The Sorrows of Young Werther: A Study in Adolescence
By Jimmy Maher
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther caused an international sensation upon its publication in 1774. The novel was embraced enthusiastically by a generation of young people who found in it an expression, and perhaps a vindication, of their feelings of heartbreak and isolation. Some unfortunate souls even followed Werther's example to the morbid extreme, killing themselves with a copy of the book in their hands. There is no reason to believe that these readers took the novel as anything other than what it initially appears to be, a straightforward tale of a tragic, destructive love. But what were Goethe's true intentions in writing his book? Did he truly see his Werther as someone to be sympathized with, admired, perhaps (God forbid) even emulated? I believe that a careful reading of Werther reveals a much subtler work than its legions of lovelorn readers ever perceived.
Although the conflating of an artist's life with his work is always dangerous, certain parts of Werther seem to have been drawn from Goethe's own experience. While attending the law courts at Wetzler in 1773, Goethe fell passionately into an unrequited love for a young lady with a name familiar to readers of his book -- Charlotte. Biographers have stated that Goethe was himself near suicide at one point, but (thankfully for posterity) pulled back from the brink. The writing of Werther perhaps served as a catharsis of sorts for Goethe, allowing him to regain perspective and stability. Yet although the novel is immediately recognizable as the work of a young man, its author is capable of insights which completely elude its protagonist. Goethe survived and presumably learned from his ordeal, while Werther did not.
Who is Werther really when we look past his gallons of tears and his flights of romantic ecstasy? W.H. Auden calls him a "horrid little monster" (xi) and this harsh description is closer to the truth than the tragic hero Werther doubtless imagined himself to be. He is the quintessential son of bourgeois privilege, a flaccid young man who has no knowledge of hardship or responsibility. Worse, Werther is a hypocrite. He spends the bulk of the novel idling away his days in the countryside, thoughtlessly spending the money of his successful family even as he disparages the sobriety and hard work which produced it. He rails against class distinctions during his brief period of gainful employment with the envoy, claiming that "actual rank does not matter at all and that he who occupies the top very rarely plays the chief role" (83), yet treats his servant boy, whom he never even bothers to name for us, with all the respect one might give to one's pack animal. He fancies himself a genius deserving of special treatment by society, yet produces not a single finished work of art or literature during his entire lifetime. He criticizes those who are prone to "bad moods" (38), then torments the girl he allegedly loves through his own moodiness.
Werther is an egomaniac. Everything in his world -- and it is literally "his" world -- exists for him only in relation to its effect on him. Werther is incapable of empathizing with others. The rustic country-folk he meets are delightful little baubles for his amusement. He makes grand (if rather condescending) gestures toward their simple, idyllic lifestyle and passes out pennies he will certainly never miss to the children, but never relates to them on anything but the most superficial level. His pride is so immense that he makes a disaster of a simple social occasion at Count C.'s dwelling and proceeds to quit a potentially promising diplomatic career rather than even try to patch up the situation.
Yet perhaps Werther should to be redeemed in ours eyes by his heartfelt love for Lotte? Alas, he deserves no such consideration. For all his pretentious discussion of Homer and Ossian and The Vicar of Wakefield with Lotte, his affection for her has all the depth of the average teenage crush. She is the focal point of his life throughout most of the novel, yet we never even get a clear picture of who she really is, only florid descriptions of her as a sort of mystical, divine being. None of the deep, abiding human connection which characterizes true love is to be found here. Like everyone else, Lotte exists for Werther only in relation to himself and for his pleasure. Werther's "love" for Lotte is much more intense but just as shallow as his affection for the village children. If he is in love with anything, it is with the idea of romantic love itself. Poetry and moonlit walks are wonderful, but a deep relationship requires much more and Werther is completely unable to make that leap.
Ironically, Lotte, even though considerably younger than Werther, is much more emotionally mature than him and recognizes Werther's shortcomings. She is never seriously tempted to replace the steady, quiet affection of Albert with Werther 's tempestuous obsession. This is not to say that Lotte has no feelings for Werther. She obviously does and probably enjoys the attention lavished upon her. As Werther's feelings grow stronger, she begins to pity him and is too kind-hearted to make a clean break of their relationship -- until Werther definitively crosses the bounds of propriety, at which point she suffers considerably but nevertheless knows where her loyalty lies.
And here we come to the most damning indictment of all. Werther brings enormous suffering to Lotte over the course of the novel and never gives the slightest consideration to the effect his behavior is having upon her. Surely a mature lover would at least stop to wonder at some point whether Lotte might be genuinely happy and satisfied with Albert and if it might be time to exit the scene for her sake. Werther does no such thing, preferring to wallow in his own self-pity and doing his best to pull Lotte into the mire with him. His suicide letters go beyond the almost pathological self-absorption he has displayed up to that point and cross into active vindictiveness. Werther petulantly wants to hurt Lotte, and hurt her deeply, for having rejected his love. The last moments of his life are filled not with poetic tragedy but with the most extreme pettiness.
A reader might agree with my very unflattering depiction of Werther, yet simply see the novel as the product of a young author every bit as immature and self-absorbed as his protagonist. However, even without considering the towering intellect Goethe would soon prove himself to be, many hints can be found that this is not the case. Auden points to the character of Albert as noteworthy. If he truly wished for us to admire Werther, one would expect Goethe to demonize Albert, yet he does no such thing. Albert is a good-natured, even-tempered fellow, perhaps not much of a romantic but to all appearances genuinely in love with Lotte, as she is with him. He is extraordinarily patient and kind to Werther even though he must realize that Werther's intention is quite literally to steal his wife. Only after months of Werther's constant presence does he begin to lose patience, and even then he cannot bring himself to banish Werther from his home forever or even to seriously scold Lotte. Such behavior borders on amazing given the social mores of the time.
Subtler clues about Goethe's attitude toward Werther are sprinkled through the text.
I know, of course, as well as anyone, how necessary class
distinctions are, and
how many advantages I myself gain from them; but they should not stand in my
way just when I might enjoy some little pleasure, some gleam of joy on this
One senses on such occasions that Goethe is as aware as we of the flaws and contradictions of his character and is subtly smiling at us between the lines.
There are too many differences between Goethe and Werther to link the two in a directly autobiographical sense. At the age of 24, Goethe had already written plays and lyric poetry, was conducting scientific research and with the publication of Werther now had a novel to his name. He would go on to become one of the greatest intellectuals of his generation, the last of the Renaissance men. Werther at the time of his death (presumably in his mid-twenties) had accomplished nothing and showed no signs of doing so, even had he not met Lotte and ended his life so young. Finally, an even more obvious contrast exists; whatever sorrows Goethe endured due to his own ill-fated love, he was able in the end to pick up the pieces and move on to make an extraordinary life for himself. Werther could move on only by ending his life.
Still, I do not feel that Goethe intended Werther as an object for contempt or ridicule. He must have identified strongly with the feelings expressed by his protagonist and have seen many of the same self-destructive tendencies in himself. Werther is not deserving of the adoration, even emulation, lavished upon him by the reading public of the 1770's, but he is deserving of our pity. The fate he suffers is tragic, but not in the grand Shakespearan sense he imagined. His tragedy is that of the wasted life, of potential frittered away. A bright, sensitive young man with many good qualities, he stands as a warning about the consequences of unfettered emotionalism and a complete lack of self-discipline. A wise man once said that all things should be taken in moderation, a concept which completely eludes Werther.
In later years, Goethe came to see Werther and its success as a profound annoyance. He was producing important works in several fields, yet was continually questioned about this slim novel from his youth. One wonders if some of his annoyance was due to the banal way in which the novel was understood by the vast majority of its readership. The book's subtler shades had eluded them entirely, leaving only an overly sentimental, somewhat simple-minded tearjerker behind. Surely the work and its creator deserved better.
Works Cited and Consulted
"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." Columbia Encyclopedia. 2001 ed.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Notes by William Allan.
Neilson and Thomas Carlyle. Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. New York: P.F. Collier, 1917.
Goethe, Johnann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Trans. Elizabeth
Meyer and Louise Bogan. Forward by W.H. Auden. New York: Vintage, 1990.