The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe

February 18, 2011

Plot summary (with spoilers): This is an epistolary novel consisting mostly of letters written from Werther to his friend Wilhelm (we never see Wilhelm’s replies). The letters detail how Werther falls head over heels in love with the already betrothed Lotte. They meet on the way to a dance, and despite having been warned that Lotte was already spoken for by Albert, Werther can’t help himself. Seeing Lotte in all her simple beauty care for her siblings like a mother just does a number on Werther, and he is hooked from the start.

Lotte likes Werther too, though her feelings for him are more platonic in nature. They spend a lot of time together, which only serves to make Werther’s feelings grow more intense. Werther eventually meets Albert, and cannot hate the man because he seems like a genuinely fine person. So the three basically hang out together, with everyone knowing exactly how Werther feels.

Finally, Werther can’t stand it anymore, so he takes Wilhelm’s advice and accepts a job in another town. During his absence, Lotte and Albert get married. Werther tries to forget about Lotte and focus on other women, but it is impossible. He can’t sleep, loses his appetite, experiences quick weight loss, and can barely function without Lotte in his life. He is completely under her spell, and eventually goes back to Wahlheim so he can be near her again.

By this time, Werther is at the end of his rope as far as Lotte is concerned. He cannot control himself around her anymore, and ends up kissing her passionately. Lotte now has some feelings for Werther beyond platonic friendship, but she knows nothing can ever happen between them. Werther knows this also, and resolves to kill himself. He spends a final evening with Lotte, reading from Ossian and weeping over the passages, then borrows Albert’s pistols and blows his brains out.

Liked:

  • I could full well imagine the sensation this novel created when it was published in 1774. In one of my lit classes, I remember the prof talking about how young German men idolized Werther to the point of dressing like him and acting like him, and how this book caused a rash of similar suicides and attempts from spurned lovers. Now that is what I call having an impact on society!
  • The basic storyline is simple, and these are often the most profound. Werther falls in love with a woman he can never have, and despairing of this fact, he kills himself. It was sort of fascinating to watch his descent into the depths of depression via his letters.

Disliked:

  • The story itself doesn’t really hold up well in modern times. It seems kind of ridiculous now to think of someone acting as melodramatic as Werther about a woman he never had and never could have — particularly since Lotte wasn’t depicted as anything special. She was overly beautiful or rich or talented or smart. The phrase, “Get over it” came to my lips more than a few times while reading this.
  • Some of the letters were long and flat-out boring. This was a rather short novel overall, but it had a tendency to D-R-A-G in some places. The extremely long passages from Ossian come to mind here. I know the poems were crucial to the plot because of what Goethe was trying to say about Werther and Lotte, and the passages would have been well known by readers of his time. But again, they mean nothing to a majority of modern readers and slowed that climactic scene to a crawl.

Rating:
I really wanted to like The Sorrows of Young Werther a lot because of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written and because of the fame (and infamy) it achieved after its initial publication, but I couldn’t. Yes, I recognize Goethe’s genius (he was just 25 when he wrote this) and know that Werther is very deserving of its status as a classic. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it! I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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