Werther: Sorrows, Joys, and Other Sturm und Drang

7.18.2013

Caspar David Friedrich - Riesengebirge Landscape with Rising Fog - WGA8257
Wilhelm deserves the reader's pity.  Not only is his name easily confused with the village of Wahlheim - a central location in Werther's tale - but his sole role is to play the long-suffering audience to Werther's letters of ecstasies, angst, and other sorrows.  Wilhelm listens attentively, offers his best advice to his friend, and ends his part in the story with a sense of utter helplessness and futility.  At least the audience is not alone.

Perhaps I was biased by having already known the plot of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's most famous novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther.  Even its German Romanticism, however, cannot save this book from 1 out of 5 stars.  The story centers around the title character, Werther, who is a head-in-the-clouds, rather obstinately unemployed young man, with the added misfortune of having fallen in love with a woman already engaged.  This would be Charlotte, whose fiance Albert even Werther cannot dislike, but simply envy.  Werther's friendship with Charlotte turns from joy into devoted love and, finally, his unconquerable sorrows.  He must choose an unthinkable choice: to either leave her for good, or to stay and hide his true feelings from the world.

Of course, when one is a Romantic, one does not simply hide one's feelings from anyone.

I have read better books on "unrequited love" - the obvious alternative is Eugene Onegin, though most any book by Charlotte Bronte would do as well.  My own experiences, though under different circumstances, have not been very different from Werther's.  All in all, and not even speaking here of his ultimate decision, I have little or no sympathy for Werther's self-absorbed behavior, bringing grief not only to himself but to the people around him, even the woman he purportedly loves.  He acknowledges himself that he hurt her happiness - yet he fails to see that if you actually love someone, you would sooner sacrifice your own feelings rather than hurt that person!  Love, in Werther's mindset, must be recognized and reciprocated in order to have meaning.  This belief actually makes it impossible for him to truly love Charlotte.

That said, Charlotte is no angel herself.  This is what Werther would like us to see - a sweet, perfectly domestic girl who heroically takes care of her younger siblings (also angels) after their mother's death; a virtuous maiden who shuns temptation and remains dutiful to her fiance.  The trouble is, and as the story shows, this is not the real Charlotte. What Werther took to be her innocent familiarity, I found to be a subtle sort of encouragement on her part.  She wants to have her cake and eat it, too: to marry the sense, security, and loyalty of Albert and to retain her kindred spirit Werther's friendship and devotion as well.  Until the very last minute and the verge of impropriety, she does nothing to try to minimize Werther's emotional attachment to her.  She allows him to visit her as often as he wants and even gives him one of her ribbons over which he inevitably obsesses.  At one point, she considers trying to marry him off to one of her friends in order to keep him nearby.

Charlotte and Werther deserve each other, in my opinion.

I can see no reason to recommend The Sorrows of Young Werther.  The protagonist doesn't even have Rochester's charm or Onegin's cynicism going for him.  It is a light, epistolary book, so if you have absolutely nothing else to read, it might be better than nothing. 

2 comments :

  1. Just watched Jane Eyre lately (I read the novel years ago) and, from your post, I understand how Werther is not even a worthy rival of Rochester. I have Eugene Onegin on my reading list. Sadly, I haven't even touched it. But you have encouraged me to do so. Maybe after a book or two I will at last read it.

    Have you seen Werther in opera? It's quite popular, but I have never seen it (the aria is quite something, though. How is it compared to the book?

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    1. I haven't seen the opera yet, but it sounds interesting. I am familiar with the aria Pourquoi me réveiller - lovely melody!

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