You only find true love once. When Werther dances with the beautiful Lotte, it seems as though he is in paradise. It is a joy, however, that can only ever be short-lived. Engaged to another man, she tolerates Werther's adoration and encourages his friendship. She can never return his love. Broken-hearted, he leaves her home in the country, trying to escape his own desire. But when he receives a letter telling him that she is finally married, his passion soon turns to destructive obsession. And as his life falls apart, Werther is haunted by one certainty: He has lost his reason for living.
The book is written in epistolary style with each letter being sent from Werther to his friend Wilhelm (a couple of the letters seemed addressed to his brother as well?). We never read any responses written to Werther but can sometimes infer the reactions from Wilhelm. Still, the core of the story is told in Werther's letters themselves.
Because of the epistolary style, the narrative is a little 'jumpy' as it skips over time in between letters…sometimes a day or two, sometimes weeks or more. Some of the letters are very lengthy and pour out large segments of plot and action. Others are very short segments of exclamation or emotion. Sometimes even the longer letters don't advance the "plot" so much as provide insight into the thoughts and emotions of Werther.
Through the letters, we follow Werther as he moves to the country and encounters a young girl named Lotte. He is immediately transfixed by her and professes undying love. She coyly allows his advances and it seems as though a romance may appear between them. Quickly we learn that Lotte is betrothed to another man named Albert. Werther is taken aback by this, but still persists in being close to Lotte with the hope of perhaps persuading her to love him. When the time comes, Lotte does marry Albert, much to Werther's dismay, but the three of them remain friendly. Werther visits them frequently and seems to hover incessantly over Lotte. He grows more and more jealous of Albert, which creates some tension in the group and Albert begins to leave the room when Werther comes to visit.
Werther's obsession with Lotte grows more and more intense as time goes on. He battles with himself over the emotions he feels and writes his friend for advice, although it is very clear that Werther does not feel able to (nor does he desire to) make a break from Lotte and strive to love another. He does finally move away from Lotte and spends some time trying to move on with his life. He becomes more and more discontent in his work and more and more obsessed with returning to her.
He finally does move back to live by them again. Albert is more offstandish and put off by Werther's presence. Werther continues to be insistent in his own mind (and sometimes to Lotte or Wilhelm) that there must be a way for her to love him. At the same time, he is emotionally conflicted because he knows she "belongs" to another man and he does not feel it is right to try and take her from him. She eventually tells Werther that he needs to stop coming around so often (he'd been visiting almost daily) but says that he's still a friend and should come by for Christmas as she's made him a gift.
*** SPOILER ***
Shortly after (the day after) Lotte tells Werther to back off a bit, he finds Lotte alone one night and again professes his love and pushes on her and kisses her passionately. She forces him off and tells him how wrong he's behaving. He's again in turmoil but does leave, though he announces (somewhat veiled) that she won't see him again…ever. He returns home and writes a few more notes in preparation of his suicide. He sends a note to Lotte and Albert to borrow their pistols for "a trip he's taking." Lotte realizes what's going on, but sends the pistols anyway. He shoots himself in the middle of the night and dies the next morning. He's buried without clergy, graveyard or cemetery.
*** END SPOILER ***
The presentation of love versus obsession is very interesting here and is very well done. You get a very good sense of the turmoil that Werther's going through…of the pain he's feeling as well as the desire he has but cannot fulfill. After reading the book, I looked up some info on it and found that it is actually fairly autobiographical. Apparently Goethe fell in love with his own Lotte who refused him and married another. He was obsessed for some time and found it hard to work or concentrate. There was a quote I read where Goethe indicates that he actually used Werther (and particularly the ending) to save himself [Goethe].
The story itself is intriguing though not particularly entrancing. It's really the presentation of the mental anguish of Werther that makes this noteworthy to me. Getting into his head and participating in the psychology of obsessive love was really interesting. A lot of his language was actually very romantic and, had it been spent on someone more receptive, could have been very powerful in enhancing a romantic relationship. Parts of the read were a bit slow, but overall, it was a good read.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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 in something, even something seemingly miniscule, he is overjoyed by it. His “cup overfloweth” 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 – really – 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.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5.0
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 loud and clear. What was Goethe experiencing, I wonder, which allowed him or induced him to write this novel?
I first read Werther when I was about seventeen and I have to say that it went completely over my head. Alas, I thought it was dull. I reread it recently and thought it was brilliant!
Werther is a love and loss story. The odd thing about it is that the main protagonist (Werther) falls in and out of love with life, whilst the relationship with the love interest, Lotte, remains constant. The novel takes the form of a briefmarken, allowing the reader acquaint his or herself with Werther's ruminations (predominantly ethical and aesthetic), which become increasingly despairing as the novel progresses, and the development of his affections toward Lotte.
Werther is a disaffected youth, lofty and sincere - a romantic - who struggles to come to terms with the rather uninspired world of petite-bourgeois aspirations and conventions he encounters throughout the novel. Goethe's depiction of Werther's descent from a loftly-minded pollyanna to a disaffected outsider is subtle, poignant and thought provoking.
Truly a masterpiece and often overlooked
- Frankenstein, Volume II, Chapter VII
Werther has to start high before he can fall, and he begins very high. His adoration of a pastoral scene is enough to trigger tears of happiness in him, demonstrating how commanded he is by emotional highs and lows. A storm is brewing - literally, as he is about to meet Charlotte for the first time. At first he is merely an admirer, desirous of her company but not overly wounded that she is engaged to Albert. He is still full enough of life that he can argue with Albert that moroseness is a sin: extreme dramatic irony on a re-read. But gradually admiration turns to obsession, as he begins to idealize his love and then encounters hardships with his attempt at a career, doubled by the impending marriage of Charlotte and Albert becoming fact. After that it's a swift slide to the bottom.
Interesting arguments surface. Werther compares a wounded heart to dying of a disease; that there can only be so much pain before one's endurance is overcome, no matter how determined the mindset. Here he clearly ranks emotion above reason as the force which commands him. With this imbalance locked in, no appeal can save him. At this point the reader's loathing is liable to be set in as well. Just snap out of it! Accept what is, and move on! It's compounded by Werther being directionless and possibly too proud and lazy for his own good. He lives off his mother's allowance, and how old is he? Clearly I'm thinking like a parent, or at least a mature adult. To understand this character, I need to cast my mind further back.
Can I never recall admiration for an unobtainable girl that led beyond reason? It would be a cold, hard life I've led if I could not. In youth our passions command us. We can hear and speak reason, but only within the context of values largely determined by our feelings. Urgency comes from desiring the company of an ideal vision of the opposite sex, unaware how much we are projecting onto the nearest target and value accordingly beyond what reason dictates. Puppy love transgresses into puppy idolization, to the detriment of the worshiper and the worshiped. I choose to pity Werther out of sympathy, but only up to the point where he contemplates suicide. That state is only obtainable by the sustaining of blind romantic notion far beyond anything I achieved. It is a reality that some are not so lucky. To deride Werther is to deride all youth who give way to irrational despair. Understand him, and you may perceive a life to be saved.
It is the story of a young man in 1700's Germany named Werther. He falls in love with a young woman named Lotte, but she is already engaged to another man. Even after she is married, Werther continues to love her, and they form a friendship, which is both heavenly and torturous to the despairing Werther.
The main thing that I disliked here was that I just wanted Werther to grow up and get over it. Reading the paragraph above, I must admit it is relatively sad, but really now. It doesn't even sound like the plot of a tragedy, just perhaps an unfortunate sub-plot.
Werther sees negativity in everything, and is constantly wishing he was dead and dwelling on suicide and weeping over his letters / journal. I have to admit that sometimes, the idea of a tragic, heartbroken man braving the sorrows of life can be appealing in some strange way. But rather than suffer in silence and gather his strength, Werther suffers loudly and wants everyone to know it. Rather than gathering strength from his ordeals, he lets them weaken him into a weepy fool. I couldn't like him or feel any sympathy for him.
This book would have been utterly atrocious if not for Goethe's skillful brilliance. He is, of course, one of the greatest writers of all time, and even in a book I can't particularly say I liked, he still manages to write beautifully and evocatively. His prose is majestically awe inspiring at times, though it does tend to ramble on a bit and sometimes wander and become pointless. I noticed while looking for quotes to collect here that I found plenty of gorgeous paragraphs, but couldn't seem to spot a single sentence or short phrase that caught my eye. And I'm not writing down a whole paragraph on my bookmark.
I wasn't familiar with the story of "Sorrows of Young Werther" at all coming into it, and as I tend to start imagining possible directions a book could go as I'm reading it, it somehow became set in my mind that Werther should become a poet.
Goethe's beautiful writing is here attributed to his character, since the book is Werther narrating in the form of letters he is writing. So the man's letters prove he can write, and I can certainly imagine him turning his sorrows into great material. He even loves poetry, and is a fan of Ossian (who is mentioned quite a few times).
Just a thought.
I couldn't say I liked this book, despite the author.
- Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
In The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe opens a window into the soul of his young protagonist, allowing the reader to witness first hand his tragic destiny. Young Werther suffers from a hopeless love for the enchanting Charlotte who is engaged to an older man. In a series of letters to his friend Wilhelm, Werther reveals the depths of his anguish. The Sorrows of Young Werther is a beautifully told tale of the interior of a human heart in conflict.
First published in 1774, Goethe's epistolary novel has many of the hallmarks of literary romanticism: unattainable love, a passionate and sensitive protagonist, feelings bared open to the world, and a deep appreciation for nature. In his book The Novel 100, Daniel Burt calls The Sorrows of Young Werther "One of the defining works of European Romanticism."
Werther is a young artist who moves to the village of Walheim where he meets the lovely Charlotte, daughter of the local judge. Charlotte's mother has died, leaving her to care for her brothers and sisters, and Werther becomes enamored of her, despite knowing that she is engaged to Albert, a man eleven years her senior. As he spends more time with Charlotte and Albert, Werther's love for Charlotte increases, and so does his torment at knowing she is unattainable. The letters Werther writes to his friend Wilhelm express both the intensity of his love and the pain it causes him.
Goethe's novel is beautifully written and groundbreaking in its portrayal of a human soul. German literary scholar Karl Viëtor writes about the novel's significance:
Among European novels Werther is the first in which an inward life, a spiritual process and nothing else, is represented, and hence it is the first psychological novel....The scene is the soul of the hero. All events and figures are regarded only in the light of the significance they have for Werther's emotion.
One thing that stands out in the novel is the likability of all of its characters. This is a novel with no clear antagonist, no evil villain. Not only is Charlotte beautiful, but she is also kind, charming, and generous. Albert is a good man who loves Charlotte. Werther himself is a passionate, sensitive young man whose feelings for Charlotte are pure and innocent. And yet there is conflict in the novel. The reader feels it almost from the very first page. What should Werther do about his passionate feelings for Charlotte? Ignore them? Act on them? Suppress them and move on? What should Charlotte do, and Albert?
These questions raise even deeper questions and invite the reader to reflect on his or her own beliefs about love and passion. What is love, and where does it come from? What is the role of emotion in relationships and what is the role of intellect?
The Sorrows of Young Werther is well worth a read, not only for its beautiful prose, but also for its attempt to grapple with issues of love and passion.
Now to re-read Lotte in Weimar, which will mean a lot more.