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the sorrows of young werther

11 october 2016

I first read The Sorrows of Young Werther in the same college class where I read Jeppe of the Hill (I had a pretty good undergraduate education, now that I think of it), and I am determined to inflict Werther as well on my own undergraduate students next semester. Reports are that Goethe's novella still wows 'em after almost 250 years, and I hope that my students will be wowed. Werther is still one of the most energetic of all the Western classics, and impresses me even more forty years after my first, memorable reading of it.

Young Werther's sorrows are out of proportion to his misfortunes. T.S. Eliot might have said that Werther lacked an objective correlative. Werther falls for Charlotte, a woman he's just met – falls hard, but she's engaged to somebody else, Albert, who's actually a good guy and cute enough for her and everything. Werther's disappointment leads to severe depression, inability to keep jobs, erratic comings and goings, stalkerish behavior, and eventual suicide. There are other fish in the sea, you want to tell him. The young of any century rarely listen.

Werther is overfamiliar, one of the most famous of all literary characters, shorthand for burgeoning Romanticism, Sturm und Drang, the introspective consciousness, the brooding relation to Nature that suffuses the next century in Western art and literature. And yet, this florid, overwritten, immature narrator remains a great character study, insightful and precise. Romanticism might be defined as a tendency to take the aberrant, the inchoate, and the ill-thought-out seriously, surrendering to what John Keats called "negative sensibility." Classicists and rationalists of all periods might just see Werther as imbalanced and unworthy of attention. Goethe seems to say sure, the young man has at best an incomplete grasp of reality. Let's take that seriously; let's pay attention to his deficits and his excesses, to his all-too-human and lethally flawed perspectives. And let's follow the examination wherever it takes us.

At times Werther can be hard to read. Not hard to follow, exactly: the plot is basically boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy shoots himself. But hard to put up with Werther's constant whining, his enthusiasm alternating with despair. It's hard to spend time with people whose worldview alternates between enthusiasm and despair. The over-the-top prose of Werther turns out to be more realistic, in that sense, than a lot of later realism. The young man's devotion to Klopstock and Ossian, his fitful failures as an artist, his quickness to take offense, his brooding over affronts – again, these things are part of the proto-Romantic Zeitgeist, but they are also near-clinical observations of a certain extreme personality type.

A "phase," we might call it, if Werther had lived to outgrow it. Meanwhile, the people around him, whom we only see through his unreliable epistolary narration, are just trying to get on with life. We sympathize with Charlotte and Albert (and even the unseen Wilhelm, Werther's one-way correspondent), even through the filter Werther provides. They're behaving reasonably, as far as we can gather. Even the famous device near the end, where an obviously clued-in Albert tells Charlotte to let Werther have his set of pistols, seems less sinister in some lights than it otherwise might. (The scene is presented by the "editor," at this point a third-person narrator: though not necessarily an unbiased observer, of course.) Everyone's trying to treat Werther, however disturbed he seems, as a free agent and an adult, and lending a man your pistols "for a journey" is something that an 18th-century gentleman simply does; an early-modern "guy thing."

Werther needs help, but he's young, he's male, he's in the spell of poetry, he's in a socially awkward situation in between classes (he longs perhaps for the wealth and power of the aristocracy, but more often and more explicitly for the lack of stress that would come with being a peasant). In short, Werther is doomed, by his internal demons and by circumstance. And his doom continues to impress readers even at an ever-increasing historical and cultural distance.

Werther has been adapted into many different media, with various plot twists. Famous among the adaptations is Massenet's opera Werther. I was lucky enough to see a high-definition broadcast of the 2014 Metropolitan production starring Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch. The Met staged the opera subtly, with lovely transitions between scenes and a minimum of spectacle. During the final scene, a thunderstorm raged audibly outside the movieplex, rather appropriately. The lightning succeeded in knocking out the broadcast connection, so we were left hanging – but there are very few ways it could have ended well. And we got free passes to see La Bohème later that season!

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. [Die Leiden des junges Werthers, 1774, revised 1787.] Translated by Thomas Carlyle and R.D. Boylan. Edited by Nathan Haskell Dole. 1902. Mineola: Dover, 2002.