“The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the Sentimental Novel, and the Argument from Popular Art to Reality

In this post, in order to illustrate my points more fully and in a more authoritative manner than I can assume as a person only passingly cognizant with this particular form of novel–that is, I’ve read a number of sentimental novels for study, but I lack that sympathy with them which would help make my remarks enthusiastically informed–I intend to quote heavily from other authorities.  So, in reference to the sentimental novel, of which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a prime and famous example, this is what Wikipedia has to say:

“The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an eighteenth century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility….Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters.  They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance emotions rather than actions.  The result is a valorization of ‘fine feeling,’ displaying the characters as a model for refined, sensitive emotional effect.  The ability to display feelings was thought to show character and experience, and to shape social life and relations….[The sentimental novel] was a reaction to the [colder] rationalism of the [immediately preceding] Augustan Age.”  Wikipedia further notes something that is rather obvious in reference to this genre:  “Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is most often seen as a ‘witty satire of the sentimental novel,’ [which] juxtapos[es] values of the Age of Enlightenment (sense, reason) with those of the later eighteenth century (sensibility, feeling)….”

The genre focuses on the values of “humanism” and often features the “weaker members of society” such as “orphans and condemned criminals” and encourages the readers to identify and sympathize with them.  For example, in The Sorrows of Young Werther, the young heroine Lotte’s brothers and sisters are taken care of by her because they have lost their mother; also, Werther, the hero, sympathizes with a young man who, like him, falls in love to no avail with a young woman as Werther is in love with Lotte, and when the young man commits a crime, Werther makes an impassioned plea for his release; finally, there is a wandering lunatic in the book, and Werther begins to compare his own state to that of the lunatic, whom he meets when the lunatic is searching for flowers for a mysterious lady whom he loves.  All of these other characters have much prose attention devoted to them by Goethe in the book, though ostensibly the attention occurs in Werther’s letters to his friend William and sometimes to Lotte.  And though the novel is thus in the main an epistolary novel, there are omniscient sections written by an unnamed “editor” which relate things to do with Werther (as he too becomes one of the unfortunates upon whom sentimentalism is to be lavished).

Hermann J. Weigand, in commenting on the way The Sorrows of Young Werther was perceived in the 1770’s when it was written (it first appeared in 1774, though Goethe continued to revise as late as 1787), has this to say:  “We are not likely to follow the example of the young people of the 1770’s and succeeding decades, who read [the book] as a sob story, and made a fad of wearing his blue frock coat and yellow waistcoat, and in many cases found in the hero’s fate an invitation to suicide.  Today we read [the book] as a highly illuminating, vivid, and colorful document reflecting the Zeitgeist of the ‘age of sentiment,’ and as a closely knit work of literary artistry.  As the fictional case history, moreover, of a highly endowed and appealing individual who allows himself to drift into disaster under the spell of a passion the danger of which he fails to sense until his will to live has been sapped and his sanity undermined, the story has a powerful appeal for the psychologically oriented reader who follows the stages of the hero’s mental disintegration with rapt fascination.”  As Weigand further remarks, in Werther’s letters a picture of his personality and qualities emerges.  He is “cultivated, well-to-do, generous, talented, sensitive, observant but more inclined to reverie, under no pressure to conform to the discipline of gainful employment, self-indulgent in his cult of pure feeling, an idealist finding pleasure in the company of simple folk and children, religious without adherence to dogma, a devotee of nature as opposed to the artificial conventions of society, preferring the cult of genius to the cultivation of taste governed by rules, an antirationalist in short, exhibiting all the winning traits of that late-eighteenth-century man who has come under the spell of Rousseau’s gospel of nature.”  And yet, with all of this going for him, he commits suicide when he must finally come to terms with the fact that the woman he loves, Lotte, cannot properly return his love in good conscience.  Lotte has been married to a young man named Albert for some time who is moreover a young man Werther likes and is friends with.  The prose in fact “imitates” Werther’s cessation of existence, at least in the translation by Catherine Hutter which I used, in the sense that though the writing is florid and overdone throughout much of the novel, overly emotional and passionate and frankly rather silly in parts (to my sense at least), when Werther is finally dead, the last sentences are stern and solemn and funereal:  “At twelve noon, Werther died.  The presence of the judge and the arrangements he made silenced the crowd.  That night, at about eleven, he had the body buried in the spot Werther had chosen.  The old man and his sons walked behind the bier;  Albert found himself incapable of doing so.  They feared for Lotte’s life.  Workmen carried the body.  There was no priest in attendance.”

Now, this translation and the appended foreword by Weigand were published in 1962, when psychology was becoming increasingly important; hence, Weigand comments that what we are likely to take from the book is the interesting psychological picture of a certain type of person, Werther himself.  There’s something in this, of course, but think of it this way:  the book was interesting in 1774, and what people took from it was what they brought to it:  a desire to find models to imitate, which funnily enough was a personality trend inherited from the Augustans, who were full of models for imitation; it’s just that with the “age of sentiment,” the very models had changed in nature, but the tendency to look for them was still there.  So, certain sentimental characteristics continued to appear in fiction even as late as Dickens, a point commented on with certain caveats by Wikipedia.  In 1962, people (notably Weigand in his commentary) were still finding in the book what they brought to it, though then what they brought to it then was a desire to watch a character’s psychological development as he “mentally disintegrated”; that is, they wanted to read a case history.  So, what do we find in the book now, if anything?  What is there for us, in 2013, in this book?

Perhaps we can take a certain comfort from the thought that just as The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired some odd forms of imitation as in those who dressed as the character was said to dress, or very negative actions as in those who were inspired, like Werther, to commit suicide for some motive or other, there are always people who imitate unhealthy tendencies they may find in art.  Art, in short, is not to blame.  In addition to being generally encouraging, this might appease those adherents of violent or at least action-packed videos who don’t like to hear that their favorite art form is the source of real-life violence, though of course calling it art might be over-generous.  But what of the opposite point of view?  That is, we, homo sapiens sapiens, self-knowledgeable and aware of being self-knowledgeable, self-reflecting humankind, have perhaps come full circle back to a certain naive (though not innocent) interpretive stance, one in which some of us see art as having an intimate connection with the way we conduct ourselves, one in which art legislates and dictates our world strategies.  There are among this number those others of us who do not enjoy the violence, either depicted in artistic terms or encountered in real life, who attempt to eliminate the whole tawdry mess by lumping it all together as something undesirable to be gotten rid of.  So there are still two tendencies of humankind thus, one which excuses art by pointing to the unlikelihood that art could cause someone to “do that,” and the other which insists that art should be “healthier, more wholesome, more idealistic.”  But wasn’t young Werther idealistic?  Wasn’t Werther cultivated, and loving to children, and kind to the unfortunate and to older people, and polite to those which society considered his betters?  To return to the notion from the early 1960’s commentator Weigand that the novel is intended as a psychological portrait for our times, the picture of the tumultuous decline of a young man who has everything going for him, isn’t this just exactly the sort of background story often referred to by those who say of a young criminal or suicide “He was so quiet, and nice.  No one would have thought he would do something like this”?  Is it only a chance acquaintance with a young woman like the beautiful Lotte which inspires such self-destruction by an unsuccessful suitor?  And what of the aggravations young Werther suffered in his attempt to work as a secretary to an ambassador after he left Lotte’s side?  Or what of his signal and powerful humiliation at the hands of a Count who had befriended him, brought on by the interference of others who did not like him?

All of these considerations are perhaps pertinent to a contemporary reading of The Sorrows of Young Werther, the moreso as we are everyday provided with examples of young and not-so-young people killing themselves and/or other people, ostensibly because of one primary thing in their lives, but often brought on, in the history we are after the fact given of them, by a whole series of events.  It is, though overly sentimental in its manner of expression quite often, not only a romance but also a casebook for our times.  We have to remember one key item of resemblance between Werther and the ordinary contemporary suicide/homicide:  in at least one spot in the novel, Werther reveals that he had had thoughts not only of destroying himself, but also of destroying Lotte and/or Alfred.  And this speaks to the hopelessness and general destructive tendency Goethe was so aware of in his otherwise exceptionally gifted hero, as well as to characteristics we might expect to find in a modern Werther, a young man born to distinguish himself somehow, who rather than settle down into being an average young man like his friend Albert or a sage counselor as his correspondent William is said to be, determines to distinguish himself through annihilation, and thus make an indelible, if tragic, mark on the world.  This is the true sign of the romantic hero as he just a few years later came to be delineated in fiction and poetry, and sadly, often imitated in fact by some of those who were of the ones determined to model themselves on their fictional heros:  he was determined to be distinguished, by whatever means necessary.  And perhaps that is what we all need to remember, if there is a moral at all to be drawn from this particular fiction:  sometimes, in some contexts at least, it’s okay just to be average and forget about being overly distinguished!


Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

2 responses to ““The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the Sentimental Novel, and the Argument from Popular Art to Reality

  1. Where many see a person who has an enviable amount of opportunities available to them, there is likely an underlying pressure to perform. Many younger people are provided such opportunities by a successful parent or family member, and those parents and their associates want the younger generation to succeed and ‘rise to the occasion’.

    There is a sacrifice in being an exceptional person in some field, such as athletes, doctors and lawyers, as the pressure is from many parts of the outside world, which lead to the person themselves internally putting pressure on themselves to perform. And, when they don’t, the feeling of failure or of disappointing someone they respect has an disproportionately large effect on their self-esteem.

    It is a good observation that von Goethe, though Werther, illustrated a very prominent aspect of our modern society way back in the 1770’s. No matter how much things change, many things stay the same. The pressure to perform is a very human thing that time cannot erase, or only makes worse through the 7 billion-strong pool of humanity we strive to be better than.


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