The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is not so much a tale of love and romance, as it is a chronicle of mental health; specifically, it seems Goethe is tackling the idea of depression and even (though the term would not have existed then) bi-polar depression. Werther spends his days feeling everything in extremes. When he is happy about something, even something seemingly minuscule, he is overjoyed by it. His “cup over-floweth” and he radiates a sun-like magnitude of warmth and well-being to everyone around him. When he is saddened by something (or someone), he is inconsolable. Each disappointment pushes him nearer and nearer to the edge, of which Werther himself seems to be aware and almost welcoming. The crux of Werther’s Joys and Sorrows is, of course, a woman, a love which cannot be reconciled. Ultimately, each encounter with Werther’s love-interest, Lotte, becomes more detrimental to Werther’s fragile state-of-mind and, with one final visit (one which Lotte had expressly forbidden), Werther reaches his limit.    

Though this has been criticized by some, I appreciate the epistolary structure of this novel. I also like that to each of Werther’s letters, a response must be guessed or imagined, because none of the letters Werther received are included. I have a difficult time deciding why I like that we only get access to Werther’s side of the conversation, but I think it is because no other character has much to do with what is going on inside Werther’s head. In fact, even Lotte, the reason Werther “sacrifices” himself in the end, is only an excuse for the sacrifice and not the actual, root cause of Werther’s sorrow. Also, something I found particularly irksome throughout the first half of the novel, but which ultimately I find pleasing, is the lack of any type of characterization, even for those characters who play a larger role, such as Lotte and her husband Albert. At first, I found it difficult to engage with the novel because of this but, upon reflection, I realize the necessity. After all, this novel is about Werther’s state of mind, so the development of any other character would largely detract from the work’s purpose. In addition to this distraction, one must also realize that Werther is a rather arrogant, self-centered person who is not very concerned about anybody else (even Lotte, when it comes down to it). Werther is entirely engrossed in his own pleasures, his own happiness, and his own despairs; thus, to focus even for a moment on anyone else’s personality or achievements would decrease the importance that Goethe had been placing on Werther’s own self-involvement.

The novel closes by introducing a rather omniscient “narrator,” who is not to be mistaken for Goethe’s narrator (this can also be a bit tricky throughout the novel, when “narrator comments” are footnoted). The Narrator seems to be viewing things from the outside, to be evaluating Werther’s life and letters as a bystander, a researcher; however, he does also seem to have some connection to the characters, some insight into their emotions and actions. Does this make him unreliable?  Perhaps. I also find the act of introducing a portion of the book as belonging to the Narrator, and including that Narrator suddenly into the plot-line, not just unreliable but also distracting. While having the Narrator there to explain some of Werther’s actions and emotions, to guide the reader through Werther’s final days rather than have Werther write them in letters per usual (and this may have seemed more appropriate to Werther as, when one is ending one’s life, does one really write a letter about all the actions he is taking, all the steps covered, tasks completed?) is probably necessary, I found it a harsh break from the rest of the novel and, at the point where I would most liked to have been connecting with the main character, I felt most separated.  I did also find the many pages devoted to Ossian’s poem (Werther reading the translation to Lotte) indulgent and unnecessary.  Finally, though I understand and partially agree with the under-development of the other characters, I also believe this could have been a rich novel and a gripping story, equally honest to mental torment as this novel, had the plot and characters been more flushed out.

It is difficult for me not to give this novel a better rating, because I know I am supposed to love it. Still, I found faults, the main problem being that I could not really connect with the story because the majority of its format was guarded, and the final chapter was such a break from the rest that I felt displaced when I could have begun to surrender. The Sorrows of Young Werther did have its positives, though. I appreciated the subject matter, especially coming from an author in the late-1700s. Goethe seemed truly concerned with mental disturbances and depression; he was taking the disease seriously and not just allowing his character to be played off as “having passions.” Goethe, I think, understood that Werther’s “lost love” Lotte was not the true reason for his final descent and, for the close reader, this point comes across quite clearly. What was Goethe experiencing, I wonder, to inspire him to write this novel? 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 5.0

4 Comments on “The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  1. I don’t know, *are* you supposed to love it? I thought it was interesting, but I didn’t love it. I understand that lots of people loved it at the time and exasperated Goethe by killing themselves for impossible love (that must have been awful for him!). I tended to come at it from Lotte’s point of view, so I was exasperated with Werther.


  2. I’ve never had any interest in reading this but now I do. Some of my “favorite” novels were not ones that I would comfortably say I “loved,” but they impacted me. I’ll have to add this to my TBR.


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