I read The Sorrows of Young Werther as part of my long-lingering (malingering?) epistolary literature project, and in this respect it was rather on the disappointing side. The novel is, like Evelina, not really epistolary. That is to say, I’d argue it doesn’t really gain much from the structure.
The bulk of the novel is made up of letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm. At first this works out pretty much as usual. The letters are dated, and recount Werther’s life in a new town where he’s meeting new people and seeing new scenes. Many of the letters are of the travelogue variety. Others are of the advice-and-edification variety. Once Werther meets his great love, Charlotte, they get confessional.
This is all pretty standard, and fine, although the letters are uneven, some are bizarrely short, and much of the time it seems just as much like Werther might be writing in a diary as sending them off to his friend. Only relatively rarely does he seem to be responding to anything Wilhelm says. Of course, that itself could be telling us something about Werther.
But about 2/3 of the way through the novel the letters break off and an editor takes over. When problems with Lotte and her husband have reached a head, apparently Werther’s letters can’t get us to the end of the story. But I’ve come to view this technique, the more I’ve read epistolary novels, especially from their heyday, as a real weakness. The editor renders the exercise of the reader needing to put some of the story together himself a bit pointless. Why did we need the letters to begin with? If it was to experience Werther’s emotions firsthand, it seems we’d want to do that at least as much at the end, as we literally follow him to the grave. Why not include the letters of a second or third correspondent rather than information from a narrator who must either be, or have access to, Lotte, in order to know what he knows? I would argue the emotional effect of a letters-only format would be greater; I’ve always liked the discovery aspect of that.
Perhaps the greatest structural flaw, though, is the extended—and I do mean extended—insertion of Goethe’s translation of Ossian. Lotte has Werther read her his translation of the faux-ancient Scottish poetry, and it’s all right there, in the text. Self-indulgent is not even the word for this. I used to want to read Ossian, at least sort of. I have now officially had my fill. “Sad I am! nor small is my cause of woe!” Neither is mine.
Ach, harsh I am. I actually cannot believe how much I neither enjoyed Werther nor thought much of the structure, but there it is.