Monday, July 19, 2010

The Sorrows off Young Werther

Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.

Of all the German writers, there is perhaps none so revered as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Poet, playwright, philosopher, literary man, he was involved in many movements of the late 18th and early 19th century from Romanticism to Sturm und Drang. He is even the originator of the idea of "world literature". His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther made him an international celebrity and set the tone of adolescent manhood for years to come.

The Plot:

The novel is told through a series of letters from a sensitive and passionate artist, Werther, to his friend Wilhelm. While staying in the village of Wahlheim, Werther meets Lotte, a young woman who is caring for her siblings after her mother's death. Werther falls head over heels for her, but soon learns that she is engaged to another man, Albert. Against his better judgment, Werther cultivates a friendship with both Lotte and Albert, all the while hoping against hope that Lotte will return his love.

But as time goes on, Werther begins to despair and decides to leave and forget Lotte. An unfortunate incident drives Werther back to Wahlheim only to discover that Lotte and Albert are now married. Werther must now decide if he is capable of living life without her.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

The S
orrows of Young Werther was my first taste not only of Goethe, but of German lit itself. I found it at once beautiful, interesting, and frustrating.

First the beautiful. Goethe's writing and description is absolutely gorgeous. He writes like an artist paints, capturing the subtleties of light, color, shadow, and form. His descriptions of the village, the peasants, and the countryside are achingly beautiful.
"When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the upper surface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image..." It is no wonder that this novel was able to evoke so many powerful and different emotions in the hearts of its readers.

Which brings me to the interesting. The history of this novel is perhaps more well known than the content itself. It literally set the tone for a generation of young European men. Napoleon himself felt its impact and considered it to be one of the best European novels. An effect known as "Werther Fever" hit the young men of Europe and the began to dress in clothing like that of Werther, to make Wiemar a must-see destination on their European tour, and in many cases, to commit suicide. Today, this affect still lives on in the idea of copycat suicide known as the "Werther Effect". Goethe himself disliked the idea of suicide and he eventually abandoned the Sturm und Drang movement.

Finally, we have the frustrating. I'm sure that there are many people out there who identify with Werther's distress and hopelessness. I don't happen to be one of them. I found Werther to be disgustingly pathetic, and I never got why he pinned his hopes on this rather flirtatious young girl. It is obvious from the get go that Lotte has absolutely no intention of giving up Albert, and it gets rather annoying to hear Werther constantly boost his hopes only to fall down in utter despair two sentences later. William Makepeace Thackery wrote a poem entitled "Sorrows of Werther" that I think accurately sums up the story:

Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.
Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.
So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.
Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

Having said all this, I do think that The Sorrows of Young Werther is something that you should at least give a try. First off, it is a great intro to Goethe whom everyone should have a taste of. Secondly, the writing itself is worth reading, even if you don't care for the story. And finally, if you have any desire to know more about either the Romanticism movement or Sturm und Drang, this is a must. Though I wasn't overly impressed by the story itself, I found the words and many other aspects of it to be completely worth my time. I'm more than ready to add more Goethe to my diet.

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