Book Review: “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Still from Young Goethe in Love (2010). Note how Goethe is wearing the iconic Werther costume.

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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.

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Reading List: Tuberculosis

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“La Miseria” (1886) by Cristobal Rojas.

Remember how Victorians thought tuberculosis was the ultimate Romantic disease?

In the 1800s, TB (or “consumption” as it was known then) was considered to be a desirable way to die because it was the sign of a delicate, sophisticated soul. Looking like a TB patient even became the height of Victorian fashion; women would paint little veins on the side of their face and drink vinegar in an attempt to bleach their skin and become as pale as possible (as immortalised in this Horrible Histories sketch). In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our current obsession with skinny models is a trend rooted in this consumption craze.

TB was a particularly popular way to kill off characters in nineteenth-century literature. Authors delighted in glorified descriptions of trembling men and women with gigantic dark eyes who had somehow become wiser and even saint-like through their condition (usually glossing over the less attractive aspects like the excruciating pain and the smell).

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