holds the key to understanding how far Die Wahlverwandtschaften functions as (critical) commentary on the late Enlightenment gender discourse.

I maintain that the actions and interactions of these three women show them as at times ‘unfit’ and/or unwilling to meet feminine ideals promoted in the late Enlightenment. I apply central concepts of Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theory from the 1970s and 1980s as analytical tools to examine how far Goethe’s Wahlverwandt-schaften can be viewed as a critique of the norms and expectations commonly expressed in the late Enlightenment.

I primarily focus on Kristeva’s concepts of subjectivity formation, semiotic and symbolic modalities, abjection, and her theorizing of motherhood. Kristeva’s emphasis on the pivotal role of the maternal function in the child’s identity formation and her representation of femininity as alterity allow me to explore the significance of Charlotte’s prevalence among the characters and to approach Goethe’s ambiguous and complex portrayal of unsteady, constantly shifting, and interrelated models of femininity in Charlotte, Luciane, and Ottilie as a narrative experiment in which he tests the viability of such models within the surrounding social discourse.

In the main body of this dissertation, I begin by concentrating on Charlotte’s partnerships with men, and then I focus on her maternal role in relation to Luciane, Ottilie, and Otto. By making Charlotte the ‘epicenter’ of this investigation, I explore how far Goethe shapes her, Luciane, and Ottilie as characters who transgress late Enlightenment gender boundaries and thus deviate from what were considered ‘feminine ideals’ in order to underscore the arbitrary and contradictory nature of the prevalent social order.

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