Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1784, 100 pages)

"A German Narcissist, How Attractive"
Frasier Crane-

I have always been kind of nervous or intimidated from trying to read anything by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832-German-I have seen him listed with his first name as Wolfgang also) because his master work is a very long poem, Faust.   By and large the only long poems I have read in translation are the Greeks, Ovid, Virgil, and Dante.    

I just completed through Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.    I like reading things via dailylit so I was looking for something else to read.    I saw that The Sorrows of Young Werther was only 48 episodes long (you can customize your experience to make the installments longer and get a new one as soon as you want) and I knew the basic gist of the work so I decided to read subscribe to the feed.    I read it over the course of five days and I am very glad I did.   

The Sorrows of Young Werther  is a very famous, very influential work about a young man who  examines his feelings and reactions to everything around him in great detail.    It is in theory a love story but it is really about depression and romantic anguish.    The story line is not complex.   A young man falls hopelessly in love with being in love with an unobtainable woman.     The narrative is in the form of a series of letters by Young Werther to his friend about his horrible feelings of sadness.   There are many exquisite descriptions of the beauty of nature and of his feelings.     As anyone who will read this book will know in advance,  he kills himself in the end.   His death has been seen by some as being glorified.    To me it seems a horribly stupid action by a selfish young man.     Werther came from an affluent family and was in the process of being educated.      I do not wish to offend anyone, but I wished his friend had drug him, kicking and screaming if need be, for a week at the best brothel in Berlin.     If he had been born a few years  latter Flaubert or de Maupassant could have taken him!

I think one of the ways we can look at this work is that it is not a celebration of the creation of romance out of false  feelings but an exhibition of the negative effects of fixating on our sensations only.     I have seen posts and articles that say The Sorrows of Young Werther is a great romance era work.   Maybe this is totally wrong and it is an anti-romantic  work.   Generations of readers have swooned  over the romantic notions of Young Werther.    To me he is an idiot and I think Goethe means us to see it that  way.    I am kind of over stating my case and simplifying my reaction to see if others will take off on me for this. 

This work is for sure in the category of "High Art" and should be on all life time reading lists.    It is not hard to read or difficult to follow.   

Nicole of bibliographing has an excellent post on this work as does Amateur Reader of Wuthering Expectations 

Mel u


nicole said...

I wished his friend had drug him, kicking and screaming if need be, for a week at the best brothel in Berlin.

Haha, now that is a book I would like to read! Although I'm sure that somehow Werther would find a way to be confessionally mopey there too.

To me he is an idiot and I think Goethe means us to see it that way.

Yeah, it's hard for me to imagine any contemporary reader (contemporary with us, I mean) who wouldn't see it that way...though evidently they exist.

@parridhlantern said...

Am in agreement with you, whether it's our modern sensibility, the fault of translation, or something some highbrow intelligentsia once said, This ideal of Romance has stuck, another victim of this tag is Cervantes, as originally as you'll see by this quote from an earlier post I did, it was seen as some parody of all that was romantic & chivalrous -
"The idea of Quixote as a tragic idealist would have baffled 17th century spaniards who read Don Quixote as just a cruelly funny book, in fact the image of the "crazy Knight" became a popular figure in the court masques of Spain,England & France".It was generally seen as a cruel spoof on the chivalry novels that were doing the rounds back then.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Werther, post-brothel, would be much harder to deal with. Now he has betrayed Charlotte, etc., etc.

Is sensibility the whole story of why a reader responds this way or that way, or can we actually do something with Goethe's text?

ds said...

I don't know whether Goethe meant Werther ironically or not (and that is a very interesting theory Mel), but I do know that the book ushered in the Sturm und Drang movement of German Romanticism, and that--according to my professor ages & ages ago--many young men emulated him, dressing in blue jackets & yellow trousers....don't know if there were any mass suicides though.

Thanks for an original and insightful review.

Kevin Faulkner said...

Goethe's 'Werther' spawned a generation of young men who wore yellow waist-coats, drank port and then blew their brains out with a pistol ! It's true ! the book had to be banned as a dangerous influence upon influence. It was controversial in its day reflecting the failure and inability of German youth to change a rigid society unlike what was happening in near revolutionary France. It's an example of Empfindsamkeit, sensitivity and Sturm und Drang (storm and stress, like Mozart's little g minor symphony K183 who may have read it) Goethe was not mocking his hero but portrays the finer sentiments and difficulties of himself and many other frustrated German youth to integrate into a rigid social system

Mel u said...

Nicole-a rewrite might be quite funny-you could go through the decadent side of Berlin in the early 1800s-maybe Charlotte is not so pure etc-

parish lantern-I read Cervantes years ago and I thought was about a cruel joke-no a great romance-one side effect of being largely self educated is that I dot know what I am "supposed" to think about what I read

Amateur Reader-my idea was to dislodge him from the fantasy that has gotten such a strong hold on him-to break its grip-of course what you say of the text is totally correct-

Hydriotaphia-thanks for your comment and very interesting historical references-

ds-thanks as always for your comments-it was a very influential work for better or worse-

Rebecca Reid said...

I've seen posts saying this book is awful and others like yours saying it was an interesting one to read. I definitely need to read this.

Mel u said...

Rebecca Reid-it is short enough that those into the classics should eventually read it just for its influence alone-

Unknown said...

“The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the author of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. It is a marvelously done parody and takes on similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books reflect on each other and think everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”

Mel u said...

Jonathan Ashleigh - thanks for telling us of the parody. It does seem like it might lend itself to a parody.