Original Publication Date: 1774
Genre: epistolary novel, loose autobiography
Topics: unrequired love, commitment, social acceptance and the lack of it, suicide, nature, nurture, sense of existence
Review by : Bridget/Anachronist@portable pieces of thoughts
The Sorrows of Young Werther (German, Die Leiden des jungen Werther, originally published as Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is comprised, for the most part, of letters written by a hopelessly romantic young man named Werther to a friend named Wilhelm with the addition of editorial notes (those notes try to balance the inveitable drawbacks of first-person narrative).
Werther, a sensitive young man of some means, flees the complexities of life by taking refuge in the countryside. There he indulges his imagination by immersing himself in the idyllic delights of untained nature. His happiness reaches new heights when he meets Lotte, a charming sweet-natured young girl, a daughter of a local town dignitary . Soon he finds out that Lotte is engaged to a likable but unimaginative local official, Albert, currently absent. Werther’s ecstatic love soon tortures both himself and Lotte as it begins to conflict with the norms of polite society. Is Lotte too naive to understand that in Werther she has acquired an ardent admirer, not a friend? Is she aware of his easily-inflamed fascination, or the violent depths of his stifled emotions? Is she oblivious or heartless to his passionate despair once her fiance has returned? Just how long can she juggle two lovers, or even control her own dainty heart–which Goethe chastely and tantalizingly hides from us?
Werther’s pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend on the day when the entire aristocratic set normally meets there. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther’s recitationof a portion of “Ossian’. Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them — Lotte, Albert or himself — had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else Werther decides to take his own life.
After composing a farewell letter, he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretext of going “on a journey”. Lotte receives the request with great emotion but sends the pistols. Werther shoots himself in the head, but dies only 12 hours afterwards. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral is not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.
This book not only details Werther’s doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte, it also contains the most beautiful meditations on just about everything important in life: love, beauty, nature, philosophy, art, religion. The opening scenes of the story with their description of landscapes exude the highest philosophical ideals of the time and offers an excellent insight into the workings of the Romantic mind.
The whole story was based on true events. Goethe himself met a very lovely girl called Charlotte Buff, at a ball in Wetzlar, where he arrived looking for a job after finishing his studies. During the summer of 1772 a close friendship developed between Charlotte, Goethe and Christian Kestner (her fiancé). Charlotte was eventually obliged to tell Goethe plainly that he must not expect her to return his feelings. At seven o’clock on the morning of September 11th Goethe quit the town without warning. Away with friends in Koblencz, Goethe heard of the suicide of his former acquaintance at Wetzlar, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. In September 1771 Jerusalem had taken a job in Wetzlar as secretary to von Hoefler, an ambassador. He was of an artistic disposition, and had been cold-shouldered by Wetzlar’s high society. Goethe returned to the town to find out the details of Jerusalem’s death. He asked Kestner for a written account, on which he was to base the final pages of his novel. Goethe later described the writing of the work as the business of four weeks, during which time he proceeded with the unconscious certainty of a sleepwalker, and specifically spoke of it as a “confesion”.
Accordingly Goethe seems to have put a lot of himself into this novel. To love and to have lost someone to death is one thing. To love and to have the beloved betray your love is quite something else. But to love and to know that you can never consummate it, to distance yourself from the very thing you draw life from is unbearable for Werther.
The story itself is simple enough, but the varying degrees of Werther’s pain explore the depths of human depression. Goethe’s insights into human emotion are right on the mark, and he expresses them in haunting and moving language. He shows us the problems inherent in loving and idealizing something a bit too much.
The novel is also a sensitive exploration of the psychopathology of a gifted but ill-adjusted young man (no, emos haven’t been invented yesterday). The letter form expresses well one-sided and lonely communication, also interposing an ironic distance between the reader and Werther, which makes this book a work of exhilarating style and insight.
It used to be a very important and influencial novel to a quite modern degree. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature; he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The book also started the phenomenon known as the "Werther-Fieber" ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel. It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. Towards the end of Goethe's life a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any fashionable young man's tour of Europe. I bet any rock star or contemporary celebrity would be so proud of such an effect.
The primary problems I had with the work were the repetitiveness of Werther’s self-pitying missives and a certain incredulity connected to his state of mind. In the final analysis, a persistent feeling that Werther was a silly and unjustified stalker in his fixation and self-indulgent in wallowing, dulled significantly the impact of his fate. I couldn’t sympathize with Werther falling for a woman who clearly stated that she was already involved with another man. I kept waiting for him to finally shoot himself, and when he did my feeling was, “thank god, no more self-pitying”.
I think I also struggled against Goethe’s ideal of female perfection – a woman whose biggest asset is the fact that she can act like a mother to her siblings after the death of their mother, sounding all the time really average and dull. To tell you the truth this paragon of feminie virtue appears more sensual and maternal than truly sexual but those were the times and paragons (sigh).
Finally the language was a bit too flowery for modern standards.
Highly recommendable. A cornerstone of Romantic literature that inspired many poets, it should be a key text for anyone studying the genre. Short and sweet – perfect for a summer read, but not to those who have recently gone through a rather painful break-up.
Download The Sorrows of Young Werther by J.W. von Goethe at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|