GradeSaver(tm) ClassicNotes The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Themes

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Major Themes

Class

Why is Werther so unhappy in his official position? One could easily cite several reasons. First of all, his temperament is not suited to sitting around in an office all day; second, he is incapable of the meticulous attention to boring details that marks the life of a Court official. But underneath these personality-driven conflicts lies the question of class: Werther cannot stand being snubbed.

In fact, Werther's snubbing in Book Two - which drives him back to Wahlheim and suicide - is only the most obvious manifestation of class assumptions in the novel. During Book One, Werther speaks of his relationship to the peasant class around Wahlheim quite fondly. In fact, Werther sees the simple drama of the peasants in their naive "patriarchal" society as beautifully poetic; his entire theory of art privileges a simplicity of expression that only the lower classes seem capable of. Werther could not hold this opinion if he were not of a higher class than they. He speaks from a position of privilege, and though his attitude toward the peasants is kind, it is also patronizing. There is no doubt that he feels himself superior; their naive charm is only virtuous because he - the idle youth with nothing at hand but time and his mother's money - says it is.

The beginning of Book Two provides a startling contrast to Werther's seeming life of privilege: Werther, it appears, may have been able to stay away from Lotte after all had been accepted by high society. Instead, he finds himself amidst the injustices of the class system, humiliated by people whom he believes he is smarter and more talented than. Werther's position is tricky; as he writes, he realizes the advantages he himself has reaped from the class system, but when he is on the bottom of the social ladder these advantages don't amount to much. His behavior at Count C's party confirms Werther's discomfort with either conforming to class conventions or outwardly rejecting them: he remains at the party even though he is unwelcome, and when he is unsurprisingly snubbed, he throws a tantrum and leaves. Perhaps if he had been able to rail against the follies of the upper class as a member of privilege himself (just as he criticizes the bourgeois class from within elsewhere in the novel) he would not have fled to Wahlheim, where there were no nobles to irk him. In this light, being born bourgeois instead of noble may be Werther's greatest sorrow of all.

Family

Werther has mother trouble - there can be no doubt about it. He never directly insults his mother, but his dislike for her is sprinkled throughout the narrative. For example, he never contacts her directly, instead relying on Wilhelm. Further evidence is found in the bitter tone of the letter of May 5, 1772, when Werther mentions his mother's decision to leave the place of his birth. One of the major focal points in Werther is Werther's need to compensate for a strained home relationship. He needs a family - if not his own, then another's. In search of this idealized family, he stumbles across Lotte's. Her family is relatively serene, even given the early death of her mother and the abundance of mouths to feed. It has the two things that seem to matter to Werther most in a family: lots of children, and an intensely loving mother figure.

Werther's view of childhood appears to be ambiguous. On the one hand, in his letter of May 22, 1771, Werther sees children as the height of vanity, living happily because they are ignorant, fearing no principle but the rod and delighting in no principle but candy and toys. This cynicism is absent, however, after Werther meets Lotte and her eight brothers and sisters. His letter of June 29, 1771 is virtually an encomium to children. He alludes to Jesus Christ's order to his followers to emulate children, and writes, "Any yet, dearest friend, we treat them, who are our equals, whom we should look upon as our models, as our subjects." Werther finds complexity in the simplicity of childhood; there is no doubt that he is happier on the whole in the company of children then he is moving amongst adults.

Just as complex is Werther's attitude toward motherhood. Goethe's works often praise the feminine in ways that may make modern feminists uncomfortable. Goethe's last words in Faust, Part II, which translate, "The Eternal Feminine draws us upward," express this position. Goethe seemed to feel that modest, cheerful wifehood and motherhood were paragon states to which every man ought to strive, but which no man can really attain. Werther expresses this opinion even before meeting Lotte (who is, obviously, the perfect woman: motherly and virginal) when he writes of Hans and Philip's mother, "The tumult of my emotions is soothed by the sight of such a woman, who is rounding the narrow circle of her existence with serene cheerfulness, managing to make both ends meet from one day to the next, seeing the leaves fall without any thought save that winter is near." Like his attitude toward the lower classes, this is at once beautiful and condescending.

Goethe, however, does not simply endorse Werther's opinion. After all, Werther does not attain this idealized family life - he merely writes about it. Lotte herself alludes to Werther's tendency to idealize people when she says, near the novel's end, that Werther pursues her only because she is impossible to attain. Lotte is more than a good mother/sister - she is a smart, thoughtful woman who holds true to her principles. In the end, Werther's obsession with Lotte's motherliness reveals more about his own impoverished upbringing than it does about Lotte herself.

Happiness

Werther has a lot to say about happiness, and, in typical fashion, his feelings on the matter are often inconsistent. The one consistency: whenever he says he has attained happiness, despair is just around the corner. He writes in his letter of August 18, 1771, "Must it so be that whatever makes man happy must later become the source of his misery?"

For Werther, it seems, the answer is "yes". He is happy with Lotte, but suicidal because he cannot have her; he is happy with Fraeulein von B, but it is his attachment to her that positions him to be insulted at Count C's party. Every instance of happiness becomes an opportunity for Werther to be made unhappy. Furthermore, Werther seems painfully aware that it seems to be his destiny to spread his unhappiness and discord among his friends. Even poor Wilhelm, with whom Werther is on such good terms, is made to suffer simply because Werther must tell his someone of his misery.

It is more than a little ironic, then, that Werther is so contemptuous of "bad moods." He writes of Albert, "He seems seldom to be in bad moods, a sin which, as you know, I hate more in human beings than any other," and one of his major reasons for loving Lotte so much is her constant cheerfulness. Werther feels that the worst thing one can do is to ruin someone else's happiness with gloom and doom, as Herr Schmidt does in the letter of July 1, 1771. But Herr Schmidt is just mildly crabby; Werther, with his full-blown suicidal depression, manages to ruin others' happiness on a scale that Herr Schmidt would never be able to manage. Werther's attacks on bad moods - like his occasional blanket dismissals of the possibility of sustained happiness - appear to be inwardly directed: he attacks in others the things he hates in himself.

The Limits of Language

For someone who spends so much time writing letters, Werther does not have much faith in language. When trying to explain the country lad's love for the widow in his letter of May 30, 1771, he pauses, writing, "No, words fail to convey the tenderness of his whole being; everything I could attempt to say would only be clumsy." This distrust is not just theoretical: he puts it into practice, too, especially late in the book, when he writes, "It makes me angry that Albert does not seem delighted as he - hoped - as I - thought to be, if - I am not fond of dashes, but it is the only way of expressing myself here - and I think I make myself sufficiently clear."

In the two above examples, Werther's turbulent spirit is expressed in two ways - first, he refuses to relate a peasant's story in conventional phrases, and second, he attests to the lack of clarity in his own feelings when he declares the dash-riddled sentence above "sufficiently clear." In the first case, he emphasizes the cheapening effect of language. Werther fears employing the trite, conventional, quotidian phrases that everybody else uses; he wants language that is true to his unique, extremely sensitive way of seeing the world. Such language, as we see in the second case, is hardly coherent, because he is hardly coherent.

This complicated issue - the use of language to destroy the boundaries of language - is also the essence of Romanticism. Werther (and Goethe) reveal to readers the limits of the polished, precise diction of the Enlightenment. Alexander Pope's neat heroic couplets are not suited to Werther's turmoil, because Werther's turmoil is not neat. By appealing to the new, extremely subjective, anti-language of feeling, Goethe loses the precision of rational grammar and punctuation, but gains the power to express the irrational.

Stormy Weather

Werther and the weather - the two words are quite similar and so, in fact, are their dispositions. Constantly in flux, elemental, unpredictable...and when the weather is stormy, Werther's temper is often stormy, as well. Sometimes his mood is stormy in a "good" way - such as when he experiences nervous joy during the dance with Lotte - but it is more often stormy in a "bad" way. As the weather worsens, Werther's suicidal tendencies become even more apparent.

In Werther, the outside world frequently mirrors or compliments the inside world. Indeed, the very word "nature" is a kind of pun, referring both to the natural world around us and to the truths at the depths of our being. In Werther, the distinction between these two realms of nature is blurred: each, it seems, influences the other.

As in later works of Romanticism, such as Turner's landscapes or Shelly's nature poetry ("Mount Blanc", for example), Goethe finds great power in the contemplation of untamed natural forces - so different from the neatly trimmed gardens of the Enlightenment. The genre he started with this book wasn't called Sturm und Drang for nothing. And the storms - always - are as much an expression of the power of human feeling as the power of the natural elements.

Subjectivity

It is difficult to select a catch-all term for the kind of literature Werther helped to initiate. There are plenty of options: one could call it Romantic, Sturm und Drang, or the Literature of Sensibility, just to name a few. But one concept that seems to be at the heart of Goethe's youthful novel, and the later genres that were so inspired by it, is subjectivity. Werther fascinates himself; he studies himself; he knows himself. He tirelessly thinks about - and writes about - his language use, his perceptive faculties, and his thoughts. In fact, he writes about almost nothing else. Any letter in Werther is focused on the search for the self.

Today, with abundant confessional poetry, post-modern art and tabloid magazines, self-reflection is everywhere. In 1774, however, this wasn't the case, and the freedom to study oneself, one's feelings, was a new and liberating thrill. To be misunderstood by the population in general, and to find true comfort only with other initiates of the secrets of subjectivity (readers of Klopstock, Ossian and Goethe) was to be a rebel. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were incredibly exciting, turbulent years, during which our modern emotional vocabulary was more or less forged from scratch in response to the complacent philosophies of the Enlightenment. Certainty was becoming less and less certain; objective appraisals of the world and its inhabitants were growing more and more complicated. The human being was beginning to be defined not by order, but by contradictions.

Werther is the quintessential early romantic. He is extravagantly self-absorbed, hopelessly restless, always out-of-breath about some less-than-rational opinion, and proud of his contradictions, proud of his suffering. He spends much of his time contemplating the way in which his self-knowledge is complicated - the way in which he still does what he knows will make himself and others unhappy. This is because it does not matter what he knows about himself: he will always give way to what he feels.

Suicide

Suicide is Werther's constant companion far before the actual moment of his death. As early as the letter of May 22, 1771 Werther mentions it, often ending his gloomier letters with a hint at his suicidal tendencies. In fact, Werther never really thinks of death without thinking of his own death.

Suicide is, in Werther, the threshold of the self, and the self is everything. It is the clearest expression of man's own self-sufficiency. He writes that a man, "however confined he may be...still holds forever in his heart the sweet feeling of freedom, and knows that he can leave this prison whenever he likes." Is there any doubt that Werther will commit suicide, sooner or later, in one way or another? He seems destined to do so, and comfortable with that destiny. After all, Werther argues with Albert about how "natural" suicide is: someone who sees life as a sickness can cure his misery with a simple tug on a trigger.

Despite the protagonist's uncomplicated willingness to embrace the act of suicide, Werther's own suicide is one of the most ambiguous events in the novel. This is not because of Werther, but because of Albert and Lotte. In a novel where almost everything is answered and explored at length, one of the great mysteries of Werther is whether or not Lotte and Albert approve of Werther's act. He asks them for the pistols, and they give them to him, fully aware of his fixation on suicide. Werther himself takes this as a sign of Lotte's approval, and is somewhat cheered. After the deed is done, however, the editor writes, "I cannot describe Albert's consternation, Lotte's distress."

In Albert and Lotte's turbulent, tortured attitude toward Werther just before and after he pulls the trigger lies the suggestion that suicide is not as simple and natural an act as Werther makes it out to be. His shuddering, still alive near-corpse, his death rattle - these horrible images deflate the romanticism of suicide in the final moments of the novel. However, the eighteenth century Werther enthusiasts who followed in their hero's footsteps did not heed these warnings. Indeed, in modern psychological parlance, copy-cat suicides are said to be caused by "The Werther Effect." This is a book that makes the case both for and against suicide. Werther makes the case for it; Goethe - in his careful cultivation of Werther's shortcomings and final emphasis on the brutality of the act - makes the case against it.

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