Hmm, Kindles. They have their uses but they have their downside too. And if you buy a contemporary Russian novel on a Kindle but then forget its name, you are reduced to scrolling through 400-odd titles to try to find it. I’d scrolled through about 100 of them, opening a couple here and there in hope and frustration when I stumbled across Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. I was in the throes of Sturm and Drang myself by then and I’d been meaning to read this German classic for ages so…
The Sturm and Drang movement arose in literature and music as a counter to the ideals of the Enlightenment because the full range of human experience cannot be adequately expressed through rationalism and empiricism. Logic and science is all very well, but when you feel like hurling your Kindle across the room it is passion that needs to be expressed, right? Sturm and Drang is about expressing violent emotions and individual subjective reality. My individual subjective reality was that none of the books on the bedside table appealed and I had just got comfy in bed and didn’t want to get up to find something else to read in my library. So I started reading Goethe.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is about a young man who falls passionately in love with a young lady engaged to somebody else. Written mostly as a series of letters to his friend Wilhelm, the story begins calmly enough but when Charlotte enters his life, the letters show that he is besotted. And because he is besotted he pays scant attention to the fact that she is already spoken for – until Charlotte is reminded about her fiancé by a wagging finger at a dance. This remonstrance prompts Werther to ask who ‘Albert’ is – and lo! a massive storm rolls in with fearsome thunder and lightning as it sinks in that his love for Charlotte is hopeless.
Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Sorrows of Young Werther captures adolescent angst to perfection. It elevates young love to grand romantic passion and it presents its young protagonist spurred to violent action – not in pursuit of a noble ideal but in anger. He doesn’t actually say ‘You’ll be sorry when I’m gone’ …
‘Woe unto those’, I said, ‘who use their power over a human heart to destroy the simple pleasures it would naturally enjoy!’
but that’s what he means when at the end he takes his own life, too much in love to live when Charlotte (and her very patient husband) say that enough is enough, people are talking, and no, he’s not to come round any more.
(Mind you, Charlotte’s got a bit to answer for. She knows how he feels but she lets him kiss her hand and she gives him presents. Why? Well, this novel was written well before Freud but I think she sees her husband as a father-figure rather a lover. He’s is a good bit older than she is and she’s enjoying the company of a young man. He’s like a brother, she says (not very convincingly) to herself, and (even less convincingly) that she’d like to marry him off to one of her friends. I think she likes the drama of it all as well.)
First published in 1774 when Goethe was only 24 and still smarting over a love affair with someone called – you guessed it – Charlotte, The Sorrows of Young Werther would be a different work if written by someone older and wiser about the vicissitudes of life. It’s one of those books that appeals to readers of different ages in different ways. Young people experiencing their first grand passion only to suffer their first broken heart will identify with young Werther while the Aged Sage will smile knowingly at the younger self.
Were it not for its tragic resolution which has over time provoked copycat suicides, the story could in places be characterised as droll. As he cooks himself some sort of peas pudding in his rooms, Werther dreams of Charlotte, comparing himself to the illustrious suitors of Penelope preparing their meals of oxen and swine. (He’s very fond of reading Homer, and later on, the even more romantic Ossian). He fancies himself as in touch with his own natural feelings and congratulates himself on his capacity to feel the ‘same simple and innocent pleasure as the peasant whose table is covered with food of his own rearing’. It’s easy to mock his self-aggrandizing perspective when he complains that his heart suffers more from Charlotte’s absence than does ‘a poor creature lingering on a bed of sickness’ (i.e. he suffers more than the dying woman Charlotte has gone to visit).
In the light of subsequent events there is dark irony in the way that he inveighs against Herr Schmidt’s jealousy (provoked by Werther himself chatting too long with the Schmidt’s girlfriend, the lovely Frederica). He pontificates about the folly of men tormenting each other and wasting the ‘few short days of sunshine in quarrels and disputes’ and lectures the table about not letting emotion get the better of you. He’s an advocate for restraint and reason (i.e. ideals of the Enlightenment) but ironically it’s the vicar’s wife who reminds him that ‘we cannot always command our tempers’. No indeed…and especially not if we are deluded into thinking that the world is the way that we want it to be, as Werther is when he convinces himself that Charlotte (despite other evidence to the contrary) loves him.
I felt considerably more sturm and drang when my Kindle announced that it was shutting down due to low battery (despite being connected to a power source) because I then had to switch to Kindle-for-PC and read the rest of this absorbing story with my laptop on my knee.
I wasn’t keen on the latter part of the book where ‘the editor’ takes over the narration, and the very long passages from Ossian were a tad tedious. Apparently Goethe was a bit embarrassed that his fame rested on this youthful work, and would rather he were well-known for his more mature efforts. But still, this is an important milestone in the development of the novel and it’s also a remarkably perceptive study of obsession considering its author was so young when he wrote it.
Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Title: The Sorrows of Young Werther
translated from the German by R.D. Boylan
Publisher: Project Gutenberg 2527
Availability: You can do what I did and get it as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg, or if you prefer the reliability of a book, I’d suggest the Penguin edition because their introductions are usually very good.