Werthers Briefen

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.

4 comments to Werthers Briefen

  • Just as a guess – the short letters might be the relevant fragments of complete letters. The editor is omitting discussions of politics and family matters and who knows what. This assumes that Goethe is following some sort of rule, though, which is unlikely.

    I have no defense of the Ossian insertion, which is now a period piece, and a huge drag. I refused to read Ossian for the Scotch Challenge; here you see why.

  • I just know I would abhor Werther, and your posts so far have very satisfyingly confirmed me in that opinion. The eye-rolling, yes! The combination of ridiculousness and ultra-serious self-importance! Oh, High Romanticism – I have so little use for you.

  • Hmmm. I read this book a few years ago and liked it a lot. I don’t remember much. One thing though is that I think I was always fairly mindful of its historical context, and I was giving it a lot of credit for being a first, for its date, for Goethe going to a place that no one had gone before. And within that framework it can be added that the book was a hit, that it made a young writer into a superstar, and its impact was strongly felt for decades and into its third century now. The characters, even with Werther’s closeness/distance from Goethe himself, were alive and reflect their times, at a key cultural moment. Maybe it’s a romantic guy thing, complete absorption and idealization of both the Other and the Self, the narcissism, all good pre-Freudian stuff, with death and desire mixing it up nicely.

    On the epistolary part, same as above. The novel was forming and evolving quickly–although I’m interested in this new book that argues, in a fairly commercial format, that we get rid of this idea of the novel as a new genre in the 18th century, don’t know the title offhand–and I think Goethe was experimenting with structure. So I don’t know that you can say that he’s using relatively ineffective devices, as if he had a lot of choices and models to choose from. Yes, there must be plenty of better ways to write epistolary novels, but some of this is trial and error. And let’s mention something else about structure and the epistolary novel: this book is short. And it’s especially short relative to Richardson and Rousseau and the other predecessors, I think. A big part of it being a huge hit was that it was short and readable, making it the forerunner of the youthful artist portrait genre.

    I liked it, but I didn’t think it was a great read, and I think I agree with you on most points. I was glad I read it and could fit it into its historical slot, and it’s probably more fun to trace what other books borrow from it, in different interesting ways. But come on, would you rather read Werther or Sir Charles Grandison? How many Werthers are there in Grandison, in Clarissa? 20? 15? Looking at your epistolary project, I’m intrigue by the Emily Montague book. Never heard of it. Gonna go read the posts now. Sorry to be chatty.

  • nicole

    So I don’t know that you can say that he’s using relatively ineffective devices, as if he had a lot of choices and models to choose from. Yes, there must be plenty of better ways to write epistolary novels, but some of this is trial and error.

    Part of what struck me about this, now that I’ve done most of my epistolary project and gotten some Ideas, is that Werther is actually a bit late in the game in these terms. Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes already has a sophisticated many-to-many letter structure in 1721, nearly two decades before Pamela will be published, and by 1771 we can see it used to great effect in Humphry Clinker. Werther, a few years after that, really seems like it’s doing something else, since I don’t think I would say it’s less “sophisticated” than the others or anything like that. Like you say, it’s a forerunner of another genre.

    I don’t want to make it sound, either, like the issue is that there’s something wrong with Werther, mostly. On the contrary, Goethe was too good at this. He got that “Romantic guy thing” so right the first time it’s almost uncanny.