100 novels: The Sorrows of Young Werther

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

After the #epicfail that was my attempt to read Arabian Nights, it was a bit of a relief to come to The Sorrows of Young Werther. An easy, short read laid out as a series of letters from Werther to a man named Wilhelm (presumably a relative). The story is a fairly straightforward account of tragic, unrequited love that ends with Werther committing suicide. The language is… well, it captures Werther’s feelings well, but it to my modern ears it felt overblown and declamatory.

In truth, it reminded my of a MySpace blog (a reference by which I date myself, alas) more than anything else. Werther is an emo, somewhat self-obsessed man. It is hard to feel sorry for someone clearly of the ‘privileged’ class, who is able to pack in a job on a whim and go jaunting around the countryside. And yet, the subtext of the novel seems to creep through: if Werther had to work for a living, if his mind had other things to reflect on, if his days were filled with something other than his endless recollections of ‘Lotte, then perhaps his love affair would not have ended so badly.

Or perhaps it would: his ruminative mind seems incapable of moving on, and the story describes pretty faithfully that of one with a mental imbalance; either depression or bipolar or something else that takes people regardless of their circumstances.

The novel was written during the Romantic era, during which authors and artists kicked back against what they viewed as the rationalisation of nature, and the industrial era. This novel is very much of that time, with a sense of inevitability about the final suicide, the obsession with chronicling inner emotion above action and happen-stance, and the vivid and haunting descriptions of natural scenery.  There is a bit of what I think of as ‘poverty-snobbery’, where the peasants and serfs are held up as being much more worthy and in-touch with their natural selves than the aristocrats that Werther also mingles with.

It is very much a young person’s book, Goethe himself felt embarrassed by it later in life.  In some ways it pre-dates the confessional, tell-all culture that the internet brought about. I mention the similarity to a MySpace blog, and it is so much like that. A young man, broken-hearted, writing tragic posts about how terrible his life is in an attempt to exorcise his ghosts. Goethe based the book on his own love affair, with even the woman retaining the same name.

Having said that, I have to reiterate that it is very readable.

Other reviews:

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by David Constantine – review

Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

3 thoughts on “100 novels: The Sorrows of Young Werther”

  1. “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.”

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