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.