Review: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young WertherThe Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In theorising about Werther – and yes, let that be a warning from the outset that that is what I am about to do – I am aware that I’m either walking a well-trodden path or will be scoffed at for my conclusions. I should probably do some research to find out which. But no, that would be cheating, so hey, here goes anyway.

Werther is a bit of a jerk. There, I said it. Yeah okay, not much of a theory as it stands, so let me justify it. This man, who is later to be so distraught in his love for an unattainable woman – unattainable because married – is introduced to us as having perhaps fled the discomfort of having been in affairs with two sisters and the ruck he caused in so doing. When he says he must reform himself in the wake of this, the reform he envisages is not of treating people with a little more respect but, rather, in letting the inconvenience trouble him when he should just forget about it and look to the future.

This is a man who can’t write official reports because his mind is so elevated that he has to break out into poetry, but that begs the question of whether he was, then, incapable of writing a shopping list unless the things he needed to buy formed themselves into rhyming couplets.

This is a man who condemns the local aristocracy for not protecting some trees in the neighbourhood when, if he were a prince himself, then… well, as it turns out, Werther’s mind wanders at this point and he realises that, were he to be a prince, he would probably have other ways of spending his time than protecting the local vegetation.

This is a man charmed by another we can only assume to be a rapist given that the man, in Werther’s mind, was motivated by a passion brought about by love.

And what is love for Werther? In all the acres of words he gives us in describing her, we get little sense of his beloved. We see glory and brightness and wonder and behind all this we assume a human being, but it would be difficult in all the refulgent descriptive to say who she is in herself, hidden as she is behind the projective glare. If I didn’t feel I knew her by the end, and find it difficult to believe Werther knew her very well either. She seems little more than a symbol of Werther’s own self-obsession, his self-indulgence. Moreover, I couldn’t help feeling that her husband, by Werther’s own account a decent chap, was given scant respect in all the melodrama, enduring it all with the patience of a saint. At one point we learn that Werther saw three choices in the end. To kill himself, to kill the husband, or to kill the beloved. Sure he made the right choice in the end morally if it had to be one of them, but it’s disconcerting the other options should even have crossed his mind as somehow reasonable.

Perhaps there is a measure of poignancy in a man living in a world that must be so perfect that it must oblige him in all his fitful imaginings, so much so that he kills himself when it doesn’t, but my desire throughout was to avert the crisis of the book’s closing by intervening with the psychological technique of slapping his face and telling him to pull himself together.

It’s reasonable to assume that Goethe, in giving us this portrait of a romantic hero, was being ironic, but he has an empathic way with Werther nonetheless. We are not presented with a buffoon. Far from it. Werther has interesting thoughts, makes some incisive observations. This is no caricature, not a one-dimensional character entirely shallow, and his observations are often illuminating. However, taken all in all, I can’t help feeling that the youth of the period of the novel’s publication who took to wearing the clothes Goethe describes Werther wearing in emulation of him were as much a source of amusement for Goethe as was Malvolio in his yellow stockings and crossed garters for Maria.

The work is excellent in its characterisation – largely of Werther given that he’s rather too self-absorbed to give us much of anyone else in his first-person narrative – but Goethe chose at the end to drift away from this form of presentation, breaking with Werther’s voice with good reason I’m sure, though I can’t for the life of me work out what that reason was. This made the end somewhat confused and unsatisfying. However, that aberration only mildly detracts from the intelligence and skill in composition of the work overall.

4 thoughts on “Review: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – The Sorrows of Young Werther

  1. ‘two self-absorbed’?

    Suggest you take a look at the ‘sturm und drang’ (storm and stress) movement to see where Goethe was coming from. I understand you want your reactions to be unsullied by the opinion of others but understanding context is vital with a work like this.

    • ‘Ouch’ to ‘two’. Thanks, it will be edited, both here and on Goodreads.

      Okay yes, done the basic research and I take your point, which then raises additional questions in terms of literary criticism. Do I extend the observation out to embrace the whole movement – and Goethe himself – or do I go with what I perceived? Clearly the former may well be the way to go in terms of historical accuracy. In terms of a critique of a piece of literature – bearing in mind the fact there were those who did indeed give Werther sufficient heroic status that they emulated him in dress – and I’m still left with my reservations untempered, perhaps heightened given the need to extend those reservations out beyond the character and, perhaps, to include the author himself.

      • How about the problems of reading / reviewing an historical work that was part of a movement reacting against existing culture when its motive and the mores of the culture it reacted against are now alien to us? That way you don’t need too much detailed history and can draw parallels with works the reader is familiar with.

        For example, can one explain the anger and crude musicianship of Punk Rock without describing the often sterile, over-produced music of the early/mid 1970s that preceded it? Or why, in the era of Fifty Shades, Lady Chatterley’s Lover should still shock us?

        Don’t know if WordPress is still on the Chinese list but I wrote about Sturm und Drang on Bard of Tweeddale, my faux author web site there’s a lot of invention in the article but quite a lot of genuine research.

        • I agree on some levels and, indeed, said so in not so many words in my first response.

          However, consider the examples I drew from the book. These go against, in some instances, what most cultures – indeed, most counter-cultures – would view as acceptable attitudes where they pertain to others, and certainly praise for a rapist motivated by love and passion, or which has those who fall in love with a married woman wondering whether to kill themselves, the beloved, or the beloved’s spouse is questionable in absolute terms, whether today, tomorrow or yesterday; here, there, or anywhere. I can’t do cultural relativism to that degree, and I don’t think anyone can without excusing far too much that is clearly lacking in ethics in absolute terms.

          The only question to my mind is whether I criticise Werther the man, or Goethe the author. That leads to an interesting sidenote on translation. For reasons not worth going into, I read most of Werther in one translation back in July, then started it from scratch in another translation prior to writing this review. My opinions and the examples I gave were far more obvious in the first translation than in the second. I was left with the impression that the first translator had reservations when it came to Werther and, as a professional translator, believed Goethe wrote the work with the same reservations, while the second was more in your camp and attempted to present Werther’s thoughts with total sincerity without any of the ‘slips’ we may expect from a self-apologist whose rationale has stepped somewhat beyond the pale. This is where things get complicated. Goethe, the man, the author, creates Werther. He may see him as lacking in judgement, he may not. If the former, he may choose to present that lack of judgement with subtle irony in Werther’s unintentional humour, or he may decide to forego that technique and write with total sincerity, (with several other options but those are the two we are dealing with here). If a ‘believer’, then obviously he will go for the second option. Goethe is in a position to do the latter given he is not Werther. He can ‘make Werther’s case’ more successfully as an author with the benefit of foresight, with the benefit of editing, with the benefit of his own depth of psychological nous considerably better than Werther could make the case for himself in one-draft letters to a friend in the ‘reality’ of his here-and-now. From the subcultural perspective, those reflections on rape and murder may indeed be excusable, but all that does is call into question whether my criticism should be focused upon the character, the author, or the movement.

          Which then leads us to another question. What is my function here? Am I a literary critic, or am I a reviewer? And if I am to be a literary critic, am I to be one on the basis of a postmodernist perspective when the work itself is not an exemplar of postmodernism? As a reviewer – and a non-postmodernist in this instance, though my work is often postmodern – I forego the background research, (as I stated in the opening paragraph of the review), and simply go with the ‘This is what this means to me and what I suspect it will mean to others on a cold-reading without benefit of background information.’ However, even having said that, as a literary critic I would have done only a little more… point out the existence of the Sturm und Drang movement by way of cultural context with a little analysis as to its underlying ethos in informing the work. However, I still could not approach the work as a cultural relativist even then, and the critique would still have applied, whether as a failing of Werther, a failing of Goethe, or a failing of the Sturm und Drang movement.

          Yes, your site is blocked… but most of the time my protests are in order to get out of watching ill-chosen YouTube videos which doesn’t apply in this instance and yes, having read what you’ve written, I take your point, though I think it throws us back into the question of reviewer vs. literary critic and their respective roles. I also can’t help feeling that the enlightenment is credited with too much. I don’t think it brought to a close a more visceral way of thinking, nor did it originate the alternative. If we forego the idea that Goethe, in the light of this, wrote with intention the failings of Werther for the sake of bringing out the visceral, then the commentary reverts back to Werther as the originator of the self-obsession, and so be it.

          Taking punk rock as the example, I was writing for Sounds in the post-punk era and, sociologically, it was an interesting time. The desire for ‘alternative’ in the wake of the conformist ’70s transformed itself in the ’80s into the search for the ‘new conformity’. They looked at everything, often at things already well-established but not falling within the ‘alternative’ remit up to that point including, for one horrendous but thankfully brief jag of madness, at country and western music. I was sent out to review one such band and, a rare thing for me, forewent my usual ‘What would the target audience think?’ for a ‘What’s all this crap about?’ approach, hammering the whole genre as a here-today, gone-tomorrow manifestation of the latent desire of the alternative set to normalise. Okay, I didn’t use those terms, it was only retrospectively I recognised what was annoying me, but I made my annoyance clear. (Another who came in for a similar critique in which personal opinion and my view of the audience as much as the performer was to the fore was Elton John). For the most part, though, I was writing for people who wanted an evening out, had their own particular preferences, and it was my job to decide whether I felt they would be happy with the cash they coughed up at the door being well-spent even if that meant leaving my own predilections at the door in lieu of cash. To some extent, I guess that’s the way I see myself as a reviewer, not least because what I know about literary criticism could be inscribed on the head of a pin with a road drill.

          So… coming at this cold given that I’m not a great one for analysing what I’m doing until questioned about it at which point I have to formulate a theory… I guess this is my approach. I’m a bloke who knows his arse from his elbow – but little else besides – who picks up a book and is presented with characters, situations, environments requesting the suspension of my disbelief. I graciously suspend it, read, and formulate opinions – cold – on the characters, situations, and environments within. I emerge from the experience with my impressions, and that’s it. I suspect nine out of ten people do the same 90% of the time, so if I’ve just read an American cop series I didn’t particularly value I may knock it up a star if I feel that it does the job well for people who like American cop series and review it accordingly. Admittedly, Goethe is a different kettle of herring and – maybe – six out of ten people will approach it in the fashion I’ve described and I do, to some degree, take account of that, but only to some degree. The basic ‘review’ mode remains, essentially, the same.

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