The Sorrows of Young Werther

Book 23 of 2020 was The Sorrows of Young Werther. I am the patron saint of unrequited love, so I figured I’d get to know one more of my subjects. Werther is, I suppose, the German version of Frédéric in Sentimental Education, which I read earlier this year. We could do an entire post of compare/contrast, but I’ll just summarize. Werther is so much more earnest and single-minded. Frédéric liked to be dramatic about his one way love but was also a playboy fully capable of being flattered by other women. For Werther, there was only one. Amusingly, both young men have some disdain for the workaday lives of older, more established men.

The book was written in high German, so it sounds almost as stilted and old-fashioned as Shakespeare. Most of the book consists of letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm, and most of the letters are an unconvincing telling of how great Charlotte (object of Werther’s affection) is, or how obsessed with her he is. I say “unconvincing” because everything is trite and sounds like a “textbook” case of unrequited love. He describes her beauty and her good qualities, and how time has become a blur to him, and his obsessive thoughts, and how happy he is thinking about going to see her. There’s nothing fresh in his descriptions. Though, to be fair, it may have sounded less overused at the time of writing.

The story was too realistic. Too like real life in that nothing happens. From his descriptions of Charlotte, I’m not convinced his love is based on actually knowing her at all. Maybe just confirmation bias — an initial meet-cute, some fun dancing at a ball, then spending the remainder of his life assigning positive attributes to her. She’s not actually a saint: she knows how he feels and wants to keep him around, even after she’s married, because she likes the attention. She briefly considers marrying him off to one of her friends, but decides that she doesn’t think any of them are a good fit. How awkward.

Overall, too much telling, not enough showing. Not very much happening in this book and the writing wasn’t good enough to offset the lack of narrative progress. The reader should feel sorry for young Werther, but he’s hard to get close to, because he doesn’t seem like a real person. Actually, now that I think of it, this book reads like a novel-length, yet barely more grown up version of any story from Der Struwwelpeter.

All that being said, I did find a few quotes I liked, so I’ll leave you with those:

“Often do I strive to allay the burning fever of my blood; and you have never witnessed anything so unsteady, so uncertain, as my heart…. I treat my poor heart like a sick child, and gratify its every fancy.”

“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.”

“A dim vastness is spread before our souls: the perceptions of our mind are as obscure as those of our vision; and we desire earnestly to surrender up our whole being, that it may be filled with the complete and perfect bliss of one glorious emotion. But alas! when we have attained our object, when the distant there becomes the present here, all is changed: we are as poor and circumscribed as ever, and our souls still languish for unattainable happiness.”

“He values my understanding and talents more highly than my heart, but I am proud of the latter only… All the knowledge I possess every one else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.”

“I fear, I much fear, that it is only the impossibility of possessing me which makes your desire for me so strong.”
— Charlotte to Werther

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