The Sorrows of Young Werther is one of those novels that I had encountered a number of times in my assigned reading for university, but never found the time to read myself. By the time I finally decided to fill in this gap in my literary knowledge, I already knew that the protagonist was basically the quintessential Romantic hero – emotional, artistic, and, of course, desperately in love with a girl he can never have – which meant that this could only end in tears (and probably death).
Werther did not disappoint in that regard… But maybe I kind of wanted it to.
To say that this book was popular in its day would be an understatement; it was a sensation. Within twelve years of its first publication, twenty pirated editions appeared. It was translated into French and English, and Napoleon is said to have read it seven times. When Goethe visited Weimar in 1775, the court wore the Werthertracht (blue tailcoat, yellow waistcoat, yellow trousers – see picture above). Its popularity also initiated extensive literary merchandising in Germany, including silhouettes of Werther’s beloved and even a perfume named after its protagonist (eau de Werther). There was a time that various authorities were worried that people would be inspired to commit suicide the same way Werther does at the end of the book. Even though there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence that there were such copycats, there were sufficient concerns to ban the book in, for example, Italy and Copenhagen. In Leipzig the Werther costume was banned as well, just in case.
Werther is the ultimate go-to example for anyone interested in Sturm und Drang and/or the Romantic period. It’s all there: doomed love, peasants, nature, death, stormy weather, lots of talk about kissing people’s hands a thousand times over, you name it. The whole thing is Very Intense All the Time, which was exactly what I had expected based on the book’s legacy, but still made me laugh when it was actually trying to make me cry. I know that it is a product of its time, I know, but that is exactly what makes it hilarious to me. Werther kisses her hand, tears in his eyes! Then he reads her a really, really long bit of seriously dramatic poetry! And she cries! And they kiss! But then she runs into the other room! Because she’s married! And Werther pounds on the door, weeping! Adieu, Lotte! Adieu forever! Sob!
I couldn’t help but feel that this was a particularly self-indulgent work, even for the Romantic period, and one look at the book’s Wikipedia page explained a lot. Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther when he was twenty-four after he was rejected by Charlotte Buff.
Oh no Goethe you didn’t even try.
Fifty years after Werther‘s publication, he wrote that it was “a creation which I, like the pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart”, and it shows. This makes the part where Lotte suddenly realises that maybe she has been in love with Werther all along feel even more like gratuitous wish fulfillment. Again, unintentionally hilarious.
There are parts of this story that I enjoyed a lot, like Werther’s frustration with the elitism of the aristocrats in Weimar. I particularly appreciated how, even though Werther is considered to be the ultimate Romantic hero, the story itself seems to be critical of this kind of obsessive love. Werther is downright selfish towards the end, and then there is the chilling moment when he finds out that the man he had been talking to about the pain of unrequited love has murdered his rival in an “if I can’t have her, no one can” frenzy.
(The same man who had previously tried to rape her and tried to excuse his actions by saying that he didn’t know what came over him, that he would never hurt her, and by the way, she had allowed these other acts of affection before, so who was really at fault here anyway? Yeah.)
(Edit: Read the comments below – turned out that this storyline was added by Goethe in a later revised edition of the text. It all makes so much sense.)
Not that Werther is all bad – because he’s not. He is sincerely fond of children and gives generously to the poor, and I, for one, could definitely relate to this man who is frustrated with his lot in life and the fact that the world does not live up to his hopes and expectations. Feeling stuck in a job you hate is both timeless and universal as frustrations go, I’d imagine. However, every time we circle back to Werther’s relationship with Lotte, the ugly side comes out, and it can becomes almost impossible to root for him. I’m not saying that a good book cannot have an unlikable protagonist – on the contrary – but for my personal enjoyment, wanting to punch Werther in the face did not help during the more dreary parts. You asked Lotte to send you her husband’s pistols so you could use them to shoot yourself because she didn’t want you jesus Werther what is wrong with you? For someone who claims to love Lotte so much, you sure seem to be doing your best to ruin her life.
Werther’s story is a tragic one that came at just the right time in the cultural landscape, but I can definitely understand why Goethe tried to distance himself from this work when he was older. This is a young man’s book written by a spurned lover who needed to get all this gall and anguish out of his system and inadvertently ended up becoming an international celebrity.