Tag Archives: classics

Review ~ The Sorrows of Young Werther

Cover via Goodreads

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!

What Worked
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.

And BTW…
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

Books #2 & #3

Book #2 – It Made Sense at the Time by Ursula Vernon

I decided that with my birthday/Christmas Amazon gift certificates I would purchase some things by people whose work I usually enjoy for free. I’ve been following Ursula Vernon’s work via LiveJournal for almost as long as I’ve had a LiveJournal. Therefore, many of these stories are fairly known to me. But not all of them. And it’s fun looking at a snapshot of an artist at a certain point in her career. This book was produced before Vernon’s children’s books were published and before her divorce. In all, it’s a neat look at a very quirky artist. You can sample more of Ursula Vernon’s work at Red Wombat Studio.

Book #3 – The Cure at Troy, a version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes by Seamus Heaney

This is the companion to The Burial at Thebes. Okay, not really. The Cure at Troy was written in 1990 and The Burial at Thebes in 2004, but they are Heaney’s only plays and in some ways they do cover the same ground.

The Cure at Troy is about personal morality versus “good of country.” How much should you sacrifice one for the other? Is it possible to balance the two successfully? These are questions that Heaney revisits in his version of Antigone nearly a decade and a half later.

Writing-wise, the voices didn’t seem as rich as they were in The Burial at Thebes. I’m going to guess that this is somewhat due to Heaney advancing as a writer, but also because Philoctetes is a lesser known work. In the introduction to The Burial at Thebes, Heaney describes the need to set a new version of Antigone apart, and that probably led to more interesting character voices.

The Burial at Thebes

The Burial at Thebes, a version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney

I adore Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, so the lit-geek in me squeed when I saw that he’d done translations of two of Sophocles’ plays.

I read Antigone in college. That was over ten years ago, but I don’t recall being unhappy with the translation I read. Not like Beowulf. With Beowulf, I was required to read an utterly dry prose version. I might be wrong about this, but I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea to turn poetry into prose when translating a work. When I came across Heaney’s Beowulf, it was like a breath of frosty Viking sea air. Since I lacked the utter disappointment of hearing a bad cover of Antigone first, Heaney’s version had to stand strong on its own.

It certainly does. Each character is given a cadence to their speech which gives more indication of mood than any stage direction could. Heaney does not shrink from emphasizing the parallels between this story and modern arguments of patriotism. Love of country shouldn’t be defined by disdain for others, Creon’s mistake. And I’m reminded of the interesting relationship the Greek authors had with their female characters. Antigone continually states that she’s doing her duty as a woman and will stand up for it. Creon belittles her for being just a woman, while everyone around him seems to state, “Doesn’t matter what she is. She’s right.”

I have The Cure at Troy to read as well. This new infusion of Seamus Heaney makes it less likely that I’m going to re-read Beowulf in the next month.