Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Finally reading The Sorrows of Young Werther closes a gap in my education as a German major, a mere thirty years or so after I earned my degree. Because my institution only had two professors of German, an upper-level course in Goethe was only offered periodically. And the one time it was offered when I had enough language skill to appreciate Goethe, I was in Germany. It was the last summer of the Berlin Wall, and I went to the People’s Republic of Hungary just weeks after that country began dismantling the Iron Curtain, so I can’t say that I would have preferred to stay in Tennessee and read Goethe. Werther remained one of those things I figured I would eventually get around to, and now I have.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel first published in 1774. Werther is young, gifted, of good but not noble birth, and sensitive. Most of the story is told through his letters to his friend Wilhelm. For the first third of the book, Werther is not suffering at all. He is living on his own, practicing his arts, taking long walks, and reveling in the beauty of the world. One evening, friends are taking him in their carriage to a dance when they stop to pick up another member of their circle, a young woman named Charlotte, usually called Lotte in the German style of the time. Be careful, one of them says, you might fall in love with her but she is engaged to someone else, someone who is temporarily in Switzerland on family business. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Werther took heed of the warning, so of course he does fall in love.

Charlotte has her own tragic history: her mother died not long ago and made Lotte promise to raise her numerous siblings (all the way down to a mere six months) as if they were her own children. Far from being weighed down by this burden, she revels in family life, and the younger children love her for it. They won’t accept their evening bread from anyone else, they ask for stories, they follow her instructions. Goethe presents her as an avatar of feminine virtue: she’s beautiful, intelligent, skilled at music and dance, has an open and generous heart. Thanks to her mother’s legacy, she’s even managed the neat trick of being young and unspoiled while also being an idealized mother. Is it any wonder that Werther falls hard and fast?

She clearly enjoys his attention, and they develop an intense friendship. Werther is also good with the kids. They climb all over him, they also take the evening bread from him, making him Lotte’s equal in that regard. Werther’s affection for Lotte is not unrequited, but she is not ever going to break off her engagement for him, and so it’s destined to be unbalanced.

Werther is prone to enthusiasms, not to say something like bipolar. He wants to live life to its fullest, and he wants to pour all of his heart into Lotte. It’s only partly about her, and I don’t think that Werther ever sees Lotte as a subject in her own story, rather than as an object in his — not least because within the mores of the time and Werther’s own general beliefs she is unattainable. He is not the first young man to make that particular error. He adores her, he worships her, but it’s not clear that he recognizes her as a full and complete person in her own right. His letters show his changing mental state, from soaring highs to crushing lows, from loving every detail he observes on a walk to not finding anything of interest anywhere. The one thing he really can’t stand is to be like everyone else, but the vast numbers of people who read his letters with sympathy from initial publication through contemporary times nearly 250 years later are a testimony to how many he was in fact like. Enough people have followed him to his final act that copycat suicides following a high-profile suicide are often called the “Werther effect.”

Goethe’s psychological portrait of Werther is clearly brilliant, the more so as it was a pioneering effort in German literature, and the “Sturm und Drang” movement for which Werther was an avatar helped to inspire Romanticism, and its literary descendants are still important today. Part of the brilliance is only showing Werther’s letters. I had maybe more sympathy for his friend Wilhelm, who apparently uses his letters to try to talk Werther out of the mental corners into which he has painted himself. “Chill dude” is not a message that Werther is ever ready to receive.

The edition that I read is a return to the 1774 version rather than Goethe’s revision of 1787. I was particularly charmed by the old-fashioned spelling, maybe because I have experienced a major German spelling reform that ironed out some of the exceptions I had carefully committed to memory when learning the language but not all of them, so that I am now more or less permanently confused about whether some tricky words stayed tricky or got changed to conform. When I write in German, I sometimes wonder whether I shouldn’t go way back and be visibly archaic.

In addition to the general view within the story that men should (and do) possess women, I noticed that at least two servants are necessary to keep Werther’s solitary, artistic, heartfelt life ticking along. To say nothing of the various drivers or people implied to take care of the horse that Werther keeps and rides. He mentions money and employment, but only in terms of having enough money and hoping for interesting employment that makes use of his talents. He’s from high enough up on the social ladder that he’s not ever going to struggle, and the people who do struggle are invisible to him except as objects of charity.

I’m glad to have closed this gap in my education, and wonder whether I would have liked Werther the character more when I was closer to his age.

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