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Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Werther Oneworld Classic cover

Suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew. – Goethe, My Life: Poetry and Truth

A few weeks ago Oneworld Classics sent me a review copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was a book I was prepared to dislike but, much to my surprise I didn’t; in fact I got so caught up in researching it that what I’ve ended up with is far more than a mere review. As it stands it’s still really only an outline but if anyone out there has to cover the book as a part of a class project this should at least point them in the right direction and give them a few ideas.


Cult novels

Goethe_(Stieler_1828)On the surface you would think that the reclusive American novelist J D Salinger would have very little in common with the eighteenth-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Salinger is best known for his coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye[1]. Goethe’s magnum opus was, of course, the drama Faust. In both cases their other achievements have tended to be overshadowed by these triumphs. Goethe’s first real success came actually as a novelist and his The Sorrows of Young Werther was every bit The Catcher in the Rye of its day. Both books are still in print, are available in dozens of languages and their influence is undeniable; both created controversies when they were first published and both have been banned; the protagonists in both books are preoccupied with the innocence of children, are mentally unstable and have difficulties fitting in with the establishment; both books challenge traditional Christian values; both books involve suicides; both books have been referenced by other authors (Frankenstein’s monster read Young Werther even); both books have been called “the greatest book of all time”[2] and both have caused people to die – including Frankenstein’s monster.[3]


Unrequited love

Werther’s story is a simple enough one. It’s been told many times before and in many guises. It’s a tale of unrequited love that ends, tragically, in suicide. The experience of this kind love – not just a minor crush, but an intense, passionate yearning – is virtually universal at some point in life. In a 1993 study[4] of 155 men and women it was found that only about 2 percent had never loved someone who spurned them, or found themselves the object of romantic passion they did not reciprocate. That being the case there will be few people out there who won’t be able to relate to Werther; I certainly did, big time.

Frank-TallisHistorically, love sickness has been viewed as a short-lived mental illness brought on by the intense changes associated with love. Author Dr Frank Tallis has said that “before the 18th Century lovesickness had been accepted as a natural state of mind for thousands of years.”[5] In his book, Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness he suggests that lovesickness should be taken more seriously by professionals. He says that “in modern day terms the symptoms can include mania, such as an elevated mood and inflated self-esteem, or depression, revealing itself as tearfulness and insomnia. Aspects of obsessive compulsive disorder can also be found in those experiencing lovesickness…”[6]

In an article in New Statesman Tallis talks about the archetypal love story:

Layla and Majnun contains almost all of the characteristics that became the hallmarks of romantic or courtly literature: love at first sight; a love triangle; forbidden love; idealisation; lovesickness; restless wandering; lack of consummation; and a tragic end. Scenes from Layla and Majnun have surfaced in almost all of the great love stories of the western canon, from Tristan and Isolde to Romeo and Juliet.[7]

This basically is the plot too of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Although lovesickness is no longer recognised as an illness Tallis argues that it has symptoms that can be readily diagnosed as a mental illness. Lovesickness can kill – from Sappho jumping off a cliff for unrequited love to lovers committing suicide together. Love makes us irrational. It unsettles us. Turns our world's upside down.


The style of the novel

The Sorrows of Young Werther which was first published in 1774 is an epistolary novel (briefroman); most of the story is told through a series of letters written by a young man called Werther to his friend Wilhelm; only in the third part of the book does an unnamed ‘Editor’ come in and interject comments. We are not privy to any Frontispiece_to_Frankenstein_1831of the replies however so it’s to Goethe’s credit that we don’t feel as if we’re only hearing one side of a conversation. This was a popular form in the mid-eighteenth century. In fact this novel might be regarded as its late flowering because towards the end of the century the style fell out of fashion although it has never died completely; both Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897) use the epistolary form to good effect for example.

It is also a sentimental novel, an 18th century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility. Sentimentalism asserted that over-shown feeling was not a weakness but rather showed one to be a moral person. It presented a new view of human nature which prized feeling over thinking, passion over reason, and personal instincts of "pity, tenderness, and benevolence" over social duties.

[The Sorrows of Young Werther along with Rousseau's Julie, or the New Heloise] introduced a new kind of sentimental love that "etherealise sex and made it into an affair of religious devotion rather than the body, a secular equivalent to the love a religious devotee feels towards the godhead. It burgeoned in rural simplicity rather than panelled drawing rooms, seeking – and failing – to transcend all social restrictions and conventions. It gloried in the pain as well as the exaltation of love and thought in terms of the commitment of a lifetime…[8]

Finally, it is arguably the finest example of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement of writing taking place from the late 1760s through the early 1780s. Depending on who you read it was either a product of or a reaction the perceived constraints of rationalism imposed by the Enlightenment which focused on the intellect. Those who wrote in this style were more interested in “feeling,” “soul” and “instinct”.


The story

Young Werther’s age is never revealed so we never know exactly how young he is, but since he is, in part, modelled on Goethe himself it seems reasonable to assume he is in his early twenties; he certainly has the same birthday as the author. He has been sent on a journey by his mother to talk to his aunt, presumably her sister, about an outstanding legacy. His role as mediator looks as if it’s likely to be a successful one because he writes to Wilhelm on May 4th 1771:

Please be so good as to tell my mother that I shall attend to her affair as best I can and send her a report of it as soon as possible. I have seen my aunt and find her far from being the vixen that people at home make of her. She is a lively woman with the best of hearts. I explained to her my mother’s complaints regarding that portion of the inheritance which has been withheld; she gave me her reasons and the facts, and named the condition under which she would be ready to hand over everything, and even more than we demanded – in short, I don’t care to write about it now, but tell my mother that everything will be all right.

We hear nothing more about whether things work out as he expects. Presumably they have because the matter is never raised again. He finds he likes the rural area to which he has been sent:

Solitude in this paradise is a precious balm to my heart, and this youthful time of year warms with all its fullness my oft-shivering heart. Every tree, every hedge is a bouquet of flowers, and one would like to turn into a cockchafer [a may bug] to be able to float about in this sea of scents and find one’s nourishment in it.

so he decides to stay on awhile. But there might just be another reason why he doesn’t want to rush home that I missed when I first read his opening letter. Earlier on in that first letter he writes:

Poor Leonore! And yet it was not my fault. Could I help it that while the compelling charms of her sister gave me agreeable entertainment, that poor heart developed its own passion? And yet – and I quite without fault? Did I nourish her feelings? – Bayard Quincy Morgan translation (Oneworld Classics), 1957

I didn’t get what he was on about here until I read a different translation:

Poor Leonore! And yet I was not to blame. Was it my fault, that, while the capricious charms of her sister afforded me agreeable entertainment, a passion for me developed in her poor heart? And yet – am I wholly blameless? Did I encourage her emotions? – Victor Lange translation (Princeton University Press), 1988

It appears that Leonore’s sister has developed feelings for Werther that were not reciprocated. Is it no wonder the book opens with:

How happy I am to be gone.

No doubt he jumped at the opportunity to put a little distance between him and the besotted young woman which adds a certain degree of serves-him-rightness to what happens subsequently. Reading between the lines, it looks as if he and his mother don’t get on so well; there are no letters addressed directly to her. The next time we hear of her is in a letter dated July 20th:

You said that my mother would like to see me engaged in some activity; that made me laugh. Am I not active as it is? And isn’t it basically the same whether I count peas or lentils?

Another translation uses the word ‘employed’ as in, “You say my mother wishes me to be employed,” but it really cuts to the chase in modern parlance: “So my mum wants me to get a job.” Are we saying that Werther is a layabout? Not so much but I’m reminded of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (that would be the character Ben Braddockplayed by Dustin Hoffman) lounging in the pool at the start of the film and being prodded by his father to start looking for a position somewhere.

Werther is not ignorant – Wilhelm writes and asks if he wants him to send on his books so he’s a reader – and he clearly has some artistic ability but he is at that stage when he’s not quite sure in which direction his life is going to go and he’s in no rush to make a rash decision. He’s content to idle his days away in the sun, hobnobbing with the locals and flicking through his Homer under the linden trees where his body is ultimately laid to rest. (Trees play an important role as leitmotifs in the book.) Werther clearly trusts in the elementary power of the language of more primitive peoples (Homer was regarded at the time as a “primitive” poet) to capture fully the substance, meanings and passions of experience.

Werther likes where he is just now. He’s not especially fond of the town – he calls it “unpleasant” – but the countryside and its people have enchanted him. From all accounts he was not that crazy about the town his mother moved to after his father’s death either, describing it as a “melancholy town”. Perhaps this is another reason why he prefers to stay put. He’s a bit naïve though. He idealises the peasants he chooses to spend time with and, uncharacteristically for the time, goes out of his way to earn their respect and win their affection. Although he says in one letter, “I am quite aware that we are not equal and cannot be equal” only a few paragraphs later he basically contradicts himself:

Uniformity marks the human race. Most of them spend the greater part of their time in working for a living, and the scanty freedom that is left to them burdens them so that they seek every means of getting rid of it.

He has been brought up in a society of rules, where people know their place, and although he agrees that “[o]ne can say much in favour of rules … any ‘rule’, say what you like, will destroy the true feeling for nature and the true expression of her!” Holden Caulfield is also conflicted when it comes to rules – he would impose a rule that no one act phoney and yet when Mr Spencer says to him: “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules,” he gets indignant because he doesn’t care for society’s regulations. We see this commonality between the two characters far clearer when, on October 20th, Werther takes that job his mother was on about, an administrative position, so he’s clearly a bright young man, but his boss is old-fashioned in his ways and is always returning his work for not meeting his exacting standards. After a couple of months he writes:


The Ambassador causes me much vexation, as I foresaw. He is the most punctilious fool that can exist: one step at a time and as fussy as an old woman; a person who is never content with himself, and whom consequently no one else can satisfy. I like to work straight ahead, and let it stand as it stands, but he is capable of handing a report back to me and saying, “It is good, but look it over: one can always find a better word, a neater particle.” That makes me wild.

He tolerates it for a while but eventually packs the job in – much like Holden getting himself expelled from Pencey Prep. It’s not his boss’s pettiness that is the breaking point however. What happens is that he is snubbed socially by some of the local aristocrats. Rather than return home to his mother and his friend he foolishly allows himself to be drawn back to Wahlheim, a town about an hour’s walk from where he was first sent by his mother. His reason? Love.

Back on June 16th Werther had written to his friend:

Our young people had arranged a dance out in the country, which I willingly agreed to attend. I offered to escort a nice, pretty, but otherwise commonplace local girl, and it was settled that I should hire a carriage, drive my partner and her cousin out to the place of the festivities, and on the way stop to take Charlotte S. along.

Lotte, as he comes to know her, is a young woman, the eldest of a large family of motherless children, to whom she herself has become a mother. It’s love at first sight. Certainly as far as Werther is concerned. In the carriage he almost forgets there is anyone else there with them. Lotte finds Werther charming company and is especially thrilled to discover that he can waltz, something that, apart from one other couple, the locals do not excel at. She asks Werther to seek her partner’s permission to dance with her:

We were astute and let them romp their fill, and when the clumsiest couples had quit the field, we swung in and held out valiantly with one other couple, Audran and his partner. Never have I been so light on my feet. I was no longer human. To hold in my arms the most loveable creature, and flying about her like lightning, so that everything about me faded away, and – to be honest, Wilhelm, I did swear to myself all the same that a girl I loved and had a claim upon should never waltz with anyone but me, and even if I lost my life over it. You know what I mean!

That there is a connection between the two does not go unnoticed because during the next dance, a quadrille, a woman wags her finger at Lotte and twice repeats the name, “Albert.” Werther had been told before he ever met Lotte that she was engaged – clearly this had slipped his mind – but when he inquires as to who Albert is he is brought back down to earth with the news that, "Albert is a fine person to whom I am as good as engaged."

We learn something significant about Werther by comparing these two dances. During the strict quadrille, he puts his foot wrong, dances between the wrong couple and if it hadn’t been for “Lotte’s presence of mind … tugging and twisting” him the whole thing would have descended into chaos whereas during the waltz he felt superhuman, free from rules and able to whirl and improvise as he wished; here he was very much in control. This is an underlying theme in the novel, how he copes with society’s rules.[9]

When the carriage drops her off at night Werther asks if he might visit her later that day. She agrees and he becomes a regular visitor. He learns her routine and it is not unusual for them to bump into each other while out walking. Her children take to him and he to them. As the days pass he becomes more and more besotted and cares little for propriety. In a brief note to his friend on July 10th he writes:

You should see what a silly figure I cut when she is mentioned in society! And then if I am even asked how I like her – like! I hate that word to death. What sort of person must that be who likes Lotte, in whom all senses, all emotions are not completely filled up by her! Like! Recently someone asked me how I like Ossian!

I’ll come back to Ossian.

It’s only a matter of time before Albert turns up. The queer thing is he and Werther hit it off. The situation becomes untenable nevertheless and, towards the end of October, Werther uses a job offer to try to do the right thing and make a break. As I’ve already said, the job brings its own problems and in July 1772 he returns to Wahlheim almost a year after Albert first arrives upon the scene.

There are three main digressions in Werther that bear mentioning: the story of the woman whose husband is in Switzerland who returns from his travels empty-handed and sick with fever; the story of the peasant lad who falls in love with his mistress, murders his rival and is apprehended by the authorities and the story of the madman looking for flowers in November, the man having been driven mad because of his love of, it turns out, Lotte. They all offer possible outcomes for Werther’s situation.WertherLotte

On his return Werther finds that things have changed. Lotte and Albert have now settled into a comfortable marriage. Albert had already written to inform him but now he gets to see them as a happily married couple. Werther is welcomed with open arms as a family friend and he tries to re-establish his old routine. Lotte, to her credit, accommodates him as best she can – Albert too is also surprisingly tolerant – but it’s only a matter of time before Werther begins to outstay his welcome. Day by day he gets more and more fixated and reads into everything. On September 12th he goes to see her and finds she has acquired a pet bird:

A canary left the mirror and flew to her shoulder. “A new friend,” she said, enticing it to perch on her hand, “it was bought for my little ones. It is just too sweet! Look at it! If I give it bread, it flutters its wings and pecks so daintily. It kisses me too, look!”

As she held out her mouth to the little creature, it pressed into the sweet lips as charmingly as if it could have felt the bliss it was enjoying.

“It shall kiss you too,” she said, handing the bird to me. The tiny beak made its way from her lips to mine, and the pecking contact was like a breath, a faint suggestion of a lovely pleasure.

“Its kiss,” I said, “is not quite without greed: it seeks nourishment and returns unsatisfied after an empty caress.”

“It will also eat out of my mouth,” she said. She fed it come crumbs with her lips, whose smiles expressed the joys of an innocent shared love.

I turned my face away. She should not do it! Should not goad my imagination with these pictures of heavenly innocence and blissfulness, not awaken my heart out of the slumber into which it is rocked at times by the indifference of life! And why not? She has such confidence in me! She knows how much I love her!

To say that Werther worships the ground Lotte walks on is no exaggeration. Anything that she has touched, anyone she has spoken to becomes special to Werther. The day he met her she was wearing a dress with pink ribbons on it attached to the arms and – more importantly – the breast of the white dress. He is sent a present from her tied up in a pink bow and this becomes literally a fetish. Kissing the ribbon “a thousand times” Werther cherishes this than any other gift he might have received on his birthday. The sexual connotation is clear but one can’t forget the role Lotte plays as a mother in the book too. How important this bow becomes to him is noteworthy in that he wants to be buried with it.[10]

This awkward love triangle struggles on towards Christmas but eventually Lotte has to put her foot down.

[D]uring this period she was under increased pressure to be firm; her husband maintained a complete silence concerning the relationship, and so she felt she needed to prove by her actions her feelings were worthy of her husband’s respect.

She tells Werther to stay away until Christmas Eve at which time she has a present for him, a wax candle and something else. He can’t keep his distance though and goes to see her knowing he will find her alone whereupon he reveals his true feelings as if she was in any real doubt by this time. What we the readers have never been too clear about up to this point are what Lotte’s feelings are and even though she rejects his advances I was still left unsure as to how she truly felt which I am quite sure was deliberate on Goethe’s part.

The next day she and Albert learn of Werther’s suicide. This may seem like a huge spoiler but even if you haven’t read the book’s introduction by this point there has already been so much foreshadowing that it comes as no great surprise. Had The Catcher in the Rye been written two hundred years earlier rather than Holden ending up in therapy the novel might have had a more tragic ending too – there are certainly enough suggestions that he too has suicidal leanings. (At one point he imagines jumping out of a window to commit suicide. He also witnesses the suicide of fellow classmate James Castle.)


Background to the novel

Johann Gottfried HerderIt took Goethe four weeks to write the book. An expanded version was published later (1787) but even in its revised form it’s still only 140 pages long. He had been thinking about it for over a year, in fact it’s unlikely he would ever have conceived of the book were it not for three things: The first was his friendship with the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. Because of it and inspired by Herder's literary criticism he was encouraged to develop his own style. In his autobiography Goethe described their meeting and subsequent relationship as "the most important event, one that was to have the weightiest consequences for me."[11]

Herder was the champion of those new ideas which were spreading to Germany from France and England. With Rousseau and Blackwell he rejected the overlordship of the intellect and hailed feeling as the primary guide and judge. ... A folk-song, a Scotch [sic] ballad were greater in the artless truth than all the tragedies of Voltaire; and Homer was supreme because he sang the life he saw around him...[12]

Charlotte Buff-KestnerThe second was meeting the nineteen-year old Charlotte Buff at a village dance at Whitsuntide soon after his arrival in Wetzlar. He was soon “attracted and enslaved” to use his own words. The problem was she was engaged to Johann Christian Kestner. The writing of this novel was therapeutic because he admitted years later that he "shot his hero to save himself" a reference to his own near-suicidal obsession. Once only did Goethe forget his place and kiss her. “She told Kestner and punished the contrite poet with a few days’ coldness and a moral lecture.”[13] Within a few weeks of that Goethe moved away. Kestner died unexpectedly in May 1800 after he and Charlotte had been married for twenty-seven years and produced a large family but it wasn’t until 1816 that Charlotte and Goethe finally met again in Weimar, an event later fictionalised by Thomas Mann in Lotte in Weimar, an encounter that can best described as being politely cool. All her life she had been associated with Lotte and her husband with Albert (something that bothered him more than her) however she took clever advantage of her reputation, chiefly to secure protection and support for her sons’ careers.

Karl Willhelm JerusalemThe third was an actual suicide, that of Goethe’s friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem at Wetzlar in October 1772. Jerusalem had fallen in love with a married woman and fell into a deep depression because of this. Goethe wrote in his memoirs, My Life: Poetry and Truth:

Suddenly I heard of Jerusalem’s death and hot upon the general rumours, an exact and involved description of the entire incident. In that moment the plan of Werther was found, the whole thing was crystallised, like water in a glass that is on the point of freezing and can be turned to ice immediately with the slightest motion.[14]

Goethe said that he breathed into the words all the passion that results when there is no difference between fact and fiction. As I said Goethe himself seriously contemplated suicide but the writing of The Sorrows of Young Werther proved to be a creative act which he said left him “as after a general confession, again happy and free and justified for a new life.”[15]


Its reception

The book was an overnight success:

There were sequels, parodies, imitations, operas, plays, songs and poems based on the story. Ladies wore Eau de Werther cologne, jewellery, and fans. Men sported Werther’s blue dress jacket and yellow vest.[16] Figures of Werther and Lotte were modelled in export porcelain in China. Within 12 years, 20 authorised editions were issued in Germany. In England by the end of the century, there were 26 separate editions of a translation from the French.[17]

The Sorrows of Young Werther, along with Rousseau's New Heloise, were the first books to reach such cult status that they spawned major industries in the production of mementoes and commemorative editions.[18]

werther2So anyone who thought merchandising began with Star Wars think again.

The book acquired infamy though for a different reason. I mentioned at the start that both The Catcher in the Rye and The Sorrows of Young Werther were responsible for people dying. Let me now explain. Numerous murders have been speculated to be connected to the The Catcher in the Rye, arguably the most well known being Mark David Chapman's shooting of John Lennon but there were others. With Goethe’s novella it was as you might have guessed suicides in fact the term ‘Werther effect’ derives from the book. It was coined in 1974 by the sociologist David Phillips to describe imitative suicidal behaviour transmitted via the mass media. This was the reason The Sorrows of Young Werther was originally banned, but even before that there was talk. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine (Roman Catholics still consider it a mortal sin) and suicides were denied a Christian burial. Goethe’s book proved deeply controversial upon its publication for, on the face of it, it appeared to both condone and glorify suicide. Perhaps this was why it was published anonymously at first. Goethe was born into a Lutheran family – Lutheran’s were far more tolerant of suicide[19] yet they still condemned the novel as immoral. Although still nominally a Christian when he wrote Werther by 1782, he was describing himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian."[20]

Although there is little concrete evidence to back it up, romantic legend has it that The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a rash of suicides across Europe. Young men and women were taking their own lives with copies of Goethe’s novel in their pockets. In a similar fashion a copy of Emilia Galotti was found by Werther’s deathbed.[21] Although love is a central theme Lessing's work comprises an attack against the nobility and its powers which suggests that there might be more to his death than meets the eye.

emilia_galottiIn Emilia Galotti, Prince Hettore Gonzaga, once in love with Countess Orsina, unhappily falls in love with Emilia Galotti after seeing a portrait of her. While speaking about Emilia to Marinelli, the Prince finds out that Emilia is engaged to Count Appiani. The prince is captivated with Emilia and dreams of having her as his own and so motivated by lechery he plans to abduct her and to kill Count Appiani. The prince successfully carried out the abduction – on the pretext that he is rescuing her from bandits – but her father, Odoardo, gets to her and in order to safeguard her innocence, stabs her and kills her. So not a literal suicide but perhaps a moral one; she gives up her life rather than it being taken from her.

Suicides numbering as high as 2000 have been quoted following the rise of the cult of Werther although this may be something of an exaggeration. Certainly for a while Jerusalem's grave became a place of pilgrimage for the more devout readers of Werther. The book was unquestionably seen as dangerous by the censors of Leipzig who banned the novel. It received the same treatment in Denmark and Italy. Although Goethe did not consider himself personally responsible for the rumoured suicide outbreak, he did later write:

My ... friends thought that they must transform poetry into reality, imitate a novel like this in real life and, in any case, shoot themselves; and what occurred at first among a few took place later among the general public.[22]

He also added a poem to the first page of editions after 1778 in which the ghost of Werther warns the reader not to follow his example:

Dearest reader, cry for him, love him,
Save his reputation before he is destroyed;
Look! The eyes of his escaped soul are speaking to you:
"Be a dignified man and do not follow my footsteps."

A good modern day example of the Werther effect took place in August 1962 following the suicide of Marilyn Monroe. In the month that followed it, 197 individual suicides – mostly of young blonde women – appear to have used the actress’s suicide as a model for their own. The overall suicide rate in the States increased by 12% for the month after the news of Monroe’s death. Fears of a suicide wave following the death of Kurt Cobain never materialised however leading some to be sceptical about the Werther effect.

When I first started reading this book as I said I was fully prepared to dislike it. Even before Werther falls for Lotte I wanted to give him a slap. As my reading progressed, as I watched him get swallowed up by his obsessive love I actually began to empathise with him. Obsessive love follows four distinct phases:

and, like I said, once you realise what’s happening you know that things will have to run their course. I was completely caught up in the events. Just because you know Romeo and Juliet are going to die at the end has never stopped anyone going to see the play and knowing that Werther is going to die is no reason not to read this book. Napoleon said he read it seven times.



14I never imagined that I would ever described Goethe as a page turner but as the book progressed towards the inevitable I did find myself scrabbling down the pages to see just exactly how all of this was going to pan out and then, slap bang in the middle of the climactic scene Goethe has Werther do the damndest thing. Remember Ossian? I said I’d come back to him. Well there we have Werther all hot and bothered and Lotte all hot and bothered. We know why Werther’s hot and bothered but we’re not sure yet about Lotte and then Goethe has Werther read from Goethe’s own German translation of a portion of James Macpherson's Ossian cycle of poems.

Just as Homer will not be very well known to modern readers Ossian will be even less known. Basically whereas Homer’s Odyssey, which prior to this was something Werther carried with him at all time even before being gifted a pocket edition by Albert and Lotte, is a story of a hero who learns to control himself and his desires; by contrast Ossian is a wild tale of untamed and violent passions. Knowledgeable readers would therefore be able to read a lot into his opening to his letter of 12th October (a month after the incident with the canary) which begins: “Ossian has displaced Homer in my heart.”

Goethe does not simply tell us that this reading took place. He cites page after dreary page of Werther’s Ossian. Giving us every single word that the wretched young man read to Lotte. Instead of hearing about how Werther and Lotte feel or learning what they think, the reader is treated to the melancholy adventures of people named Arindal, Daura and Amar, who otherwise make no appearance whatsoever in the novel.[23]

And what that amounts to is seven pages of the stuff. Any modern editor worth his salt would rip them right out of there but why were they there in the first place? I make no apology – on first read I skipped the whole lot so I could get on with the story.

This is a semi-autobiographical novel so it is, in effect, an adaptation of real life. Think about film adaptations for a minute. What is acceptable onscreen today would not have been passed by the film censors in the fifties. Goethe was an astute enough writer to realise what he could and could not get away with. So he transferred the emotional burden to a fictional text. They get to share an experience . . . just not their experience: passion by proxy.


The book’s subtext

I mentioned Napoleon read the book – he took three books along with him on the Egyptian campaign, one of which was Werther – but when he met Goethe in later life was had one criticism of his youthful novel, the fact that he had introduced a social conflict into a love-tragedy. It’s a fair point. But it’s Lotte’s adherence to what gradonabussociety expected of her that ultimately doomed Werther if, as I do, you believe that Werther’s love was reciprocated but it was purely because of convention that she chose not to do an Elaine Robinson and run away with her lover at the altar as in end of The Graduate.

Lotte is a bourgeois woman who instinctively holds on to her marriage with a capable and respected man and draws back in alarm from her own feelings. Thus the tragedy of Werther is not only the tragedy of unhappy love, but the perfect expression of the inner contradiction of bourgeois marriage: based on individual love, with which it emerged historically, bourgeois marriage, by virtue of its socio-economic character, stands in insoluble contradiction to individual love.[24]

So, on the surface you can’t say that the book takes issue with the society of its time but it is certainly a product of its time; it could only have been written when and where it was. The reason that Werther kills himself is actually a reasoned decision. Of course his reasoning is flawed – suicide is not the answer – but his reasoning is interesting. Catherine Hutter’s translation appeared in 1962. In her introduction she had this to say:

[T]his translator was left, after reading Werther, with an impression of the young man’s capacity to enjoy life rather than of his inability to cope with it and with a memory of his strong sense of social justice rather than of his defeat by the laws of society.[25]

Modern readers will no doubt have a problem with Werther’s exaggerated writing style – he seems to do everything “a thousand times” – but when you think about Holden Caulfield’s way of talking it’s also starting to feel very dated and it’s only sixty years old. Imagine how people reading it in the 22nd century will feel about him.



The bottom line is that I liked it. And as you can see I got completely caught up in researching it. If you think this is a lot you should see what I decided not to try to cover. If I have any reservation about Oneworld Classics’ recent release it’s the fact that they opted to use a translation that’s fifty years old. It’s not a bad translation per se but I would have liked to have seen it sharpened up a bit. Once I got into the swing of the reading things got a lot better. I did compare it to others but it was very much a case of swings and roundabouts.

The main downside to the book is that to really get it you need to understand the various cultural references. When Werther writes, “Recently someone asked me how I like Ossian!” what he’s revealing is how well the text was known. It’s like me saying, “Recently someone asked me how I like Catcher in the Rye!” To mind it’s unthinkable that anyone of my generation wouldn’t know and have affection for the book. In a hundred and fifty years that will very likely not be the case.

Hopefully reading this essay before reading the book will help open it up for you a bit.

Ulrich Plenzdorf, a German poet, wrote a novel and a play called The New Sorrows of Young W.. It has been called a modern-day Werther. Apparently it’s a sort of mixed parody after Goethe’s Werther and Salinger’s Caulfield set in Berlin. An Amazon reviewer had this to say about it:

New WertherPlenzdorf writes with much wit over a timeless struggle between man and society. A mimic of Goethe intertwined with Salinger, Plenzdorf introduces us to Edgar Wibeau, a charismatic teenager, who like Goethe's Werther, or Salinger's Caulfield, is a sensitive youth out of touch with modern societal norms. From the start he is the model GDR-boy. Intelligent, obedient, and steadfast. One day, he decides that he cannot take it anymore, and that he'll just leave. He abandons everything, and lives in his best friend Willi's mother's garden house. A definite read. Anyone who enjoys either Goethe or Salinger should pick up this read!

What can I say? It’s piqued my interest.


Gradesaver Study Guide and e-text

Operationalising Memetics – Suicide, the Werther Effect, and the work of David P. Phillips

The Sorrows of Young Werther: The Structure of Sturm und Drang’ in Margaret Church, Structure and Theme--Don Quixote to James Joyce, pp.39-60

Guo Moruo, 'Preface to The Sorrows of Young Werther' in ed. Kirk A. Denton, Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945, pp.204-212

F J Lamport, ‘Goethe, Ossian and Werther’ in ed. Fiona J. Stafford, Howard Gaskill, From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations, pp.97-106


[1] There is a detailed analysis of the book and its characters here.

[2] French writer Madame de Staël called The Sorrows of Young Werther “the greatest book of all time” (see 13 below) and as far as The Catcher in the Rye goes just try typing “greatest book” and “Salinger” into Google.

[3] The monster finds the book in a leather portmanteau, along with two others—Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and Milton's Paradise Lost. He sees Werther's case as similar to his own. He, like Werther, was rejected by those he loved. This ultimately leads to his suicide.

[4] Roy Baumeister, Sara Wotman and Arlene Stillwell, 'Unrequited Love: On Heartbreak, Anger, Guilt, Scriptlessness and Humiliation', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64, pp.377-394

[5] Unrequited love can be a 'killer', BBC News, 6th February 2005

[6] Ibid

[7] Frank Tallis, ‘Arabian Nights’, New Statesman, 9th February 2004

[8] Rupert Christiansen, Romantic Affinities: Portraits from an Age, 1780-1830, p.99

[9] For a more detailed discussion of this see ‘The Morphism of the Absolute Body’ in Veronica Kelly, Dorothea E. von Mücke, Body & Text in the Eighteenth Century, pp.182-184

[10] See Fritz Gutbrodt, ‘The Worth of Werther: Goethe's Literary Marketing’, MLN: Modern Language Notes, 1st April 1995

[11] Goethe, My Life: Poetry and Truth, p.346

[12] Humphrey Trevelyan, Goethe and the Greeks, p.50

[13] Joseph McCabe, Goethe: The Man and His Character, p.98

[14] Quoted in Margaret Bald, Ken Wachsberger, Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds, p.315

[15] Karl Vietor, Goethe The Poet, p.30

[16] In his autobiography (p.473) Goethe records this as being the style of clothing worn by his friend Jerusalem: “His dress was that introduced in Lower Germany in imitation of the English, a blue frock, waistcoat and breeches of yellow leather, and boots with brown tops.”

[17] Quoted in Margaret Bald, Ken Wachsberger, Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds, p.315

[18] Claudia Durst Johnson, Vernon Elso Johnson, The Social Impact of the Novel: A Reference Guide, p.170

[19] See this Q+A from The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod

[20] Nicholas Boyle, Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Vol. 1, p.353

[21] According to Kestner's account of the death of Jerusalem he also left a copy on his desk.

[22] David P. Phillips, ‘The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect’ in American Sociological Review 39 (Jun), pp.340-354

[23] Clayton Koelb, The Revivifying Word: Literature, Philosophy, and the Theory of Life in Europe's Romantic Age, p.47

[24] Georg Lukács, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, Goethe and His Age

[25] Signet Classic edition, Translator’s Note, p.xvii


Anonymous said...

Not even the full might of your heavy artillery being brought to bear on behalf of 'Werther', Jim (and this is a barrage par excellence) can persuade me to overcome fundamental distaste for the novel of obsessive love. Even in the wake of this most comprehensive of commentaries, I still want to give the boy a slap!

What has been absent from the genre in my experience (and I devoured such tales in adolescence, from Gottfried von Eschenbach's 'Tristan' through 'Trollope's 'The Way We Live Now' to Turgenev's 'First Love') is humour and the wry and rueful self-analysis that comes with it. The more lambent the writing and the nobler the sentiments, the more I go into inverse proportion reaction and the most literary a reaction I can manage is: 'For Christ's sake, get a fucking grip!' And I'm afraid that Ian McEwen's 'Enduring Love' only served to compound the antipathy in sardonic late middle age.

As regards Goethe's poor young protagonist, for all the excellence of this latest Truth of Lies monograph, Jim (and it is superb), I'll pass on the Eau de Werther cologne and settle for a bad case of decadent romantic OCD!

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re quite right, Dick. At that’s probably the major difference between Werther and Catcher although there were times when I wanted to give young Holden a slap too. I remember reading Catcher in the Rye as a young teenager and it had a huge effect on me. Looking at Werther as being the 18th century equivalent was what prompted this investigation; it was very much a book of its time. The book itself was an easier read than I expected, quite a light read actually, but I could no more relate to the hero here than I can now to Holden. I last read Catcher in the Rye about fifteen years ago and even then I wondered what captivated me so about it. On the other hand I watched the film of Billy Liar a couple of weeks back which I read at the same time as Catcher and I actually teared-up at the end – I must reread that one soon and the sequel too which I didn’t like at the time but maybe being older I’ll have more time for now.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I feel like I’ve been under a rock as I haven’t heard of this Goethe treasure, but it sounds like an interesting and timely (though it was written in the 1700s) read.

Jim Murdoch said...

I was exactly the same, Jane. I basically thought, I really ought to read some Goethe before I die. All I knew was that he had written Faust - which I hadn’t seen but the plot’s not new – and then the opportunity to read this came along. I have to say researching it was more interesting than reading it but if it had never been written I would never had had the opportunity to do the research. Who had any idea that merchandising went back far for instance?

Dave King said...

I think Dick speaks for me, too. You grabbed my interest initially because I recently acquired (as a gift) a copy of Catcher in the Rye which came with a Routledge Guide. I read Catcher way back but had forgotten much of it.

I have to agree that anyone with a class project, or something of the sort, to get stuck into might do worse than getting stuck into your post first. It is impressive to say the least.

I don't think I'm persuaded, but I have been known to change my mind upon reflection.

Jim Murdoch said...

I leant my copy of Catcher in the Rye to someone about fifteen years ago, Dave, and never got it back. That was the last time I read it, just before I handed it over. I keep meaning to buy another copy. Had I the time I would have and made the post even longer than this turned out, a proper comparison of the two works. It’s always interesting looking back at things that struck a chord with the public – The Beatles, for example – and seeing how they were very much a product of their time. That’s why I’m all in favour of modern adaptations of Shakespeare. I remember seeing one on the TV called Hail Caesar, an adaptation of Julius Caesar, and suddenly the play made sense to me. I think someone needs to rework Werther for the 21st century. I do believe the book is relevant but it’s hard to work up any real empathy for a guy who, by today’s standards, is nothing more than a woose.

Marion McCready said...

I'd heard of it and the "Werther effect" but I haven't read it. The only Goethe I've read is Elective Affinities which I loved. Anna Karenina is one of my fav books so I quite like a good obsessive love story / tragedy! Great intro and background.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Marion, that Elective Affinities looks like it might be an interesting book to research too. Anna Karenina is just impossibly long. I know I’ll never read it. I’d just keep thinking, I could have raed five other books by now.

Weorc said...

Another thought about Werther. Earlier I suggested pairing Werther with FATHERS AND SONS, another historic read. After Werther my immediate response was, "Nobody would get away with writing like that now." Later I remembered slogging through Franzen's FREEDOM. I think a fair argument could be made that FREEDOM is a modern Werther, filled with willful, self-destructive, self centered characters. It has the love triangle; it has the nature worship; it has the extended wringing of hands; it has the sub-rosa snobbery; it has the fateful crossing of the boundary; it even has something bordering on the epistolary mode. What it lacks is the artistic understanding that Goethe had: you don't need 500 pages to get the point across; you can't try to redeem the downward cycle in the last chapter.

x said...

Last night I read this classic novel for the first time. Near the end I too flipped quickly through the Ossian translation pages to, as you say, get back to the story. And I as well found it to be a real page-turner.

But I must disagree with your observation and opinion, namely: "The reason that Werther kills himself is actually a reasoned decision. Of course his reasoning is flawed – suicide is not the answer – but his reasoning is interesting."

I think Werther's reasoning was spot on. He writings had already demonstrated that he was able to see through the delusion that sustains the average person, and that he recognized that life is mainly a river of hardship and misery, punctuated too infrequently with all-too-brief islands of happiness. And thus he was able to recognize that for himself there was to be no cure from his obsession with and love for Charlotte.

What else could he do but take matters into his own hands and choose his time and instrument of departure from this miserable life? He recognized that his ability to cope with the suffering in his life had finally and permanently been exceeded. What else to do but call it quits, and put himself out of his misery?

I applaud Werther for his decision, and his bravery. I know most people think people who act as Werther did are cowards. But I think those who reach the point in their ovwn lives that Werther did in his, but who are unwillinging to effect an exit of their own timing and choosing, are the cowards.

I hope I have the strength to overcome societal convention and evolution-driven impulses to the contrary and, as Werther did, to be brave enough to make my own exit when I recognize that the time has come, when the tipping point has been reached and the level of suffering in my own life has finally exceeded my ability and the resources available to me to cope with it.

Jim Murdoch said...

As you say, x, this was my opinion and you’re equally entitled to yours besides it’s been a while since I read this book and I’d really have to read it again to respond properly to you. We Scots don’t have much time for mopers which is what we’d regard Werther as and if we did encounter someone like him our answer would be something along the lines of, “Get over yourself already.” I’m an emotional sort myself—hell, I’m a poet; we’re supposed to be—but I can’t be bothered with those fae individuals who frankly milk it which, chucking my reviewer’s hat to the side for the moment, I don’t have much time for. Life’s too short as it is. Maybe this is me being a man in my fifties who’s forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. I know when I reread The Catcher in the Rye a few years back I had a lot less patience for poor Holden Caulfield too. Thanks for your comment though.

Unknown said...

Recently there was a parody of "The Sorrows of Young Werther" that published. In the new version, "The Sorrows of Young Mike" by John Zelazny, the protagonist is infatuated with Werther but lost and in love with multiple women as he travels around the world with a copy of his favorite book. It is an interesting modern retelling.

Jim Murdoch said...

Parodies are a hard act to pull off I find, Jonathan, but if the reviews on Amazon are to be believed—oh, the world we live in when we feel the need to question such things—it sounds as if Zelazny might’ve pulled it off. Thanks for letting me know about it.

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