The Adventure Of The German Student by Washington Irving, 1824
The magic trick:
Using extremes – historical setting, love, mystery – to create a remarkable reading experience
I wasn’t expecting much from this story. I’d read yesterday’s Washington Irving feature – “The Bold Dragoon” – the day before and was more than a little underwhelmed. I knew “The German Student” was the next story in Irving’s Tales Of A Traveller collection, so I began it under the assumption that it would be more of the same. It was not. It so far outpaces “Dragoon,” it would appear to be written by an entirely different author. This is one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time.
While “Dragoon” mixes comedy with its ghost tale, “German Student” leans toward the tragic. Very quickly, Irving is able to conjure an ominous mood, as we meet our young protagonist trudging through the guillotine square in Paris during the French Revolution. The setting is extreme. The student’s approach to his studies is extreme. His feelings of love for the mysterious woman he meets are extreme. It only makes sense then that the conclusion he meets is extreme. And that’s quite a trick on Irving’s part.
Wolfgang, though solitary and recluse, was of an ardent temperament, but for a time it operated merely upon his imagination. He was too shy and ignorant of the world to make any advances to the fair, but he was a passionate admirer of female beauty, and in his lonely chamber would often lose himself in reveries on forms and faces which he had seen, and his fancy would deck out images of loveliness far surpassing the reality.
While his mind was in this excited and sublimated state, a dream produced an extraordinary effect upon him. It was of a female face of transcendent beauty. So strong was the impression made, that he dreamt of it again and again. It haunted his thoughts by day, his slumbers by night; in fine, he became passionately enamoured of this shadow of a dream. This lasted so long, that it became one of those fixed ideas which haunt the minds of melancholy men, and are at times mistaken for madness.
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