Goethe’s Hymn to Virtue: “The Attorney”

For the second story that I’ve read during short-story month, I sat down with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s “Der Prokurator” or, in English, “The Attorney.”

The story focuses primarily on a seaman who realizes after a lucrative career that he lacks the domestic joys in which all others partake. He is quite wealthy but sees that something necessary is absent and so then takes a young and beautiful wife. For some time he and his new wife are happy, but the fact remains that he has lived most of his life as a traveling merchant who will not be sated until he has again set out on the seas.

The seafaring man decides to undertake a journey when his own health seems in doubt, and this because he recognizes that he is missing something without which he cannot do. Yet he knows that he will put a great burden upon his wife, who is in fact much younger than him, for she is still bound by the desires of her youth that will only be encouraged to wander while he is away.

Madame bovary was written as a response to the virtue visited in "the attorney," no doubt
Not Madame Bovary: Tissot’s “Young Woman in a Boat”

An unforeseen plan emerges. He consults with the young wife and explains that he must undertake the journey, but he recognizes what it will equally cost her. She at first takes offense to his implication that she will not be able to control her desires. But he continues and explains to her that should this occasion occur, he only asks that she would select as a friend a person who bears the virtue and excellence befitting herself and her husband.

Virtue virtue virtue virtue. VIRTUE!

He leaves and she is alone and for some time maintains her original promise that nothing should disrupt her singular vow. But eventually her desires soften her. Because her beauty is so well-known and her husband’s absence is common knowledge, younger men come and sing before her door and their persistence does impress her somewhat, although she knows none of them would fit the husband’s request. And the strange irony of condition in her husband’s permission becomes apparent.

‘Really,’ the lady said jokingly to herself at times, ‘my husband had a clever idea. Through the condition under which he grants me a lover, he excludes all those who are paying me attention and who could possible please me. He knows well that prudent, modesty, and discretion are the characteristics of mature age which our reason certainly values but which are unable to stir our imagination in any way or to stimulate our affection.

The only suitor who might fulfill the condition is a young attorney recently returned to the town. He does not seek her, like others, and as a modest person avoids the temptation of an encounter though walking past her house each day on the way to court. Her persistence eventually has him call upon her, whereupon she presents the singular situation.

Not Madame Bovary!

Did someone say virtue?

But as it turns out, he is himself under a certain vow, albeit one made in response to the assistance he needed to recover his health. He has declared that were his health returned he would devote a year of his life to an ascetic life of alms. To this task he has devoted the last ten months of his life. So as much as he wants to indulge in the pleasure she offers, he cannot unless he can find someone to help defray his debt through sharing it.

She agrees, though with some initial disappointment and yet deeper appreciation therefor, and they both commit themselves to a remaining month of self-denial before the pleasures of love.

They are successful in this task, but she not without some transformation. Her continence slackens her body and beauty so that she loses weight and becomes quite fragile. The weeks and days pass and yet she knows that the victory will be hers.


But what victory?

This is the fourth thing I’ve read by Goethe, followed by The Sorrows of Young Werther, Elective Affinities, and then Faust, as well as this and that.

Pretty brilliant stuff. But I guess that’s why they call him Goethe.


Would you like to know more about what I’ve read during this month of short stories?