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The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther

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Published by Brian O'Leary

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Published by: Brian O'Leary on Aug 13, 2010
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Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers [The Sorrows of YoungWerther]
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
(1774)Gerhart Hoffmeister, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa BarbaraDomain: Literature. Genre: Novel. Country: Germany, Continental Europe.Goethe’s first novel was published when he was twenty-five:
 Die Leiden des jungen Werthers
The Sorrows of Young Werther 
, 1774; final version 1787]. The text caused a sensation at theheight of the 
[Storm and Stress] period that was to inspire a flood of imitationsand emulations in all literary genres in Germany and abroad, including the worlds of fashion(Werther’s dress of blue coat and yellow trousers), perfume (eau de Werther), porcelain, andopera (Jules Massenet’s
, 1892) well into the twentieth century. Among the reasons for
becoming a bestseller of the times is its portrayal of an essentially romantic hero,artistically inclined and gifted with deep, pure sentiment and penetrating intelligence, who loseshimself in fantastic dreams, undermines himself with speculative thought until finally, torn byhopeless passions, especially by infinite love, he shoots himself in the head. Here (letter1/6/1774) Goethe neither mentions the various steps in Werther’s downward spiral, nor does heindicate the consummate shape Werther gave to his own life’s experiences and literary models.The way in which he forged these various strains together was decisive for the success of hisnovel, which even Napoleon is said to have read seven times like an investigating judge(Goethe’s audience with Napoleon, Erfurt 1808).Werther’s letters in Book One, dated May through September 1771 and addressed to his friendWilhelm, tell of his encounter with Lotte. Although he learns that she is promised to Albert, hefalls hopelessly in love with her at a ball and afterwards remains in a love triangle until hedecides to tear himself away. Book Two opens in October 1771 and ends in December 1772, witha fictional editor stepping in who presents the final letters and notes Werther left behind.Hastening his demise were these episodes: as a bourgeois employee at a ministerial legation heexperienced a snub at a courtly festivity, handed in his resignation, stayed at a princely castlewithout feeling at ease, and finally responded to his memories of Lotte which drew him back toher town. Yet in his absence she had married Albert. Werther’s passion drove him to destructiveimpulses. Finally, he borrowed Albert’s pistols from Lotte, claiming to sacrifice his life for herhappiness.
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was for Goethe a therapeutic process to overcome his own desperate loveaffair with Charlotte Buff in Wetzlar, who was betrothed to Johann Kestner. In an ingeniousmove he allowed his protagonist to vent his own heartfelt emotions and to describe his increasingturn toward a pathological state of mind. Nourishing
like a pelican with his very blood,Goethe projected his own disease onto his alter ego Werther whose death is closely modelled onthe suicide of a Wetzlar acquaintance named Jerusalem. Only through this cathartic creativeprocess Goethe was able to escape the waves of death that engulfed him. At the same time heaccomplished the transformation of life into the realm of fiction, injecting it with such genuinefervor that
touched its readers not as one of the traditional didactic novels, but as a trueconfession of a heart in distress. Realizing that his readers tried to transpose fiction back intoreality, asking who Lotte was, where she lived, and even attempting to shoot themselves, Goethewas aghast about the public’s inability to appreciate literature on its own terms. Had he notassumed the role of an objective editor, thereby distancing himself from his doomed fictionalWerther? The name Mr. Worthy itself, carrying both the connotation of compassion and a twingeof irony, should have been an important indicator. For the text’s second edition (1775) he addedan explicit warning
to follow Werther but to be a man.As a literary text,
invites many layers of interpretation, some of which focus on thequestion of why the protagonist kills himself. Is it the sacrifice of an unrequited lover? At closerreading it is clear that Werther was doomed from the very beginning. His sole pride is his heart,source of all his happiness and torment. With fantastic dreams filling it, he withdraws into awondrous world within, escaping from an unsustainable conflict between the harsh present thefate of man is a prison and his longing for communion with divine infinity. The strong appeal of Werther to the reader derives from this eternal romantic sensibility: never to be content with whathe has, instead to follow the perpetual quest of an ideal. Even prior to his fatal love, seriousclashes with reality had rendered his existence fragile and vulnerable.Werther loves to commune with Nature, yet this does not provide lasting comfort, because Natureis in constant flux. As Nature turns from spring to fall and winter, Werther’s dying self mirrorsthe death and destruction of Nature. With communion breaking down, Nature still retains itsfunction as a gauge of his state of mind and, more significantly, its seasonal rhythms foreshadowhis end. Werther claims to be a genius who scorns any mastery of technical skills in favor of aningenious feeling for and inspiration by Nature. Yet losing his grip on his creative faculty turnshim into a platonic artist who rather enjoys than creates art and prefers to paint pictures in hisimagination. From his self-image as a genius he derives his feeling of superiority over thephilistines among the nobility and the middle class. As a member of the latter, highly educatedand with artistic aspirations, he tries to find his rightful place in the system, but is barred fromparticipating in the political process. Not surprisingly, Napoleon asked Goethe whether he hadnot confused two very different motifs in Werther’s decline: frustrated social ambition andpassionate love.
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What sustains Werther, beside the sweet feeling of freedom that he can quit anytime, is his love,next to Nature a means to approach infinity. When romantic love grows into a total,quasi-mystical experience and a substitute for religion, its effect on Werther is predictable: itcures him, even restores a healthy relationship to the world, and raises his self-esteem to thedegree of worshipping himself along with his beloved. But woe to him when this spiritualharmony cracks under the stress of the physical effects of carnal desire and of the ensuing rivalrybetween the two men. Harmony crumbles, Werther strives in vain to maintain his balance, andgradually approaches a breaking point, becoming more possessive, aggressive, sensual (see themotif of the kiss), and eventually destructive. His destructiveness could easily have turnedagainst Albert, but the fact that he turns against himself and perhaps even against Lotte raisesinteresting questions.What is death to Werther? Death beckons him to a world of ecstasy and bliss as in an eroticembrace where love and death fuse. Death appears to be an act of love with the explicit purposeof making Lotte happy through his Christ-like sacrifice. On the verge of madness, suicide seemsthe only means to avoid the total disintegration of his self; paradoxically he attempts to maintainhis self through self-destruction. In this sense, Werther’s journey leads from initial bliss tosuffering in his quest for self-awareness and transcendence through death. Simultaneously, hedestroys his life in order to shoot his way back into the lap of his family (to Lotte and her motherin the afterlife). Werther wants to be pigeonholed (Roland Barthes,
 A Lover’s Discourse
, 1979).Yet underneath this veneer lurks a darker reality: his revenge on people who are happy. Procuringthe pistols from Lotte and thus leaving behind evidence of their love, reveals Werther’s desire tomake her suffer. She almost dies. His refined sensibility and the professed enthusiasm of aneternal lover appears to hide a self-absorbed narcissist who enjoys inflicting pain upon himself and, in a sadistic twist, also on her. With W. H. Auden one could conclude that Werther isessentially a horrid little monster, incapable of love because he cares for nobody and nothing buthimself.When Werther claims that She would have been happier with me than with him [Albert] (29July), he does not realize how unsuitable he is for married life. From the outset he tries to avoidany decision that would derail his desire for a sanctified love beyond the realm of reality, becausethis allows him to relish his suffering. He did fall in love with an
idealized image
of Lotte, thedivine lady of solace, which he uses to keep himself alive. Lotte motherly, down-to-earth, andrightfully tormenting herself for having led him on for too long fully understands that he does notdesire her as a real person: I fear, it is only the impossibility of possessing me that makes yourdesire for me so strong (20 Dec.). Seen in this light, it is wrong to blame Lotte for his death. Sheoffers a last hope for an alienated genius who is torn apart (
) in the conflict between thestable and unyielding social class system of feudalism (before the French Revolution) and aworld of freedom in which he might find a suitable place for his talents. As a consequence hefails as a genius, as a member of society, as a lover of nature and of Lotte, and he even botcheshis suicide. André Gide remarks: I had forgotten how long it took him to die (
, 1940).Søren Kierkegaard sums up his case: despair is a disease of the mind rooted in the desperate willof the individual to be himself; he who isolates himself constructs a world within at the expense
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