The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
1774, 127 pp.
Among the most famous novels ever written, certainly a fixture of literary knowledge during the nineteenth century, and the book which made Goethe the world's first international literary celebrity, The Sorrows of Young Werther has been so widely read and analyzed that it is difficult for the fresh reviewer to find anything new and productive to say. Werther kicked off the Sturm und Drang movement which gave the world Herder and Haydn and much of Schiller. The little novel had an integral role in the rise of the Romantic movement, and of course kicked off a round of copycat suicides across Europe. Napoleon apparently loved Werther, and complimented Goethe on it when they met in Weimar shortly after the Battle of Jena. Goethe didn't like it much, though, but did concede that every young man has a time in his life when he feels as though Werther were written exclusively for him.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is a mainly epistolary novel about a passionate young man who falls desperately and obsessively in love with Lotte, who is already engaged to a stolid chap named Albert. Werther tries to be friends, tries to escape and start a career, but eventually is overcome and kills himself.
And in spite of all the analysis and in spite of its reputation, it actually holds up extremely well. The latter quarter or so, when Werther has stopped sending his letters and "the editor" has taken over the story is still as moving and passionate as Napoleon found it. In the long recitation of Ossian at the end, Goethe has so improved on the original that any remaining doubts about Goethe's skills are utterly dispelled. Granted, at times Werther seems ridiculous and his continual outbursts about wanting to die wear about as thin as popular music sentiments, but since it was Werther who invented these cliches, it is the modern impostors who are the worse for the comparison. Ridiculous, yes, but young love is ridiculous, and so is being alive. With the benefit of existentialism and modern sensibilities, it is difficult not to read Werther as the story of a narcissist personality who, confronted with the meaninglessness of the world, and with only the hollow platitudes of religion and the social order of structured alienation to fall back upon, finds himself in a late Ingmar Bergman film where the only means of connection he has is to hurt the person he cares for most. Werther's final action is cruel and selfish and at least a little disingenuous, but it is a genuine cry of despair at the realization that the world will not organize itself to fulfill his wishes. There is a point in every life when this becomes apparent, and the individual manner of dealing with it is perhaps one of the most crucial steps in the development of a functioning adult; Werther is what happens when the passionate rather than the rational individual refuses to admit to his inherent subordination to the world.
Goethe is rather considered the Shakespeare of Germany, and his works have filtered into the national consciousness to such a degree that they are inextricable from the German understanding of art and literature. The case has been made for Goethe being one of the greatest geniuses to have ever lived. While The Sorrows of Young Werther is a splendid work, and Goethe's Faust is fascinating, and I cannot dispute his influence, I have never been able to understand what ranks him among Shakespeare and Homer. It is true he was something of a polymath: for instance, he wanted to be remembered for his pioneering (though largely inaccurate) work on colors and optics. He wrote on plant morphology and mineralogy, and produced essays and criticism. It is easy to place him as a transitional figure into the phase of Romanticism, with his passions and emotions and introspection. He seems to have been rather counter-Enlightenment, though, with his emphasis on the essentialism of geography and culture, and rejection of laws based on reason alone. And his literary reputation seems largely based only on Werther and Faust, both of which are excellent, but are hardly thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets. Instead he seems to have influenced the cohort of nineteenth century German thinkers who in turn largely molded the modern world. It is impossible to deny his importance, only to wonder if in Hegel's place (for instance), I would have been likewise influenced or if there is some component unique to the language which is lost in translation or unique to the zeitgeist which is lost in time and space that I do not grasp.
As a post-script, there are a few interesting moments which reveal details of life in Goethe's Weimar. Werther seems to be a wealthy young man with plenty of leisure time and servants and no shortage of money. He easily obtains a post at an embassy, but then he befriends a Count and arrives at the Count's home for lunch one day when the entire aristocracy seems to be visiting. The aristocrats object to the presence of someone of his lowly social station, so he is asked to leave. I hope that somewhere a sociologist has written a dissertation on what this reveals about class structure in pre-unification Germany.