Young Werther’s Tragicomic Sorrows

J. W. von Goethe. The Sorrows of Young Werther. 1774. Tragic Romanticism.

Sorrows of Young WertherSo I finally read Werther, which, as the literati know, is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s celebration—and implicit condemnation—of the emotive and overwrought Romantic aesthetic. The novella is decidedly autobiographical, for Goethe himself once fell in love with a married girl named Charlotte, who liked but refused him, and therefore Werther acts perhaps as authorial catharsis, allowing Goethe to explode his passions, kill off his tormented doppelganger, and settle down into a conservative dotage similar to dear old William Wordsworth’s.

Behold young Werther, a gentleman who despises society yet cannot tear himself away, recalling the masochistic attempts at extroverted normality by Dostoevsky’s neurotic narrator in Notes from the Underground. Behold young Werther, a sensitive gentleman given to emotional extremes, swinging wildly between anguish and ecstasy, perpetually self-pitying, totally self-centered, both pathetic and noble, and above all, absurd. He fails to sublimate his passions in art or nature, he fails to make his beloved reciprocate—the poor idiot can’t even kill himself properly! Worse, he fails to live—unlike Michelangelo’s Adam, he, in his puerile petulance, turns away when God extends his hand. Still, Werther is not a “horrid little monster,” as W. H. Auden sniffed; rather, he is a mock-up of Romanticism, and his fraught persona rang so many bells that he set all Europe pealing, akin to the way J. D. Salinger distilled the spirit of the twentieth-century teenager.

Like other works that defined their generations—The Road, Vanity Fair, etc.—Goethe’s cathartic literary outpouring falls short of transcendental greatness because its psyche is so specific to its age. Yet Werther‘s slender scope is also why it should be read. For its time, it was perfect.

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