Filial dependence and autonomy in the Sturm und Drang: reading Klinger, Wagner and Müller with Rousseau

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The essay examines the representation of relationships between children on the cusp of adulthood and their parents in dramas by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, Heinrich Leopold Wagner and Friedrich Müller (known as ‘Maler Müller’). It positions the Sturm und Drang in dialogue with the wider European Enlightenment, and especially with Rousseau's theorising of human dependence in his Discourse on Inequality and Emile. In particular, it suggests that these writers demonstrate an association between inequality and social dependence, whereas flat social structures promote pluralism and autonomy. The article argues that, in contrast to the common view of the Sturm und Drang as characterised by wild filial rebellion and blind adoration of Rousseau, a close reading demonstrates how it sustains a critical dialogue with major currents of European thought and develops a subtle and self-critical sense of the possibilities and limits on autonomy. Indeed, it demonstrates how these writers were able to use literature to foreground the antinomies of their social order in a more radical way than direct approaches could – and thus illustrates the importance of considering literature as a serious participant in Enlightenment dialogues.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-42
Number of pages22
JournalGerman Life and Letters
Issue number1
Early online date27 Dec 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2023


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