Rhapsody in Penguins III — Seventh Movement: The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
translated by Michael Hulse

When James Joyce was once asked what the most prominent writers in Western literature were, he picked three men whom he called “Daunty, Gouty, and Shopkeeper”. Notwithstanding his characteristic irreverance, it’s interesting that all three of these men have one thing in common  — all three are famous because of works where people die for love. Daunty gave us the world’s best poem by telling us how he literally went through Hell to look for his love Beatrice. Thanks to “Romeo and Juliet”, Shopkeeper is basically responsible both for the most tragic love story ever and for giving many a couple completely wrong ideas about love. And then we have Gouty, who wrote his own love story down on paper and changed the world of literature forever. (I’m not kidding: this book is one of the first works of a movement that later morphed to become Romanticism.)

But what is it about love that leads us to throw ourselves off parapets and throw ourselves in front of the people we love prostrate? Nobody in any of the three works of literature has any concrete answers (though Dante suggests it’s some sort of devotion to God) — they just fall, head over heels, first into love, and then the next life. Werther never really offers any reason as to why he loves Lotte the way he does, either — he can only remember that one minute he’s minding his own business, the next he’s dancing with Lotte, and reports none too subtly that…

Never in all my life have I danced so well. I was no longer a mere mortal. Holding the most adorable of creatures in my arms and flying about with her like lightning, so that I forgot everything about me, and — Wilhelm, to be honest, I swore that a girl I loved and had a claim on should never waltz with anyone but me, not even if it cost me my life.

(Yes, Werther’s an insufferable airhead, but I dare you lovers out there to claim that this is not what you felt during your first love.)

Now let’s get this straight first: Werther was always a romantic person. He spends his days reading poetry under a tree, which is almost offensively Romantic. But this romanticism runs completely rampant once he notices Lotte: just witness the very flowery language he uses during the passage quoted above. None of us would dream of saying that our own dancing whirls us round like lightning and makes us forget ourselves — only the presence of a companion can do that. In any case, it just goes to show that love can turn a relatively sensible person into a drooling, blithering dunce — and that it could really happen to anyone. Poor Werther is no different from you or me at the beginning of this book — and that’s why we can empathize with his subsequent downfall. Love, we know, can strike at any time, at any place, and that makes his story all the more sympathizable, all the more universal, and all the more tragic. A sweet start to a sad story…

… perhaps, but I feel that within this bit, Goethe’s already planted the seeds of his alter ego’s downfall. In the part which was quoted upstairs, there are a lot of things to process. There are Werther’s rather shameless descriptions of his improved dancing. There are his endless declarations of how infatuated he is with Lotte. There are mentions of his disregard for his life. What is NOT there, however, is any mention of what Lotte looks like or how she behaves.

Now here’s the thing: if you are massively in love, then you are going to be a fount of endless inanities about how blissful you feel. (Trust me on this front.) But there’s a difference between being in love and being infatuated — if you’re just going on and on and on and on about your OWN feelings, you’re not placing enough attention on the person you claim to love. Now to be fair to Werther, he does mention somewhere early on that he can see “a girl with a wonderful figure and of medium height” — but that’s not at all helpful for our own visualizations of Lotte. Looking to discover more, we are instead treated to Werther talking about himself for an ungodly amount of time, spinning a narrative of love that is more to do with HIM than with her. The fact that Werther is telling Wilhelm a lot about himself shows that he doesn’t really care a lot about Lotte — he is in Heaven, and that is what matters. (This is at least the fourth book in this series of thinkpieces which deals with a self-absorbed protagonist, which… is not encouraging, to say the least.)

I’ve said a lot already about self-absorption (my Frankenstein thinkpiece is a plethora of examples), but it might be useful to discuss where this self-absorption comes from. We are all familiar with how Werther commits suicide in the end, and we could discuss his precise motives for doing so till the cows come home. But the leadup to this contains a very strange incident that nonetheless sheds some light behind Werther’s very dramatic exit. You see, the last time they ever meet, Werther brings Charlotte a collection of poems from James Macpherson’s Ossian Cycle — a highly dramatic and passionate collection that heavily features characters doing all the wrong things for love. They proceed to read a selection which by some very strange coincidence mentions suicide a LOT. The effect on Werther and Lotte is, to say the least, overpowering.

Both of them were fearfully agitated. They could sense their own wretchedness in the fates of the noble heroes. They sensed it together, and shed tears in harmony.

And later, after reading just another paragraph:

The whole force of these words overwhelmed the unhappy Werther. He flung himself down before Lotte in deep despair and seized her hands.

Have you ever tried visualizing this scene for yourself? Try it. You can’t, because it seldom happens in reality: nobody reads a book about wild passions and then throws themselves on the floor weeping. But Werther is a literary character, so he can do literally anything.

It seems that by the time he takes his own life, there are only two things left for Werther: his unrequited love for Charlotte Kestner, and the literature that spurs him on. Of these, you could say that the latter actually has a greater effect: even before Werther met Lotte, we’ve already heard of him lazing about in the shade, poetry collection in hand. His life, to put it simply, is nothing without poetry. And maybe this is why Werther is such an intense and passionate person, why his actions seem so reckless and betrays a lack of rational judgment. With so much of his life experience gathered from poetry — especially such wild, unrestrained poets such as Ossian — he would therefore expect life to be as intense and passionate as the works he reads.

On the plus side, this does make him a sensitive soul — Romantic poetry does tend to do that to you. But as any student of literature (hello) will tell you, poetry is first and foremost about feelings. Any plot that also occurs is secondary, designed to explore the resulting emotions than occurring for the sake of story. But it’s this lack of consequence that proves to be dangerous as well: readers might believe that what they feel is most important, rather than exploring what the actions it entails do to other people. Repercussions, buried in a flood of emotions, seem like an afterthought.

Of course, to suggest that Werther slavishly followed what books told him to do is both simplistic and a denial of Werther’s free will and humanity. But this book doesn’t seem to provide us with any other choice: when Werther commits suicide, a copy of a rather violent play where the protagonist dies by her father’s hand for love lies beside him — like the protagonist in the play, Werther has taken the only way out he knows. Is it because Werther wanted to remove himself from the equation? Or does Werther imagine that committing suicide will somehow make Lotte pay attention? Either way, he completely fails to predict any possible ramifications, and the novel’s antepenultimate sentence is the bland but horrifying sentence “there were fears for Lotte’s life”.

It’s at this point when you really start to think about the great love stories of literature — or more precisely, how rubbish they all are. We get all these grand ideas of love from the things we read: from the Iliad to the Divine Comedy, from Pride and Prejudice to The Fault in Our Stars. We invest ourselves in these grand love stories, never once realizing that these characters live in their own world, a pale reflection of the one we inhabit. The fact that Romeo and Juliet die for their love does NOT under any circumstances mean that we should all follow suit and poison-slash-stab ourselves just because our parents are unhappy with our choice of life partner. (It’s a TRAGEDY, for Heaven’s sake.) These romantic notions are all nicely dramatic, but drama, as with many things, rarely repeats itself in real life.

And so it feels weird for me to say this, especially after I’ve written twenty thinkpieces on how we can use literature in reality, but there comes a time when you have to confess that literature is dangerous in that it can easily become a model for reality. Goethe suggests it’s too much Romantic poetry that led to his disintegration. I scoffed at this idea when I first read it, being something of a romantic myself, but four years on I cannot say with absolute certainty that Goethe was wrong. We’ve all had times when we wished some things we read were true or would happen to us: a good love story, a rollicking adventure tale, a sex orgy mentioned in gratuitous detail. But we all know that, at least for the works written before WWII, they’re all just stories, exaggerated and manipulated to tug at our heartstrings. Life imitating art should really be the exception. Not the rule.

When all is said and done, I still love this book for all the tears that it manages to coax out of many a reader, and how accurately it portrays us clinging to something in order to find a way out. And perhaps this is why Goethe never really liked The Sorrows of Young Werther: it reminded him of self-indulgence and childishness, and he didn’t like the Romantic movement that he helped spawn twenty-five years later. Even so, he never disowned it or denied the validity of the feelings that he (or indeed, anyone) might have felt. Late in life, he told his secretary:

“It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.”

A professor of mine once said that we are all too willing to imagine ourselves as the protagonist of a dramatic narrative, losing our ability to distinguish between real life and reality in the process. He was talking about Othello at the time, but I think that it’s equally applicable to young Werther, that poor sod who thought that everything in literature had been written for him to follow. God forbid that we read The Sorrows of Young Werther and think that it applies to us, too.

Next time: Love is a very complicated thing, but let’s be honest, it’s only slightly more complicated than our final book. See y’all next week for Wilkie Collins’ mammoth masterpiece, “The Woman in White”!

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