The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel about an artist who settles in a peasant village, falls in love with a local girl called Lotte, and continues to pursue her – to the point of obsession – even after he discovers that she’s already engaged to someone else. As Werther’s chances with her dwindle, his jubilant passions give way to fiery madness.
The story is a blend of fact and fiction as it is loosely drawn from events in Goethe’s own life. Two years before he started work on it, he met and fell in love with a woman named Charlotte Buff who was engaged to a humdrum man, twelve years her senior named Johann Kestner. However, Goethe didn’t fall off into psychosis as Werther did. Though he admitted to being in a “pathological state” when he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, he parted from Charlotte and Johann on friendly terms. Shortly thereafter he received word that one of his acquaintances had committed suicide. These two unrelated events intertwined to influence the creation of the story.
Goethe’s short novel is a work of the Sturm and Drang movement, usually translated from German as “Storm and Stress,” which was a short movement in German literature that exhibited extreme sentimentalism in answer to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Proponents of the movement asserted that sensibility* (thank you Jane Austen, for if I hadn’t read Sense and Sensibility first I wouldn’t have fully understood this term in the context of the 18th century) was a more honest reflection of the human experience and condition.
The experiences of young Werther contrast the irrational individual against the rational world. Yes, yet another individual vs. society tale. Werther is by all accounts a sensible* man who exists in friction with the rational world around him. He stands in stark contrast to the model 18th century man put forth by characters like Robinson Crusoe who through his cleverness and compliance becomes the ideal “self-made” man. Where Crusoe exhibited tight order and restraint, Werther is positively gushing with unregulated emotion. Unlike the measured and steady Crusoe, a man ruled by reason, Werther is an emotional man who is ruled by his passions.
Where Crusoe would give an expressionless account of his surroundings, Werther puts forth statements like this one:
A wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet spring mornings which I enjoy with all my heart. I am alone, and feel the enchantment of life in this spot, which was created for souls like mine. I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of tranquil existence . . . When the lovely valley teems with mist around me, and the high sun strikes the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few rays steal into the inner sanctuary, I lie in the tall grass by the trickling stream and notice a thousand familiar things . . .”
He continues, carrying on about worms and insects and “eternity of bliss” and “universal love” and the “splendor” of his visions. While Werther maintains a depth of emotion throughout, he does not stay all flowers and butterflies. When it becomes clear that his love for Lotte is going to remain unrequited, his passionate outbursts transcend into darkness, inspiring passages such as this:
Sometimes I am oppressed, not by apprehension or fear, but by an inexpressible inner fury which seems to tear up my heart and choke me. Then I wander about amid the horrors of the night, at this dreadful time of year. Yesterday in evening it drove me outside . . . I rushed out after eleven o’clock. I beheld a terrible sight! The furious torrents and hedges were torn up, and the entire valley was one deep lake, agitated by the roaring wind! And when the moon shone forth, and tinged the black clouds, and the wild torrent at my feet foamed and resounded with awful and grand impetuosity, I was overcome by feelings of fear and delight at once. . . For a moment I was lost in the intense delight of ending my sorrows and my sufferings by a plunge into that gulf!”
In both passages above, the landscape mirrors the state of Werther’s emotions. Goethe’s use of the landscape is more than just a scenic backdrop. Werther’s euphoric faith sinks into dejection and gloom as gradually and naturally as the vibrancy of summer fades into the void of winter. (this idea is similarly explored by Hardy) Perhaps I make the following inference because of my experience with Hardy, but it seems as if Goethe is trying to say that we are as raging and untamable as the forces of nature.
The story of Werther also speaks to some timeless themes that are relatable now such as unfulfilled happiness and the loss of idealism. One of the most memorable passages in the book for me was when Werther goes back to the place where he grew up.
I have paid my visit to my native place with the devotion of a pilgrim, and have experienced many unexpected emotions. . . There I stood, under that same linden tree which used to be the goal and end of my walks. How things have changed! Then, in happy ignorance, I sighed for a world I did not know, where I hoped to find the stimulus and enjoyment which my heart could desire; and now, on my return from that wide world, O my friend, how many disappointed hopes and unfulfilled plans have I brought back! . . . As I saw the mountains which lay stretched out before me, I thought how often they had been the object of my deepest desires. Here I used to sit for hours, wishing to be there, wishing that I might lose myself in the woods and valleys that now lay so enchanting and mysterious before me – and when I had to return to town at a definite time, how unwillingly did I leave this familiar place!”
Many can relate to having experienced a trigger that surfaces a long forgotten memory or the sudden remembrance of a squelched desire from youth. I am reminded of a quote from Nelson Mandela;
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
It’s hard to say what I would have thought of this novel had had I not first read two preceding neoclassical works of the 18th century by Defoe and Swift. Personally, I think I prefer the fury and emotion of sentimentalism over the restraint and order of neoclassicism. Some have argued that Werther goes too far in its emotionalism to the point of being unbelievable. Perhaps the character, Werther, is not wholly realistic, but I’m not certain that he was meant to be. Robinson Crusoe wasn’t exactly a realistic character either. Both of them are prototypes – they just represent different things. Werther is a prototype of sensible man and how he subsists and reacts within reserved and steadfast society.
I found myself completely taken in by The Sorrows of Young Werther which was a pleasant surprise given my two previous experiences with 18th century literature. I loved the imagery and the lyrical quality of Goethe’s prose. I tend to shy away from reading plays, particularly very old ones, so before reading this book I wasn’t really looking forward to reading Faust – but now I’m excited about it! I am eager to read more from Goethe. The edition that I read also includes two short stories, The New Melusina and Novelle, so I will be devouring those very soon as well.
*The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes “sensibility” as an “18th‐century term designating a kind of sensitivity or responsiveness that is both aesthetic and moral, showing a capacity to feel both for others’ sorrows and for beauty.” It is most closely related to what we would define as “sensitivity” today.