My motivations for reading this slim novel were hardly intellectual I must admit. Having momentarily put aside Shantaram due to its imposing length, I was wanting a slim book for my commute and my handbag. Also, my Dad bought this for me as he has been studying German for a while now and is keen that I share his enthusiasm. There was a time 15 years ago when I would’ve read this in the original German but of course and sadly I am no longer fluent so the English version is a compromise.
The novel takes the form of letters from the aforementioned Werther to what we presume is a close relative or friend, Wilhelm. Werther has been sent to another German city to sort out a relative’s will and there he meets the cause of his ultimate sorrow, Charlotte (Lotte). He falls quickly in love with her, and although she is betrothed to another, she is warm and generous with her time- a perfect “angel” and “charming creature”. Our Werther, while encouraged to seek employment as an ambassador’s assistant, becomes increasingly obsessed with the object of his affections and is eventually tortured by her beauty and good character.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is a document of one man’s struggle with unrequited love and the tribulations of late adolescence.In terms of my own reaction, I became exasperated with the overblown language and the hyperbole:
I could lead the best, the happiest life if I wasn’t a fool.
What a child one is! How one so craves a glance! What a child one is!
Later still, he is woebegone and cannot stop himself from visiting her and mooning over her, even now she is married:
Sometimes I don’t understand how another can love her, is allowed to love her, since I love her so completely myself, so intensely, so fully, grasp nothing, know nothing, have nothing but her!
We sense early on that things cannot end well and Werther’s social position make him even more vulnerable. He moves quickly from self-pity to morbid self-deception.
While some of the language is beautiful and memorable, I had little patience for Werther’s predicament and the exalted state in which he wrote many of his letters. Perhaps I am out of practice with so-called classical novels- although I was never a huge fan of Austen or James (shock and horror!) but was happy to read Charlotte Bronte or Dickens.
Despite my reservations and prejudices, this is an unusual and haunting read.
*The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Blogger’s own copy