The sorrows of reading Werther

The problem with being a trendsetter is that the more successful you are, the less original you’ll seem. Thus is the trouble with The Sorrows of Young Werther, at least for me. Goethe’s influence was so great, and I’ve read so many influenced by him, that Werther seems almost derivative. He so epitomizes the pathetic Romantic hero that it’s difficult to experience him on his own terms. Intellectually, of course, I know the opposite is the case: Werther is not derivative, it’s everything else that is. But since I’ve only read Werther now…well, the eye-rolling came a bit too easily for me.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that wouldn’t have happened even had I not read other Romantic literature; Werther takes himself very, very seriously, and there is not much narrative distancing taking him less seriously. In the preface, we are told, “To his spirit and character you cannot refuse your admiration and love: to his fate you will not deny your tears.”* Admiration, love, tears—Werther got none of the above from me. I am a cold fish, but I think this is really a book for younger readers.

Still, a few things did surprise me. I knew Werther would commit suicide at the end, but I wasn’t expecting such a clear embrace of suicide from the very beginning. At first it seemed like subtle foreshadowing, but it became less and less subtle as the book went on and he kept on at it.

Another surprise was the structure; I did not realize the epistolary form would be “supplemented” so much. But save that thought for tomorrow.

I was also struck over and over by how closely the concerns in Werther mirrored those in Schiller’s essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry.” It makes sense, of course. After all, I was just talking about how über-Romantisch this all is. But I don’t usually encounter “movements” quite so starkly.

Ernst Beutler’s afterword to my Reclam Universal-Bibliotek edition claims:

Goethes “Werther” ist der erste moderne Roman, und weil er das ist, greift er uns ans Herz, als wäre er heute erlebt, heute geschrieben. …

Das “Herz”, das ist das Wort, das immer wieder in den Briefen Werthers auftaucht, das als Thema den ganzen Roman beherrscht. Nicht von Heldentaten und Abenteuern wie in den Romanen vorher ist hier die Rede, nicht von Problemen, nicht von Nöten und Gefahren und buntem Vielerlei des Lebens wie im Roman unserer Tage, sondern nur von der Liebe, ja genauer gesagt: von einer Liebe.

Goethe’s “Werther” is the first modern novel, and because it is, it grabs our hearts, as if it were experienced today, written today. …

“Heart,” that is the word that always shows up in Werther’s letters, that dominates as the theme of the whole novel. The story here is not about heroic doings and adventures like in earlier novels, nor about problems, nor miseries and danger and the colorful variety of life like in the novels of our day, rather only about love, more exactly, about one love.**

This is all very nice, and very true, but the difficulty is in actually experiencing it properly, infected as we all are with so much of what came after.

*Quotation taken from the R.D. Boylan translation, which I read in conjunction with the original German. Mine’s a bit rusty.

**Mediocre translation mine.

3 comments to The sorrows of reading Werther

  • I’m much more aesthetically satisfied with this book, which is certainly not, as you say, really a proper novel. I’ll just list some of my favorite bits:

    The visionary nature scene (August 18)
    The last three sentences.
    The bread scene, and come to think of it quite a bit of the June 16 letter, including the best single sentence in the book:

    Then she sat down, and the oranges I had secured for her, now the only ones left, had a good effect, except that whenever she shared a little slice in a dutiful way with a greedy lady sitting next to her, I was cut to the heart. (Mayer and Bogan translation)

    I also find plenty of distance from Werther, who I think is ridiculous. The reader, unless he chooses a different vantage point, is in the position not of Werther, necessarily, but of his exasperated, commonsensical correspondent.

  • nicole

    Maybe that, then, is the necessity of the letters—you need to be Wilhelm, reading them. Again, I think it’s the sort of thing mucked up by the fact that I already knew much too much about Werther, for example, his close resemblance to Goethe himself. Not that that means Goethe actually likes him.

    That nature scene was definitely one of my favorite parts.

  • I just finished this work this morning-read your post and found it very helpful-here is a quote I could not help but recall from a classic American TV show-

    “- Roz is describing one of her ex-boyfriends, Gunther:
    Frasier: A German narcissist – there’s an appealing combination.”