The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, R.D. Boylan (Translator)
This is Goethe’s first novel, published in 1774. Written in diary form, it tells the tale of an unhappy, passionate young man hopelessly in love with Charlotte, the wife of a friend – a man who he alternately admires and detests. Goethe upset the conventional literature of his day by having his hero propose suicide as a method by which anyone might end an intolerable misery. ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ became an important part of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement, and greatly influenced later ‘Romanticism’. The work is semi-autobiographical – in 1772, two years before the novel was published, Goethe had passed through a similar tempestuous period, when he lost his heart to Charlotte Buff, who was at that time engaged to his friend Johann Christian Kestner.(via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
I read this book as part of the FrankenSlam! challenge, hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. All the details of this challenge can be found there. The Sorrows of Young Werther is worth 275 million volts!
I’ll be honest, one of my initial thoughts while reading The Sorrows of Young Werther was, “Wow, Morrissey didn’t invent being emo.” Superficial, but it does say a lot about the relatability of a 243 year old text.
But of course there is an entire literary movement, Romanticism, that is chock full of natural vistas and characters feeling everything with painful clarity. It’s easy to see the roots of Romanticism in Werther. Mary Shelley chose this to be one of the texts of the monster’s education, so it’s easy to infer that Werther was important to Shelly as well. I don’t mean this in any diminishing way, but it’s very much the sort of thing that would appeal to a 19 year-old. (I was 19 years old once, I remember how important and/or heart-breaking everything was.)
There are some thoughts on fate that I’m still chewing on, and I look forward to seeing the text through the monster’s eyes when I reread Frankenstein later this year.
What Didn’t Work
At about the 2/3rds point, the narrative switches from being Werther’s letters to being a 3rd person POV explaining what happened to Werther. Werther is an intriguing narrator, possibly an unreliable one. Once we go to third person? Well, we see just how much Werther is that guy that should just really *move on*. It’s a bit painful. Goethe wrote Werther when he was 24. It was somewhat auto-biographical. According to Wikipedia, Goethe felt haunted by it in his later years.
The novel lends its name to social behavior known as the Werther effect, or copycat suicides, due to a rash of young men solving their problems in the manner of Werther after the novel gained popularity. The Werther effect is the reason that a certain YouTube star took a lot of flack (well, among other reasons) for filming in Japan’s Aokigahara forest.
Acquired: Project Gutenberg, 12/29/17
Genre: epistolary novel