The Sorrows of Young Werther is a very short novel that tells the story of a very short life. Werther, a young man in his twenties, falls in love with Charlotte, a young woman who has, since her mother’s death, been a mother to her younger siblings. Unfortunately for Werther, and perhaps unfortunately for herself, Charlotte is engaged to Albert, a young man whom even Werther finds likable. In the vain hope that he can forget Charlotte and recover something of his sanity, Werther takes a position with an ambassador, but he is too much in love to stay away. He comes back and finds that Charlotte and Albert have married. Because the three of them are friends, Charlotte and Werther still see each other. Convinced that Charlotte really loves him, but also convinced that Charlotte will remain the wife of Albert, Werther shoots himself and dies.
That is it, the short story of Werther’s short life. There is nothing particularly interesting, much less fascinating, about a story like this, the predictable suicide of a lover whose love has been lost, which might make us wonder, or even suspect, that there is more to the story than the story itself. If we know nothing else about the author, we know that Goethe also wrote Faust. What we might not have known, even had we read Faust, is that it was written at the same time as he had written The Sorrows of Young Werther.
“Faust, sprang up at the same time as Werther,” he told his friend Eckermann. “I brought it with me in 1775 to Weimar; I had written it on letter paper; and had not made an erasure, for I took care not to write down a line that was not worthy to remain.”
Faust emerged at the same time as Werther, but it is Werther that “is a creation in which I, like a pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart. It contains so much from the innermost recesses of my heart that it might easily be spread into a novel of ten such volumes.” Goethe wrote Werther in l774. Fifty years later, when he made this remark, he admitted that he had read it since only once. “I dread lest I should once more experience the peculiar mental state from which it was produced.”
The feeling, that “peculiar mental state,” Goethe considered the cause of what he had written, had its parallel in the effect Werther had on those who read it, and nearly everyone did. Thomas Carlyle, who, in 1777, translated Werther into English, wrote that it “rose like a literary meteor, not only over Germany, but into the remotest corners of Europe,” that it “appeared to seize the hearts of men in all the quarters of the world and to utter for them the words which they had long been waiting to hear.” It called forth a “boundless delirium of extravagance.”
Was this because Goethe had the good fortune to create something that appealed to a feeling characteristic of the age? In one sense, he did; an appeal, if you will, to something that had been lost, something gone missing for two hundred years.
“And then how tame and weak has life itself become during the last two shabby centuries. Where do we now meet an original nature? where is the man with the strength to be true, and to show himself as he is?”
This, it should be noted, from a man who, as he put it himself, had “the great advantage of being born at a time when the greatest events that agitated the world occurred, and such have continued to occur during my long life.” Events that included the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and Napoleon and his fall. And what was the advantage in this? – “I have attained results and insights impossible to those who are born now and must learn all these things from books they will not understand.”
That insight into things allowed Goethe to distinguish between what is ephemeral and what is essential, between what is characteristic of an age and what is found in every age. What some called the ‘Werther period,’ is no period at all. It belongs “to the career of every individual who, with an innate free instinct, must accommodate himself to the narrow limits of an antiquated world. Obstructed fortune, restrained activity, unfulfilled wishes, are calamities not of any particular time but of every individual man; and it would be bad indeed if everybody had not, once in his life, known a time when Werther seemed as if it had been written for him alone.”
Napoleon, among others, seemed to think Werther had been written for him. He carried it in his “field library” everywhere he went, and studied it the way “a criminal judge does his documents;” studied it so closely that when he met Goethe he could point out a passage he thought could not stand strict scrutiny, an observation with which Goethe agreed.
What is there about Werther, this short novel that tells the story of a very short life, that struck such a chord and kept someone like Napoleon reading it over and over again, this story that its author could not bear to read more than once because of the memories it brought back. Begin at the beginning all over again.
The story is told through a series of letters written by Werther to a very close friend. Each letter is given a date, the day and the month, but never the year. On May 17, Werther writes that the woman he loved, the “friend of my youth,” with whom he had been able “to display, to its full extent, that mysterious feeling with which my heart embraces nature,” has died. Nine days later, he has gone to the village of Walheim, where he drinks his coffee and reads his Homer. He insists that rules, including especially the laws of society, destroy the “genuine feeling of nature, as well as its true expression.” He views with disdain the advice followed by so many of the so-called men of the world, to divide your time between business, your mistress, and your accounts, accounts out of which you might make an occasional, but only an occasional, present to your wife. If he were to do this, it would be “all up with his love, and with his genius if he be an artist.” On June 16, he meets Charlotte.
Told by an aunt that Charlotte is engaged to another, and that if he is not careful his heart will be broken, Werther falls in love with her the moment he sees her. When they dance, “I feel myself more than mortal, holding this loveliest of creatures in my arms, flying with her as rapidly as the wind, till I lost sight of every other object.” Charlotte tells him that “Albert is a worthy man, to whim I am engaged,” but three days later, Werther can still write: “My days are as happy as those reserved by God for his elect.” A month later, he is convinced that Charlotte loves him. “How the idea exalts me in my own eyes!” She sometimes lays her hand on his, and this “little familiarity” inflicts an agony upon him. And then, when she “speaks of her betrothed with so much warmth and affection, I feel like a soldier who has been stripped of his honors and titles, and deprived of his sword.”
Werther cannot help liking Albert, though the thought of Albert and Charlotte together breaks his heart. At a certain point, Werther and Albert disagree about the nature of crime. When Albert argues that a man under the influence of a violent passion loses all power of reflection, Werther explodes.
“Oh, you people of sound understandings are ever ready to exclaim ‘Extravagance, and madness, and intoxication! You moral men are so calm and subdued!….I have been more than once intoxicated, my passions have always bordered on extravagance: I am not ashamed to confess it; for I have learned, by my own experience, that all extraordinary men, who have accomplished great and astonishing action have ever been decried by the world as drunken or insane.”
Reading this, is there any doubt what someone like Napoleon would have thought, or why he would have wanted the book a constant companion?
Werther’s passion, this “wild, aimless, endless passion,” makes him Charlotte’s willing slave. His mind, when he is with her, becomes “gradually excited to the highest excess, my sight goes dim, my hearing confused, my breathing oppressed, as by the hand of a murderer.” He feels, he knows, even after she has married Albert, that they are “made for each other.” Sometimes, “lost in reverie,” he “cannot help saying to himself, ‘If Albert were to die?’” Finally, on December 4, he writes to his friend: “It is all over with me. I can support this state no longer.” On Monday, December 21, he writes to Charlotte: “It is all over, Charlotte: I am resolved to die.” He tells her that he “has often conceived the horrid idea of murdering your husband – you – myself!”
He goes to her one last time. Charlotte, who had invited friends to come so they would not be alone, begins to hope that they “might arrive shortly, entertaining at the same time a desire that they might stay away.” She feels “deeply but indistinctly that her own real but unexpressed wish was to retain him for herself.” There is a passionate scene when she finally understands what Werther is going to do. They lose sight of everything, except what they feel. “He clasped her in his arms…and covered her trembling lips with kisses,” the first time this has ever happened. Gently, and then more forcefully, she pushes him away. “Charlotte rose, and, with disordered grief, in mingled tones of love and resentment,” tells him that he will never see her again.
The next day, Werther writes to her for the last time, telling her that for the “first time in my existence, I feel rapture glow within my inmost soul,” and that while Albert may be her husband in this world, she will belong to him in the next. Werther kills himself, but Charlotte does not attend his funeral. She is now so ill that her “life was despaired of.”
How did Goethe write Werther, or, more broadly, how does any great author or artist do anything great? Goethe gave part of the answer in a comment he made about a musician he saw play when he was fourteen and the musician was only seven.
“How can one say Mozart composed Don Juan!….It is a spiritual creation, in which the details, as well as the whole, are pervaded by one spirit, and by the breath of one life.” Mozart, “was altogether in the power of the daemonic spirit of his genius, and acted according to his orders.”
But genius can be destroyed by the “kind of half-culture” that “finds its way into the masses.” He “who does not keep aloof from all this, and isolate himself by main force, is lost.” Isolate, because it is the only way to study and practice excellence, which means, if you are a writer, “Study Moliere, study Shakespeare, but, above all things, the old Greeks, and always the Greeks.” And if that is not the advice anyone is likely to follow today, it only proves what Goethe already feared, that “Barbarism is already here, we are in the midst of it; for wherein does barbarism consist, unless in not appreciating what is excellent!”
It was Goethe’s appreciation of the excellent that made The Sorrows of Young Werther as great, as unique, as it is.