1774 – the sorrows of young werther ~ goethe

Um. This was meant to be a review of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Obviously, it’s not. Let me explain…

I realised at some stage of Friday that I couldn’t possibly finish The Waves in time to post my review this weekend. As I explained in my post on Friday, The Waves is far too rich, too lovely to be crammed into the space of one week. It seemed almost disrespectful.

Make no mistake – my review of The Waves will be online next weekend. But until then, here’s something else you might enjoy.

This week, I made the water in my time-travelling teacup super hot, added a little extra sugar and slowly stirred the water counter-clockwise a few more times than usual. I said the necessary words…and POP! I found myself in 1774. That’s further back in time than I’ve ever been before. As a side-effect, my hair is still standing up on end…

(Don’t ask how I managed to find a library more than ten years before Australian settlement. That’s another story entirely…)

Anyway. The Sorrows of Young Werther was one of the five books I featured in my poll a few weeks ago. When it dawned on me that there was no way I was going to finish The Waves on time, I saw Young Werther sitting there on my desk, so thin and enticing. It’s only one hundred and thirty-something pages long. Minuscule. I read it in two sittings, just so I’d have something to review today.

Think of this as my twisted version of a Book to the Future Valentine’s Day special. Hit the shuffle button on your most emo iTunes playlist, turn up the volume and read on…

The Sorrows of Young Werther

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Published in 1774

What? Doesn't everyone own a glass skull-shaped candle holder?

Goethe, of course, is one of Germany’s most renowned authors.  He’s best remembered for writing Faust, the epic, two-part tragedy of a man who sells his soul to the devil. But before Faust, Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was immensely popular and controversial in its time.

Young Werther is a naïve, sensitive artist, who had fled from some kind of unspecified scandal to recover in the idyllic German countryside, where he spends a lot of his time lying beneath trees, sighing and wandering about in an ecstatic daze. The book takes the form of Werther’s letters to a friend, who we know only as Wilhelm.

Werther’s letters take on a sense of urgency when he meets Lotte. She’s a simple country woman, caring for her eleven brother and sisters following the death of her mother. Despite being warned specifically not to fall in love with her, from the very first moment Werther sees Lotte, his whole heart belongs to her. They spend a magical evening together at a dance, and Werther’s fate is sealed. He is hopelessly in love.

But Lotte is already engaged to a man named Albert. Lotte’s mother approved of their betrothal before she passed away. They’re as good as married.

So begins Werther’s tragedy. From the utter bliss of love, we watch as he spirals down into the depths of depression, and his letters to his friend take on a darker, more dangerous tone.

Interpret Werther as you will. I could easily imagine that some readers would reject poor, young Werther as a pathetic fop who deserved his broken heart, and dismiss his story entirely. But for me, that’s exactly the point – of course Werther is a flawed character. It’s Werther’s flaws that make this story interesting. He’s hypersensitive. He’s also naïve and silly and awkward, and, to be totally honest…I’ve developed a kind of pitiful crush on him. Promise you won’t laugh at me?

The real tragedy of Werther is his helplessness. He’s been set adrift in a world he completely fails to understand. He’s fallen between the cracks of society. As an artist, he ultimately rejects bourgeois society – and he’s been rejected by society in return. He’s been exiled to the country. He makes one feeble attempt to leave Lotte behind, and accepts a job as an ambassador’s assistant – an episode which ends in disaster. But despite this, Werther still plays by society’s rules. Telling Lotte he loves her; pleading with her to leave her intended husband and run away with him isn’t ever an option he considers.

For me, as for anyone who’s ever been tangled up and tormented by love, Young Werther will ring awkwardly true. The emotions of this book are quite real. Uncomfortably so, at times. Goethe brings the sheer pain of being entwined in a love triangle to life with an amazing, aching clarity.

In Werther himself, Goethe has created one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever encountered. This comes at a cost, however, as other characters aren’t as clearly defined. However, this could easily have been Goethe’s intention. After all, the novel is written mostly from Werther’s point of view, and he simply doesn’t care about anyone else. Hence Albert, Lotte’s Intended, is portrayed merely as an annoyance, a grumbling presence who pops up to embarrass Werther. Interestingly, Lotte is barely described at all, leaving me to wonder if Werther has fallen in love merely out of loneliness or necessity. Towards the end, Lotte pleads with him:

“Be calm for just a moment, Werther…Do you not sense that you are deceiving yourself and willing your own destruction? Why me of all people, Werther? I belong to another, so why me? I fear, I very much fear that what makes the desire to possess me so attractive is its very impossibility…” (p. 115)

Tellingly, Werther offers no real counterargument.

Goethe’s choice of a first person, epistolary narrative for this novel is absolutely spot on. It’s the perfect way to express Werther’s decaying state of mind. We only see one side of the correspondence, leaving the reader to guess at the content his friend’s responses. The novel is presented as a series of letters that have been compiled by a mysterious “editor”. He interjects occasionally in the form of footnotes, letting us know where and why Werther’s letters have been edited.

Towards the end, something fascinating happens. Goethe abandons this narrative and allows the editor to speak for himself (or herself). The final section is headed “The Editor to the Reader” and narrates the ending of Werther’s tale from a first-person perspective. But, in a decidedly delicious postmodern twist, this “Editor” seems to know way, way too much, which leaves me wondering how reliable this Editor really is – and, for that matter, who he is. It’s wonderfully cheeky. Not to mention clever.

For a novel written in 1774, Young Werther is remarkably accessible. It’s short and compelling. Okay, the plot does take a few strange, brief diversions that I didn’t really appreciate – but that’s only because I was eager for Goethe to get back to Werther’s story.

At one level, The Sorrows of Young Werther is a tale of tragic love. But it goes far beyond that. At every level, this a work of pure genius.

~~

Official Book to the Future rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should you read it?

If you’ve ever been in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, or you’ve been the recipient of a love you can’t comprehend – you’ll find Werther’s tale somewhat familiar. I can’t resist tales of love gone wrong. Maybe I’m just strange…

(But an honest word of warning – if you’re really, really in a fragile state of mind – and we’ve all been there – it might be best to avoid Young Werther until you’re feeling a little better. This book will take you into dark places you might not wish to visit.)

In a word:

Twisted.

Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

6 thoughts on “1774 – the sorrows of young werther ~ goethe

  1. Like your review. It is interesting to note that the first part of the book is deemed to be semi autobiographical (Goethe) and the tragedy of Werther itself was based on a topical story of the time. The book was an international best seller in its day!
    I enjoyed the book myself but in a strange sort of way, it was intriguing but not enthralling. I wanted to read it because I think Goethe should and needs to be read. His understanding of and interest in nature is very profound – he was a great scientist (morphology), if somewhat misunderstood, as well as a renowned writer – some of this association and appreciation of nature is captured in the early part of the Sorrows … .

    I think I am right is saying that there is a growing understanding of Goethe’s scientific work, especially in presentation of ‘Wholeness’.

    Jim

  2. Something I intended to stick in my review (but ran out of room!) was the semi-autobiographical inspiration for Young Werther. The Penguin edition I read was amazing – it included an introduction from the translator, Michael Hulse, where he talks about the book’s real-life basis. He also discusses the book’s reception, which is equally fascinating. Turns out Young Werther was the Edward Cullen of his time! (c:

    Goethe’s descriptions of nature at the beginning of the book are just supurb. Reading them made me all giddy.

    What really surprised me about Young Werther, though, was Goethe’s understanding of psychology, in a time when psychology was barely even considered a science. At the beginning of the book, Werther dismisses depression as something the individual chooses to feel – but when he falls victim to it himself, suddenly, he’s not so dismissive. From a psychological view, it’s really interesting.

    Anyway. Enough rambling from me. Thanks for commenting, JD!

  3. That’s what I thought! A study of obsession *before* Freud!
    Loved the book, (except for all that ho-hum stuff from Ossian at the end), and I love this review.

  4. It’s psychology before psychology; it’s postmodernism long before postmodernism – Goethe really was ahead of his time. Though it’s more than a year after reading Werther, I still think about this book all the time. But I agree with you on the Ossian. Thanks Lisa!

  5. “The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the writer of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. It is a marvelously done parody and takes on similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books reflect on each other and think everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”

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