Goethe was young when he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther. He said famously of his title character’s suicide in the end, ‘I shot Werther to save myself.’ With this said, it should come as no surprise that the novel is largely autobiographical, even up to the preservation of his beloved’s real name—Charlotte. The widespread controversy that surrounded the book is well known. It was thought to be anti-Christian because poor Werther’s suicide was glorified, with deliberate mention in the last line that ‘no priest attended [his funeral].’ It’s seen as a catalyst to what has been called The Werther Effect—It suddenly dawned on dozens of young romantics that suicide was a reasonable way to deal with their unrequited loves.
Seventy-five percent of the book is made up of letters from Werther, to his friend, Willhelm. It is through these letters that the book’s great polymath of an author, thinker and poet can exercise his most refined aesthetic on life. It is almost hard to imagine, for the first third of the book, that this will be the story of a destructive, unrequited love, for Werther spends much of his time expressing a sort of rapturous joy about the mystery of life.
‘I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.’
Werther, the artist, is contented to operate as an active interpreter of the world around him.
‘But the man who humbly acknowledges the vanity of all this, who observes with what pleasure the thriving citizen converts his little garden into paradise, and how patiently even the poor man pursues his weary way under his burden, and how all wish equally to behold the height of the sun a little longer—yes, such a man is at peace, and creates his own world within himself …’
It probably wouldn’t be too out of the way to say that the one major difference between Goethe and his title character is that this said character did not go on to write a novel about his beloved. Had that happened, the novel would have considerably less weight and would probably more resemble something like Hermann Hesse’s Gertrude—a novel whose main character, a composer named Kuhn, falls in love with Gertrude, who is in love with another man. Kuhn suffers through this but is able to make an opera about it, thus achieving some sort of self-actualization through the situation.
Goethe, with his real life Charlotte, came out the other side of the suffering she caused him with a renewed tenderness and respect for her that poor Werther never had the luxury of achieving with the fictive Charlotte. Rather, Werther is depicted as a strong, passionate idealist whose fluid, subjective view of the world is suddenly interrupted by an object of adoration. This is problematic since she is betrothed to a man named Albert. Werther stays in their orbit, aware of his own intentions but unable to help himself, just as Albert and Charlotte are both aware of his feelings though they are both unable to consider him anything less than a great friend on account of his great charm and warmth toward them. Rather than being a book that ‘deals’ with suffering in the contemporary sense—as a means of achieving some vague enlightenment or self actualization—the book, even today, maintains all the controversy that first scandalized the world in which it was written as it turns into a bold study of passion and its relation to action. Suicide does not only seem to be the inevitable conclusion of the book, it is the all pervading theme of the book and the symbol of Werther’s interpretation of human passion.
Early in the story, when Werther playfully puts one of Albert’s pistols up to his head in morbid jest, an argument about suicide takes place between them. ‘We were speaking of suicide, which you compare with great actions,’ Albert says. ‘You moral men are so calm and so subdued!’ Werther says of Albert’s view. It is clear by Werther’s every thought, his every expression of his heart, that he is concerned very little with morality as it is understood by common people. And yet, what incredible allegiance and devotion he pays to Charlotte, unable to leave the two of them and forget about her altogether.
‘And when I feel for her in the half confusion of sleep, with the happy sense that she is near, tears flow from my oppressed heart; and, bereft of all comfort, I weep over my future woes.’
Far more moving than the dripping, dewy, morose poetry of his later musings on suffering that become more desperate later in the book as Werther nears his end, the above passage is very telling, for it is indicative of his awareness that the choice he is making is a self-destructive one. He knows his heart will only get him into more trouble. Charlotte says to him late in the book:
‘I entreat you to be more calm: your talents, your understanding, your genius, will furnish you with a thousand resources. Be a man, and conquer an unhappy attachment toward a creature who can do nothing but pity you.’
All this while, aside from a few commonplaces about Charlotte’s fairness, her intelligence, her kindness, Goethe doesn’t go incredible lengths to let his reader in on what, exactly, it is about this girl that makes her worthy of such obsession. Whether or not Goethe intended it to be read this way, we are led to believe that Werther has certainly brought this suffering upon himself, though guided by forces that he cannot control nor understand.
Aside from accomplishing what is perhaps the most epic suicide letter that has ever occurred in literature, there is a fascinating subtext to the already weighty subject matter of the book. One has to remember that Goethe wrote this book having been under considerable distress. More extraordinary than the fact that he was able to put all of these feelings into a book when in this state was the fact that he could comment on the very nature of these feelings and how they come about. It would be nearly 150 odd years before Proust would come along with his rigorous study of memory and how our interpretations of our lives shape our affections, coming full circle with the kind of self-reflective work that Goethe endorsed. Having said that Charlotte is not necessarily the star of this book, one then has to ask who is? Is it Werther? It seems to be that the star is suffering itself, but more broadly, passion, which serves to say that the transient forces that drive us are more important to the activity of the story than the actual object of fixation.
The book is structured in such a way that the reader is granted this insight. Alternating from letters to second hand accounts from Wilhelm, he describes the events surrounding Werther’s death and thus brings us in touch with the true nature of the book. Ultimately, the book has something to say about choices that are available to us when other choices are taken away.
The reason the book will probably remain loved as a problem to be solved for years to come—and thus, why it will remain controversial—will have as much to do with its treatment of suicide as it does with the way it treats the nature of self-awareness. Werther, having even been aware of where his affections for Charlotte were born and perhaps how to distance himself from them, having even been aware that he was headed down a dangerous path, knowledge could not give anyone a monopoly on the perfect way to act in a situation. It is the danger of uncertainty that Goethe both during and long after a state of distress that this book helped him (and perhaps many others) surpass.
Read about Alastair Hannay's Kierkegaard biography here