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One of the most powerful aspects of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is the epistolary format followed for most of the book. Werther writes intensely about appreciating the countryside, philosophizing, and especially falling in love with Charlotte. There were certain passages I enjoyed purely for their poetic language, such as Werther’s early observation,

Every tree, every bush, is full of flowers; and one might wish himself transformed into a butterfly, to float about in this ocean of perfume, and find his whole existence in it. (p. 2)

Self-portrait by Eduardo Izquierdo. The intensity captured in the photo reminds me strongly of Werther.

Self-portrait by Eduardo Izquierdo. The intensity captured in the photo reminds me strongly of Werther.

I also especially liked the analogy,

Wilhelm, what is the world to our hearts without love? What is a magic-lantern without light? (p. 25)

Throughout his account of day-to-day events, Werther records his own emotions with great thoroughness and self-reflection. In his letters, Werther seems to hold back nothing about his emotional reactions; readers know instantly and without any ambiguity how Werther feels about Charlotte upon first meeting her and how his infatuation deepens over time. Surprisingly, Werther also makes his feelings clear to Charlotte and Albert. Albert’s feelings about Werther are clear: as the book goes on, he becomes understandably uncomfortable with his wife’s friendship with Werther. Charlotte appears to have completely “friend-zoned” Werther, and her uncertainty at the end of the book was a greater surprise for me than reading about Werther’s suicide. After all, Werther writes to Wilhelm long before his suicide,

Witness, Heaven, how often I lie down in my bed with a wish, and even a hope, that I may never awaken again. And in the morning, when I open my eyes, I behold the sun once more, and am wretched. If I were whimsical, I might blame the weather, or an acquaintance, or some personal disappointment, for my discontented mind; and then this insupportable load of trouble would not rest entirely upon myself. But, alas! I feel it too sadly. I am alone the cause of my own woe, am I not? (p. 58)

Because the novel is told largely from Werther’s perspective and in his own words, I assumed, like Werther himself, that Charlotte was absolutely devoted to Albert and romantically uninterested in Werther. Only after Werther’s letters run out and the omniscient narrator takes over does the reader learn some of Charlotte’s thoughts, most notably:

Amid all these considerations she felt deeply but indistinctly that her own real but unexpressed wish was to retain him for herself. . . . (p. 76)

and,

Her blood was boiling in her veins, and a thousand painful sensations rent her pure heart. Was it the ardour of Werther’s passionate embraces that she felt within her bosom? Was it anger at his daring? Was it the sad comparison of her present condition with former days of innocence, tranquility, and self-confidence? (p. 83)

The reader also finally gets to see inside Charlotte and Albert’s marriage. For most of the story, Werther criticizes Albert for not fully enjoying the fact that Charlotte is his wife, but I for one didn’t take Werther seriously. I assumed he was merely jealous, and I questioned his definition of not paying Charlotte the attention she deserved. After all, Werther’s obsession with her is far from a normal human interaction, and so anyone else’s relationship to Charlotte would seem less intense than Werther’s. At the end of the book, though, Goethe finally reveals that even when comparing Albert and Charlotte’s marriage to a normal relationship and not to Werther and Charlotte’s, Albert comes off as somewhat cold and not communicative enough. I love that the reader’s perspective on Charlotte and Albert’s relationship and on Charlotte’s feelings for Werther changes at the end with the shift in narration.

My biggest complaint about the book is that Charlotte’s character is so perfect that it borders on one-dimensional. I found it hard to sympathize with Charlotte or see her as more of a person than simply a man’s possession, be it Albert’s or Werther’s. Werther is so intent on describing her perceived perfection that it eclipses everything else the reader might want to know about her.

One Response to “Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther”

  1. Jonathan Ashleigh says:

    “The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the writer of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. It is a marvelously done parody and takes on similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books reflect on each other and think everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”