J.W Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is heavy with a sense of malaise, as it describes a young man’s decent into mental instability which ends in his suicide. The cause of this sense of malaise lies with the narrator himself, as his own mental state leaks through into his letters to Wilhelm, creating a largely melancholy tone. The novel in itself contains little in the way of true tragedy, up until Werther’s suicide which does not occur until the end. This suggests that the malaise at the heart of the novel originates within Werther himself rather than anything that may occur in the book. Although the malaise channelled into Werther’s letters is heightened by an unrequited love and public humiliation by the Aristocratic class, it is his deep inner malaise that prevents him from dealing with these events, resolving instead to kill himself.
On the surface, the phenomenon of unrequited love appears to lie at the heart of the novel’s sense of malaise. Werther’s love for Lotte creates a profound sense of discomfort for both parties as he pursues her in spite of her already being with Albert. Werther’s feelings for Lotte also trigger his descent into depression and serve as the direct situational cause of his suicide. Indeed, Vartan Gregorian calls it “an impossible love with an engaged woman with no possible positive outcome, no happy ending”. Werther loses himself so completely in his infatuation with Lotte that he even states that “[his] imagination sees nothing but her: all surrounding objects are of no account, except as they relate to her”. This highlights how completely she becomes his life, and to be unable to have her is to be unable to be happy and ultimately, to be unable to go on living. Even when he is absent from her company after moving to the city, the destructive impact of sorrow she has on him remains. This leads Frank Schalow to argue that “The mysterious depth of love is also a fact, in so far as it sustains a devotion to the other, even after the physical presence of the other is gone”. As well as its devastating effect on Werther, his unrequited love for Lotte creates a sense of malaise for other characters too. Lotte comes to feel torn, as she cares for Werther, but feels uncomfortable about his constant and increasingly intense adoration of her. Furthermore, she is forced to suffer emotional pain when Werther chooses to leave if he cannot have her romantically, and then again when he takes his own life. This is evident when she says to Werther that “[she] can never ever go walking in the moonlight without the thought of [her] dear departed ones coming to mind” (65), suggesting that the loss of her friend would leave her with an eternal sense of malaise. The most prevailing support for the view that the malaise in the novel is a result of unrequited love, lies within Werther’s final letter to Wilhelm, as he talks of “How her image haunts [him]! Waking or asleep, she fills [his] entire soul!” (107). This shows that Lotte is the last thing on Werther’s mind, and perhaps therefore the cause of his depression and malaise. Furthermore, Lotte can be further seen as a trigger of Werther’s malaise and ultimate suicide, as she agrees to send him her guns which he sees as a sign of her approval. The fact that Werther seeks this woman’s permission to die shows the inner turmoil she causes him. A turmoil which overshadows the entire novel.
As a further result of Werther’s unrequited love for Lotte, Werther and Albert’s friendship is also strained and uncomfortable as Werther becomes increasingly obsessed with Albert’s betrothed. Werther respects and likes Albert when he meets him, telling in his letters to Wilhelm that he “[couldn’t] help esteeming Albert” (47) and how Albert had “a great deal of feeling and [was] fully sensible of the treasure he possesses in Charlotte” (48). However, he also feels an irrevocable sense of jealousy and bitterness as he covets Albert’s relationship with Lotte. He admits how it pains him to see another man “in possession of such a perfect being” (47), and suggests that his approval for Albert is yet another source of Malaise in the novel as he resents himself as well as Albert. This is evident as Werther asks Wilhelm “what is the use of my continually repeating that he is a good and estimable man? He is an inward torment to me” (113). The result of this respect mixed with jealously is that Albert and Werther fall into an uneasy friendship overshadowed by a sense of malaise. With both of them being close to Lotte, as well as to each other, the dynamic becomes that of a respectful yet extremely uncomfortable love triangle, with Werther playing the part of the outsider. Margaret Church even argues that Werther ends his life as a means to break the triangle, stating that “he commits suicide in the firm belief that one of the three of them must die”. The tense dynamic between the three main characters seems to serve as an important cause of the novel’s sense of malaise, as all exchanges between the three become somewhat sour when seen in the light of Werther’s underlying longing to destroy Lotte and Albert’s relationship.
It is tempting to argue that the sense of malaise in The Sorrows of Young Werther also largely originates due to social issues surrounding Werther’s middle class status. To an extent, it could be argued that the sense of malaise is created partially by Werther’s negative feelings towards the inequality that the lower classes are victims of. Indeed, Werther makes a disagreeable observation of the higher classes as he states that “Persons who can claim a certain rank keep themselves coldly aloof from the common people, as though they feared to lose their importance by the contact” (11). In breaking this behaviour, it could be argued that Werther comes to see the humanity and struggles of the peasants and Martin Swales argues that “Werther does register, and is offended by, the inequalities in the society around him…he is aware that the intensity of his inner life exacts a price – that of forfeiting the society of his fellow man”. In other words, it can be argued that he becomes disillusioned with his own bourgeois roots as he witnesses first hand the more unfortunate end of the class system. The very same system that gives Werther a status of sorts, renders the common people socially obsolete. This could go some way to explain why Werther later struggles to settle into his aristocratic-ruled court job. However, Swales also gives a viewpoint to the contrary of this idea, as he says that “Werther is only imperfectly aware of the social causes of so much malaise”. This suggests that the sense of malaise is unlikely to be due to Werther’s sense of social injustice being reflected in his letters, as his bourgeois roots have rendered him too ignorant to fully understand the plight of the lower classes.
The main contribution of class to the novel’s sense of malaise is that Werther becomes unaccustomed to feeling inferior, leading to a culture shock when he leaves his small rural home. Werther begins the novel by observing the simple life of rural peasants. In doing so, he becomes accustomed to a position of superiority. In comparison to the surrounding lower classes, his middle class status comes to seem inflated to him. Although he is friendly towards the peasants, he is also patronising, as evident when he tells Wilhelm of how he was “particularly amused with observing their tempers, and the simplicity of their behaviour” (19). The adjective “amused” (19) shows how Werther sees the peasants merely as objects for his entertainment. Whilst he feels a fondness towards them, the fondness is more akin to that felt for a pet than that felt for an equal. His friendships with the peasants are based largely around the way in which they make him feel superior, as evident when he tells Wilhelm how “The common people of the place know [him] already, and love [him]” (11). He thrives off of their admiration of him, imagining himself to be something of an idol, and leading him to have an inflated sense of self. The repercussions of this inflated sense of self only become evident when Werther moves to the city of Weimar. Instead of being a higher class individual amongst underdogs, Werther becomes an underdog himself, as his new world is ruled by the aristocratic class while Werther himself is merely middle class. The class gap becomes clear to Werther as he becomes friends with Count C, telling Wilhelm how he “formed the acquaintance of Count C and [he] esteem[ed] him more and more everyday” (70). Being aristocrats, Count C along with Werther’s other aristocratic friend Fraulein Von B, are restricted from pursuing public relationships with bourgeois individuals like Werther. This is made clear as Fraulein Von B joins the other aristocrats in snubbing Werther at Count C’s party, with her later explaining how “[she] knew that the S-s and T-s, would quit the room, rather than remain in [Werther’s] company” (81). Having spent his recent time living amongst common people, Werther is not prepared for such a fall of importance and struggles to adjust. Thomas J. Scheff highlights the importance of this event in contributing to Werther’s Malaise as he states that “Werther’s suffering originates in humiliation”. Indeed, he takes the snubbing extremely personally, even stating that “everything conspires against [him]” (81). This personal and social rejection leads Werther to feel a sense of malaise even after having broken away from Lotte. David Constantine supports this as he argues that “In his employment with the Envoy…[Werther] feels himself to be oppressed and reduced…he soon falls foul of the social order itself, is humiliated, and driven further into the solitary obsession that will kill him”. Indeed, Werther is so completely and utterly humiliated at being snubbed by the aristocratic class that he returns to Wahlheim, and subsequently to his self-destructive and obsessive infatuation with Lotte. Werther’s humiliation at the hands of the aristocratic class not only sends him deeper into depression, which is reflected in the tone of his writing, but also reflects the social malaise of the eighteenth century. Indeed, with the Enlightenment being under way, people were beginning to accept new ideals. The tight social hierarchy presented in The Sorrows of Young Werther was being questioned, as reflected by Werther leaving in anger after being snubbed.
However, although unrequited love and social class issues may appear to cause the sense of malaise at the heart of the novel, I am inclined to argue that its true origin is personal rather than social or emotional. The inescapable malaise is a product of Werther’s hyper sensitive and depression prone personality type. Indeed, Morton Schoolman backs up my view as he argues that “While Lotte’s unrequited love for Werther may have precipitated his suicide, as a prelude to this catastrophic romantic episode it would seem that Werther’s painfully acute sensibility virtually had paralysed his affirmation for life”. In other words, Werther does not become emotionally unstable because he is unable to deal with his unrequited love for Lotte. Rather, he is unable to deal with his unrequited love for Lotte because he is emotionally unstable. Thomas J. Scheff supports this idea, as he argues that “the concept of alienation provides a bridge between [Werther and Lotte’s] romance”. This suggests that the reason Werther even falls for Lotte to begin with is that he sees in her some of the social malaise that is also in him. This further suggests that Lotte herself serves as a catalyst for Werther’s increasing malaise, and his unrequited love could have been replaced by any other testing trial, or even none at all, and Werther would still have seen everything through eyes of sorrow. Scheff further denounces unrequited love as the origin of malaise as he describes it as “infatuation rather than love”. Martin Swales supports both my argument and Scheff’s as he states that “The thought of suicide is present in Werther’s mind from early on…it is there even before Werther meets Lotte…this surely makes it clear that Werther’s suicide is not simply the result of an unhappy love”. Indeed, even in Werther’s first letter to Wilhelm, the fragile emotional state reached in the novel is foreshadowed, as states that “[he] will no longer, as has always been [his] habit, continue to ruminate on every petty vexation which fortune may dispense” (7). This highlights that Werther is simply prone to bouts of depression and anxiety in response to triggers, with his love for Lotte and his social snubbing serving as these triggers throughout the novel, rather than as the root cause. His fascination with suicide throughout the novel suggests that he was destined to end his own life, regardless of events. Therefore, the sense of malaise created by Werther is simply a natural part of him, rather than a culmination of misfortunes. This is highlighted as Werther condones suicide saying “it is just as absurd to call a man a coward who destroys himself, as to call a man a coward who dies of a malignant fever”. This also suggests that Werther almost romanticizes the idea of destroying oneself, suggesting that the presence of malaise in his letters is deliberate. The sense of malaise in the novel is further due to personal causes, as Werther’s over-sensitivity renders him unable to deal with rejection. Indeed, this makes him suffer both his rejection by Lotte and his snubbing at Count C’s party to a much greater extent than what may be deemed rational. In turn this heightened suffering and sorrow of Werther comes across through his depressive narration.
Although the malaise in the novel originates in Werther’s own personal character traits, it is enhanced through natural events corresponding with his increasing turmoil. The weather often reflects his moods, and the malaise surrounding the events, as it tends to become stormy in Werther’s times of intense stress. Further pathetic fallacy is used as Werther returns to Wahlheim. Werther notes that the walnut trees which “often filled [his] heart with joy…had been felled. Yes, cut to the ground!” (100). The destruction of the walnut trees reflects Werther’s increasing sorrow and adds to the sense of malaise in the novel. The death of Werther’s peasant friend Hans, although secondary to the major events, creates a sense of death and destruction which increases the malaise centred tone.
In conclusion, the sense of malaise at the heart of The Sorrows of Young Werther is centrally caused by the naturally cynical and depressed outlook of Werther himself. Indeed, in light of the fact that the narrator of the novel sees the world through a haze of mental turmoil, it is unsurprising that novel has such a melancholy and uncomfortable tone. The unease and sorrow he feels is also spread to other characters through his actions. In particular, his own act of suicide leaves Lotte and Albert grief stricken and suffering their own sense of malaise. The origin of this malaise created by the narrator may seem on the surface to be due to a mixture of Werther’s social dissatisfaction and the bane of unrequited love. However, the true cause of the malaise is indeed Werther’s own personal disdain for rejection, and sensitivity to human trials. These other factors simply serve as a catalyst for his mental deterioration.
CHURCH, Margaret. Structure and Theme: Don Quixote to James Joyce. Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1983.
CONSTANTINE, David. The Sorrows of Young Werther. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012
GOETHE, Johann Wolfgang Von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Minneapolis: Filiquarian Publishing, 1774 2007.
GREGORIAN, Vartan. The Road to Home: My Life and Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008. SCHALOW, Frank. The Incarnality of Being: The Earth, Animals and the Body in Heidegger’s Thought. Albany: State of New York Press, 2007.
SCHEFF, Thomas J., and RETZINGER, Suzanne M.. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. New York: iUniverse, 2001.
SCHOOLMAN, Martin. Reason and Horror: Critical Theory, Democracy and Aesthetic Individuality. New York: Routledge, 2001.
SWALES, Martin. Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Vartan Gregorian, The Road to Home: My Life and Times (New York; Simon and Schuster, 2008), 83 Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe , The Sorrows of Young Werther (Minneapolis; Filiquarian Publishing, 2007), 19. Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition. Frank Schalow, The Incarnality of Being: The Earth, Animals, and the Body in Heidegger’s Thought (Albany; State University of New York Press, 2007), 53 Margaret Church, Structure and Theme – Don Quixote to James Joyce (Ohio; Ohio State University Press, 1983), 42 Martin Swales, Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1987), 50 Martin Swales, Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1987), 49 Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts (New York; iUniverse, 2001), 106 David Constantine, The Sorrows of Young Werther (New York; Oxford University Press, 2012), Introduction xxiv Martin Schoolman, Reason and Horror: Critical Theory, Democracy and Aesthetic Individuality (New York; Routledge, 2001), 29 Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts (New York; iUniverse, 2001), 106 Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts (New York; iUniverse, 2001), 106 Martin Swales, Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1987), 30