Aristocratic and Bourgeois Ideology in The Sorrows of Young Werther

Literary critics such as Karl Grun and Johannes Scherr have propped up Johann Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther as revolutionary social criticism that paved the way for many of the rebellions in 1848 – Grun even arguing that the novel prepared the grounds for the French Revolution. But as one of the most prominent figures of sentimentality in Western literature, Werther is difficult to construe as a social critic without acknowledging the barrier his affect presents in taking on such a role. Friedrich Engels even accused Grun of “confusing genuine social criticism with Werther’s lamentations about the discrepancy between bourgeois reality and his equally bourgeois illusion. Werther, says Engels, is a ‘schwarmerischer Tranensack’ (dreamy lachrymal sack)” (Duncan 76).

Can we, then, denounce the criticism Werther voices as not genuine because of his bourgeois identification and his self-serving vision of social order? Can we understand the grumbling of a “dreamy lachrymal sack” as social commentary? Although Engel raises legitimate concerns surrounding a critical reading of The Sorrows of Young Werther, we dilute the significance of a series of letters Werther dedicates to deriding his aristocratic company in the second half of the novel without engaging in a critical analysis of the novel. His criticism is particularly informed by his characterization of genius as torrential and transcendental. While Werther’s opinions on class division and on the romanticization of labor seem to detract from his ability to criticize the social order, Goethe complicates the temptation to dismiss Werther’s polemic against aristocratic society by distancing him from the almost equally problematic bourgeoisie at the end of the novel.

Werther’s hostility towards the aristocracy stems from a clash of ideologies: a barrier to class mobility bulwarked by privileging an individual’s pedigree over his strength of character is utterly detestable to Werther because it demeans that what makes him exceptional. In a letter dated 26 May, Werther jests, “Oh, my friends! You ask why the torrent of genius so rarely pours forth, so rarely floods and thunders and overwhelms your astonished soul? – Because, dear friends, on either bank dwell the cool, respectable gentlemen, whose summer-houses, tulip beds and cabbage patches would all be washed away, and who are therefore highly skilled in averting future dangers in good time, by damming and digging channels” (33). Werther explains the constraint placed on the genius through his relationship with respectable gentlemen. Although Werther never explicitly claims that the respectable gentleman is a figure of the aristocracy and the genius is a figure of himself, the similarity within the groupings is striking. The genius is characterized by an image of complete surrender, which is similar to Werther’s disposition while writing the letter 10 May; the respectable gentleman is associated with scheming and self-gain, two qualities that Werther criticizes in the nobility he meets working under the Ambassador. Werther’s criticism of the aristocracy is that this group values future gains over pleasure in the present. Shortly after working for the ambassador, Werther complains, “the tedium of these awful people cooped up together here! and their greed for rank, and the way they are forever watchful and alert for gain or precedence: the most wretched and abominable of passions” (75). His judgment becomes increasingly explicit as he continues his argument – he begins by pointing out their “greed for rank,” implying that they are not satisfied with their current status. Then he moves on to further denounce the aristocratic mentality that is consumed with rank by pointing that aristocrats are specifically “watchful” and “alert” for gain. Here he is more explicit: Werther is frustrated with the aristocratic focus on future advances rather than on satisfaction in the present. This is especially “wretched and abominable” for Werther, who tells Wilhelm, “I am so happy, dear friend, so absorbed in this feeling of peaceful existence” (26). Unlike the aristocracy that seeks happiness in future gains, Werther believes that happiness should be “absorbed” in the present. For this reason, he claims, “It is enough that the source of my wretchedness lies within myself, as the source of all my joy once did” (98). By rejecting the aristocratic mentality of looking to the future and by focusing on the beautiful transience of existence, Werther gains autonomy: he is his own source of both pleasure and dissatisfaction.

Although it is easy to broadly categorize Werther as an advocate for the working class, it is important to note Werther’s own problematic viewpoints. This task becomes important as this essay shifts from examining Werther’s criticism of the German aristocracy to Goethe’s own criticism of society and its relationship to the type of person that Werther represents. Werther romanticizes labor by stating, “It is good that my heart can feel the simple and innocent pleasure a man knows when the cabbage he eats at a table is one he grew himself; the pleasure he takes. . . in remembering evenings he watered it and the delight he felt in its daily growth” (45). By portraying farming through an idyllic vignette, Werther creates the narrative that the farmer enjoys his labor. This construct is destructive for two reasons. First, Werther praises the picturesque image of a man dependent on nature for sustenance, but completely ignores the arduous nature of agrarian life and thereby glorifies the image of the farmer without sympathizing with any of his struggles. Second, he imposes his own narrative on a group of people whom he knows “are not equal, nor can be” (28). He does not know the experiences of a farmer because he is not a farmer. By suggesting that the working class enjoys its labor, Werther perpetuates a narrative that the upper class uses to oppress its subordinates; in Werther’s mind, the labor of the working class is necessary to my social standing and there’s no moral cost to thrive on the backs of these simple people because they enjoy it! Yet, although Werther holds to beliefs that work against the lower class, Goethe still makes it clear through Christ metaphors and the juxtaposition of Albert and Werther that, even if marked with hypocrisy, criticism is preferable to inaction.

Albert serves to embody the upper-class ideals of the wealth and respectability of the bourgeoisie, and thus serves as a foil to Werther. Even though he is competing with Albert for Lotte’s affections, Werther declares, “I cannot help esteeming Albert. The coolness of his temper contrasts strongly with the impetuosity of mine” (22). Moving beyond the well-mannered behavior that earns recognition from Werther, even the editor exalts Albert as a “pure-hearted man,” establishing that he is a man viewed positively by society. Yet, the pure-hearted Albert is the one to give Werther the pistol to kill himself. A symbolic reading indicates that the bourgeois society perceives characters that hold to beliefs similar to Werther’s as threatening to its lifestyle and seeks to eradicate these individuals. Furthermore, Werther compares himself to Christ, asking, “What is the Fate of Man, but to. . . drink the cup of bitterness,” (99) establishing parallels to Christ. After all, Christ similarly asked God to take his cup from him while praying in Gethsemane before his crucifixion. When Werther recognizes that out of Albert, Lotte, and himself, one must die, he acknowledges that there is no room for his criticisms of the German bourgeoisie and aristocracy and, like Christ, chooses to sacrifice himself for the “sinners” Albert and Lotte, who represent the bourgeoisie. At the scene of his death blood was everywhere — “a vein was opened in his arm; the blood flowed” (134). The overpowering images of blood suggest that Werther was a sacrifice: in order to maintain a society in which people like Albert and Lotte live and thrive, social critics must die and suffer. By comparing the latter stages of Werther’s life to those of Christ’s life, Goethe puts Werther on a moral high ground relative to the rest of his society. Although his imperfections kept him from “saving” his class and reversing the rhetoric of the bourgeoisie that oppresses the working class, Werther was at least able to partly save himself from the criticisms he raises, even if he did so through his death.

Through the lens of social criticism, The Sorrows of Young Werther can be interpreted as a novel centered around class structure and the perils of its effects on society. Werther serves as a voice to critique the greedy, calculating, and rigid upper class. His death, depicted using religious motifs, indicates Goethe’s criticism of German society, a society in which individuals who advocate for social change have no place.

Existential Statements in The Sorrows of Young Werther

It is presumable that the main character of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a man from whose thoughts we can glean wise and important statements about life. Throughout many of the passages, Werther offers us his unique perspective on various elements of living including survival, freedom, mortality and moral outlook. Mainly, he is speaking to his dear friend Wilhelm, and so it is clear that these are personal letters containing deep thoughts and feelings. However, contradictions arise in the letters that will be examined. I therefore contend that, although much of what he says is eloquent and thought-provoking, it does not all necessarily constitute a series of wise life lessons. Perhaps there is an available wealth of truths in what Werther says, but whatever life lessons he imparts come not only from what he thinks but how and to whom he presents these ideas, and in what ways he applies them to his own life.He speaks in great detail about how he views the rest of human existence. This outlook is not necessarily positive; in fact, he is quite critical of the people he encounters. In the letter from May 17th, Werther writes, “The human race is but a monotonous affair. Most of them labour the greater part of their time for mere subsistence; and the scanty portion of freedom which remains to them so troubles them that they use every exertion to get rid of it. Oh, the destiny of man!” (Goethe, 6) In the same letter, he also happens to say “Alas, that the friend of my youth is gone! Alas, that I ever knew her! I might say to myself, “You are a dreamer to seek what is not to be found here below.” (Goethe, 7) What this appears to say is that there is a certain caliber of person, and that people are comparable to a certain ideal. In his case, Werther seems to not be able to find anyone equivalent or better in quality to his dear departed friend. He seeks company, but what is paradoxical about this is how little he appreciates the bulk of the company he receives, also believing that he is adored by those who meet him. Perhaps he is not utterly wrong in perceiving that people find it necessary to suppress certain talents, emotions or impulses for practical reasons. This is brought up in the letter from May 22nd, where he writes “…I consider the narrow limits within which our active and inquiring faculties are confined; when I see how all our energies are wasted in providing for mere necessities, which again have no further end than to prolong a wretched existence…” (Goethe, 8) He argues our passivity in this world makes us out to be no more than large children, who are attracted and repelled by a few sensory things, but do not look to anything for any deeper meaning. What’s more, he proposes that to other bodies in the universe, the dead individual is immediately mourned, and then is soon forgotten. In the letter from October 26th he says “I often contribute to their happiness, and my heart seems as if it could not beat without them; and yet — if I were to die, if I were to be summoned from the midst of this circle, would they feel — or how long would they feel the void which my loss would make in their existence?” (Goethe, 78) This tells me that, not only is Werther just as willing to discard the human race as he is eager to have it embrace him, he is frightened his own life will fade away into nothingness, and all the people who apparently adored him will enough forget him. There may be a life lesson here, but it is not necessarily coming from his philosophy alone. The paradoxical, insecure and irrational side of man is demonstrated in Werther, who generalizes the universe in order to account for his own fears and wishes.The general dissatisfaction of Werther adds to the irony of his character when one considers his disdain for what he calls “ill-humour” (Goethe, 29). In his letter from July 1st, he writes ‘”We should daily repeat to ourselves,” I exclaimed, “that we should not interfere with our friends, unless to leave them in possession of their own joys, and increase their happiness by sharing it with them! But when their souls are tormented by a violent passion, or their hearts rent with grief, is it in your power to afford them the slightest consolation?”‘ (Goethe, 29-30) Maybe there is something to be said for overcoming hardship with optimism; but what’s truly interesting about his argument are the lingering contradictions between his words here and other letters. His dissatisfaction with society and with himself, seen in the May and October letters is overlooked in this one. Something that’s obvious about Werther is that he feels things very sharply, so it’s interesting that his apparent desire would be to isolate pain and share happiness. The contradiction here is that he expresses pain all the time, as we saw in previous letters. He suggests pain is personal and yet when he feels it he demands and ear. This can easily be seen in his letter from August 18th, where his despairing view of existence comes out fully: “My heart is wasted by the thought of that destructive power which lies concealed in every part of universal nature.” (Goethe, 47) The idea of mortal frailty is bothersome to him in that he realizes that in life there is inevitable death. He seems to be having recurring fears of passing through life unsatisfied and dying and fading away into oblivion. This may be why he turns to God for consolation: it’s something perfect and eternal. This seems not like someone with the moral fortitude to overcome his fears, rather someone consumed by insecurities and needs to be coddled and reassured. As far as life statements are concerned, what we can gather from Werther is that a man consumed by ills would possibly wish to be without them.He comes to this realization himself in his letter from August 12th, in which he writes “My good friend, if resistance be strength, how can the highest degree of resistance be a weakness?…Human nature, I continued, “has its limits. It is able to endure a certain degree of joy, sorrow, and pain, but becomes annihilated as soon as this measure is exceeded. The question, therefore, is, not whether a man is strong or weak, but whether he is able to endure the measure of his sufferings.” (Goethe, 42-43) Werther reiterates the notion that pain and despair cannot be generalized, but can only be examined in cases. He determines that when one is sick and dies, it is very much akin to ending one’s life after a deep depression. However, he also likens suicide to seeking remedy, much like what casting off ill-humour is. I believe this relationship between sickness and remedy is what Albert calls “all paradox” (Goethe, 43). The lesson here is in the paradox: there seems to be a demonstrated duality of the human condition. He who is immersed in pain, dreams of discarding it, and yet seems to identify himself by it. And despite this wish for universal happiness, one only has a threshold for so much until those feelings need to be expressed in one way or another.Can we then say that Werther is a great thinker abounding with relevant life lessons? I think it’s fair that Werther’s hopes of universal happiness, remembrance, freedom and Godliness are all relevant things, maybe even things to aspire to. But they are not necessarily all useful as statements on life in general. However, his internal paradoxes, contradictions and exuberant irrationalism tell us more about the dualistic and contradictory possibilities of the individual than his words do. His lessons are found in his character more than anywhere else, therefore making them seem like all the things man could be as opposed to all the things man is presumed to be.Goethe, Johannes Wolfgang von. Trans. R. Dillon Boylan. The Sorrows of Young Werther. New York: Mondial, c2006.

The Fatal Weapons

The novel The Sorrows of Young Werther engages with a complex discourse of communication. It deals with a society highly lacking in personal communication, yet desperately in need of it. Although Werther longs for intimate face to face communication, books mediate his life, which leads to isolation, and ultimately suicide. The form the novel takes illustrates a tension that plagues Werther. Though he wants to express himself, it is always through letters. He describes his passionate love not to Lotte but to Wilhelm. Furthermore, the reader is never allowed to experience any of Wilhelm’s answers, producing a kind of unrequited dialogue, or a failed communication. The desire to actually touch Lotte tortures him, as he states “How many times have I been on the point of embracing her!”(113). Yet when he and Lotte do finally embrace, it is via a book.Books, or more specifically epic poems, seem to dictate Werther’s life. In Book One Werther is consumed by Homer and the “patriarchal ideas”(7) his works demonstrate. Even when he attempts to return to nature, he carries a copy of his book to read under shade while enjoying a cool beverage. He imagines himself to be Odysseus and Lotte “Penelope” (33). As he reads The Odyssey the tone and pace of the novel is forward looking and centers Werther as the hero. The world is ruled by God and God’s actions are comprehensible by humans. However, in Book Two, Werther is reading Ossian, which Werther presents as full of howling “gales…and the lament of the maiden who pines for death”(110). Ossian presents a Godless world ruled by natural law to which everyone is susceptible and unable to control. Therefore Book Two takes on a much darker tone leading up to Werther’s suicide. Book Two, influenced by the wailing, unanswered cries for help and deafening winds of Ossian marks the beginning of Werther’s most extreme isolation. He voluntarily removes himself from Walheim but becomes greatly annoyed at the society he finds himself in; most irritated by the “disgraceful social conditions”(81), and does not enjoy the company of anyone but Fraulein Von B. However, his relationship with her marks an interesting tactic toward communication with Lotte. We see very few letters addressed to Lotte, therefore their subjects become highly important. During this time he sends her letters that declare Fraulein von B. to be a lesser version of Lotte: “How often she must do homage to you! She is not compelled to- she does it voluntarily, loves to hear about you, and loves you”(85). He uses these subtle compliments as a kind of attack, intending to make her jealous. These kinds of subtexts show up more frequently through the second book and act as a kind of crying out on the part of Werther. Another significant moment in the novel comes again in the form of writing: “Will you be good enough to lend me your pistols for my intended journey. And goodbye”(158). This dubious note contains both a harmless request and an overt message. Werther is putting Albert and Lotte through a test. Albert is already aware that Werther considers suicide an option per their earlier conversation, and Lotte is aware that he is in love with her and has been recently rejected. Therefore, the “goodbye” is quite loaded. The editor makes us even further aware of this moment when he says, “If some happy intimacy had brought them together before this…perhaps our friend might have been saved”(159). This implies that what Werther needed from Albert and Lotte was communication, rather than pistols. The novel implicates Albert and Lotte in Werther’s death because of their silence. Another kind of communication takes place here, between the reader and the editor. The editor subtly accuses Albert of purposely ignoring Werther’s warnings that he was suicidal, which almost transforms the pistols into murder weapons. The editor claims “Werther had never…kept his longing to depart from this world a secret”(159), and further explains that Albert’s cavalier attitude toward the possibility of suicide had affected Lotte’s interpretation of the threat: “This may have set her mind at rest for a time, whenever her thoughts presented to her the tragic picture- but it also prevented her from communicating to her husband the anxieties that tormented her at this moment”(160). Again, the question of the pistols become a test. Albert makes Lotte physically responsible for passing the pistols to Werther, for if she refuses she will have to answer “Albert’s questioning glance”(161). Though there is very little speech between Albert and Lotte, the editor fills in the silence with condemning words like: “guilt”, “foreboding”, and “fatal weapons”(161). As Albert makes Lotte responsible, Werther takes it to an extreme level. Again, communicating his deepest feelings through a letter, he thanks her for the pistols, writing “they have passed through your hands; you have wiped the dust from them. I kiss them a thousand times because you have touched them”(162). This letter can be read as a thank you or a final goodbye, but also as a deeply troubled and veiled accusation. As this is a suicide note, the letter will become Lotte’s inheritance. Before killing himself, he ensures Albert and Lotte’s ensuing misery and attempts to kill Lotte with guilt and grief. The multiple layers of communication both in the scene of the pistols as well as throughout the novel reflect a seriously flawed language for discussing emotions such as Werther experiences, and his suicide serves as a cautionary tale for misled, untrue, and ignored attempts at intimacy.

Werther’s Plunge; A Path of Self-Destruction and Nature’s Contribution

“What wastes my heart away is the corrosive power that lies concealed in the natural universe – in Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbor and itself.” (Goethe, 66) In Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a romanticized concept of nature is used to illustrate the internal state of the protagonist, Werther. When the story begins, Werther is a young, optimistic artist who finds beauty and awe in all of nature. By the end, however, Werther is distressed and suicidal; he comes to see nature as a wild and destructive force. As he transforms from buoyant to deeply depressed, and his perception of nature as the tangible manifestation of God is destroyed and replaced by the dark view that nature is merely a sadistic monster. In his recognition of nature as a “corrosive power”, as declared in the above quotation, Werther throws himself onto a path of self- destruction that eventually leads to his death. Werther’s artistic nature, his devotion to nature, and his passion are the self- destructive qualities that provoke his suicide. Werther’s artistic nature causes him to look at the world in terms of art and provides him with a romanticized concept of nature; both of which have the ability to affect him greatly. As his view on nature shifts, and he becomes more deeply involved with Charlotte, Werther loses his ability to participate in art and can no longer see the world in terms of art. The loss of artistic beauty in nature eventually drives Werther to his death. When the story opens, Werther describes a lush, countryside paradise as his new home and is lost in the endless wonders of nature. With this picturesque setting comes an infallible optimism and a deep appreciation for the artistic value of nature. The combination of the two, art and nature, hold a powerful sway over Werther’s emotions. Looking out at a rain-swept countryside, Charlotte’s poetic reference brings Werther to tears. “At once I remembered the glorious ode she had in mind, and was lost in the sensations that flooded me on hearing the name. It was more than I could bear; I bowed over her hand and kissed it, shedding tears of the greatest joy…”(Goethe, 43). Here, Werther allows himself to become swept up in his emotions and this plays a hand in his self- destruction at the end of the novel. As he becomes more deeply involved with Charlotte and increasingly depressed and hopeless, Werther can no longer appreciate such scenes. As the situation progresses, Werther loses the ability to participate in art. This becomes evident in his journal entry from July 24th, when he states, “I do not know how to express myself; my imaginative powers are so weak, and everything slides and shifts before my soul, so that I cannot grasp the outlines” (55). By the end of the novel, nature is seen as “a monster”; a destructive machine that “…has brought forth nothing which does not destroy both its neighbor and itself” (66). Now Werther is swayed by the dark and demonic tendencies of nature and it is this sway, combined with his tragically strong devotion to nature, which aids in leading him to suicide. Werther’s devotion to nature causes him to be deeply affected by the state of nature, which, as it shifts from being seen as inspiring to being seen as destructive, leads Werther to a path of self-destruction. From the beginning, we see that nature influences many of Werther’s thoughts and actions; he relates all aspects of life to nature. Nature is often connected to the purity of children and their separation from the rational, adult world, the same adult world that Werther longs to escape. In one journal entry, he confesses, “they are the happiest who, like children, live for the present moment” (31). And so Werther resolves to live in the present moment and allows nature to dictate his actions and feelings. This supreme power that nature holds is justified by the citation of God in nature; nature becomes a deity and a force that controls Werther’s fate. When he is surrounded by nature, Werther can “feel the presence of the Almighty who created us in His image, the breath of the All-loving who bears us aloft in perpetual joy and holds us there” (27). In this way, nature essentially plays God. So when, in his deepening state of depression, Werther’s perception of nature shifts, nature comes to hold an adversely powerful effect over Werther. He realizes this in a letter to Wilhelm, stating, “My heart’s immense and ardent feeling for living Nature, which overwhelmed me with so great a joy and made the world about me a very paradise, has now become an unbearable torment, a demon that goes with me everywhere, torturing me” (65). In the end, this demon manifests itself in a violent storm that urges Werther to end his “sufferings and sorrows by plunging, passing on with a crash like the waves!” (112). These morbid sentiments are fueled by his uncontrollable passion, the driving force behind his rash decisions. With Werther’s devotion to nature evoking extreme emotional states, and his passion causing him to act on these surges of emotion, Werther is thrown onto a deadly path that results in his self- destruction.Werther’s passion is a driving force in his self- destruction because it dictates his beliefs and decisions and, combined with the influences of nature, provides suicide as an answer to his woes. Throughout the novel, Werther’s passion is a source of contention between Charlotte and Albert and himself. When an argument arises, Werther allows his passion to propel him into heated engagement in the dispute. Metaphorically, a battle of reason versus passion rages in the subtext of the book; one personified in Albert, Charlotte’s worthy betrothed, and the other in Werther. In the end, reason presides over passion and Albert remains with Charlotte. In a moral debate with Albert over the justification of suicide, Werther calls upon us to “consider a man, confined within his bounds, influenced by impressions, beset by ideas, till one day a growing passion overthrows his contemplative composure and destroys him” (62). He goes on to argue that it is senseless for a rational man to try to reason with the destroyed man, because reason cannot change or evoke emotions. Werther has succeeded in describing his own dilemma; he is a man influenced by impressions, overthrown by his growing passions, and destroyed. Reason and logic are of no use to him; all his acts are born of a wild passion and a force of nature. The devouring, self- destructive monster that nature has become evokes the self-destructive nature that lies within Werther. His artistic nature, devotion to nature, and passion are all simply integral character traits, always existing, their self- destructive properties lying dormant within him, waiting to go off like a timed- bomb. These lethal traits result in Werther’s suicide: one complete and final action and the culmination of his self-destruction.It has been argued, however, that the change in nature is merely a metaphorical reflection of Werther’s frenzied mind, and does not actively contribute to his suicide. It is true that Werther’s increasing desperation is accompanied by an increasing violence of nature and therefore it is plausible that one is a reflection of the other. However, what is not taken into account here is the element of choice. Werther chooses to change the way in which he views nature, because the depletion of his artistic tendencies calls for a re-evaluation of the role of nature. In coming to see nature as a “corrosive power” (66), Werther embarks on a self- destructive path that is fueled by the new, destructive properties he associates with nature. “What wastes my heart away is the corrosive power that lies concealed in the natural universe – in Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbor and itself” (66). Werther’s artistic nature, devotion to nature, and passion all play a hand in his self- destruction. Werther is his own un-doing; he brings forth nothing that does not destroy itself. But what about destroying his neighbor? He has certainly stained the lives of Charlotte and Albert and perhaps they have been set on their own path of self- destruction, the catalyst being Werther’s death in the place of nature. If so, this would increase the extent and effect of the destructive powers of nature and of Werther. Werther has become part of a chain reaction involving the destruction of all that surrounds him. Here, it is important to consider the cost of our ambitions and passions and even the self- destructive traits that lie dormant within us. Werther’s self-destruction and the destruction of others are brought about by an inevitable, natural chain of effect, a ‘fate’ governed by a new God, Nature.

The Problem of Body in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther

As the referent of the individual, the body functions as a site for contradiction, resistance, and reassertion. It embodies a set of rules that delineates individual space through an exclusion of that which is not self. In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, corporeality problematizes the relations between the self and its signifiers. Whereas it has been proposed that mind lies over matter, the body generates real opposition to the expression of genius. An entity based on the premise of finitude, the body bounds aspirations towards the infinite. As the episodes of Werther’s sketching, the bounded space of the individual body resists the lawless space of the sovereign genius.Werther’s sketch serves as a preliminary study for the alternate reality that he envisions. The “dark eyes” (Goethe 14) that Werther attributes to the older boy are the same “dark eyes” (Goethe 25) that he endows to Charlotte1. Eyes that can melt from one body to another presuppose a fluid nature of reality2. Fluidity characterizes Werther’s selection of subject matter, bridging the gap between himself and the world. “I included the nearest fence, a barn door, and a few broken cartwheels,” he notes, “just as they came into view” (Goethe 14). Rather than actively selecting his subject matter, Werther sketches objects as they stream into his field of vision. He paints outdoors in order to minimize the barriers between himself and nature. The continuity that the objects experience as they flow from the outside world into Werther’s sketch implies a confluence of external and personal space.At the same time, Werther perceives his body as an obstruction to the conflation of individual and exterior into a single entity. Like the sand that prevents him from drinking in Charlotte’s letter (Goethe 50), Werther’s body reminds him of his individuality and essential separateness from the external world. Decorporealization, a breaking of the damn of the body, thus proves necessary in Werther’s construction of a fluid reality. In declaring that “Nature alone forms the great artist,” (Goethe 14) Werther elides his body from the process of creation. Negating his own agency, he emphasizes that it is only “by accident” (Goethe 13) that he finds the two boys in the square and that it is only “without adding the slightest invention of . . . [his] own” (Goethe 14) that he completes the sketch. Reducing the artist to a conduit of nature, Werther presupposes self-destruction as a necessary counterpart to the self-creation of genius.Wishing to become dissolved in and disseminated into the world’s reality, Werther’s yearning is profane, because it challenges God’s omnipotence. God can be everywhere at once only because He has no body that localizes His being. Corporeality makes one an individual, binding his existence to a finite locality. Perceiving the finitude imposed by his body, Werther muses, “What is man, that celebrated demigod . . . is he not . . . held back and restored to dull, cold consciousness at the very moment when he longs to lose himself in the fullness of the infinite?” (Goethe 124-125). Werther seeks to dissolve his body as a gesture towards boundlessness. So great is his narcissism that he aspires to God’s omnipotence4; to Werther, genius is to be no less than a bodiless, boundless Creator5. As he states, “That the life of man is but a dream is a thought which has occurred to many people, and I myself am constantly haunted by it” (Goethe 11). Werther seeks to be the creator of his own “dream”.The body’s finitude poses a problem for the genius. Specifically bounded, corporeality limits genius in its essential irreproducibility. As Werther realizes, Lotte, once produced, cannot be reproduced: “Three times I have started Lotte’s portrait, and three times I have bungled it . . . Finally I gave up and cut her silhouette, and with that I shall be satisfied” (Goethe 50). Werther can fill the evacuated silhouette with himself, but he can never fill it with the real Lotte; although he can merge with his construction of Lotte, he cannot reproduce this identification with the real girl.The body denies genius the ultimate act of creation through its reassertion of individual irreplaceability. Genius can destroy but cannot recreate that which has already been created. Only through the impossibility of decorporealization can there emerge a reality where artists can be lovers and where individuals can merge with the world.

The Sorrows of Young Werther: Passion vs. Rationality

In “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, by Goethe, one of the prevalent themes is the control that passion wields over one’s actions. Passion may cause one to act irrationally, a belief that Goethe espoused despite the paradigm that dominated the society of his day: that man should allow rationality and common sense to control his life. The story takes place in Germany in 1771, and is written in epistolary form. The letters are composed by a lovesick man named Werther, destined to take his life because the object of his affection is married to another, and are addressed to a trusted friend named Wilhelm. Werther takes a romantic view on life, letting his heart and passions guide him. He sees death as a heroic escape, often favors imagination over reality, and hates the fact that the men of his time are mechanical, static conformists that allow so-called “common sense” to rule their decisions.Passion and romantic ideals lead Werther down the path that will ultimately end in his demise. When speaking of a friend, Werther states that “he admires my intelligence and my talents more than my heart, which is, after all, my only pride, and the fountainhead of all – all strength, happiness and misery” (97). Because he lets his heart guide him, the misery he speaks of outweighs his strength and happiness. Werther lets his imagination take control of his mind more often than his common sense, yet another trait of romantics. He believes that one is happiest when under the spell of delusions, as can be seen when he writes of a woman described to him by a boy: I shall try to see her as soon as possible, or rather, after giving it a second thought, I shall avoid her. It is better that I see her through the eyes of her lover; she might not appear to my own eyes, in reality, as I now see her; and why should I destroy the lovely image I already possess? (20) Werther prefers an image, a picture existing solely in his head, to an uncertain reality.It is his heart that Werther listens to, and his heart that he feels he must sacrifice. It appears, on the surface, that Goethe is reprimanding those who have the same perspective on life as Werther by murdering him at the end of the novel. It seems that those who oppose him are, in fact, “correct” in their actions.Nearly every character in the novel, with few exceptions, subscribe to classical ideals and dogmas. Classicists, the opposite of romantics, favor uniformity, common sense, rationality, and the mind over romantic ideas. Throughout the book, Werther’s friends demand that he gain some common sense: Wilhelm writes, “pull yourself together and try to get rid of an unfortunate passion that is bound to burn up all your energy” (54). Wilhelm tries to convince Werther to toss aside his passion, the very emotion on which he thrives. Wilhelm is aware that should Werther continue to live with such passion in his life, his energy will soon be spent. Even Lotte, the woman Werther loves and lives for, hopes that he will turn away from his irrationality: Werther! You can, you must see us again; only do be reasonable. Oh, why did you have to be born with this violent temper, this uncontrollable clinging passion for everything you touch! Please…be reasonable! Your intellect, your knowledge, your talents, should offer you such a variety of satisfactions! (138) The word “reasonable” is repeated to emphasize the way that Werther should be, according to the classical ideals of the time. Lotte speaks of intellect and knowledge, both of which are basic facets of classicism. Knowledge is based on facts, and facts are unchanging, solid, and static; these are traits that Werther’s friends try to impose on him throughout the book. However, Goethe is not trying to encourage people to embrace the classical outlook on life. Although it may appear so, he is in fact doing just the opposite; into Werther’s suicide, Goethe weaves heroism, sympathy, and honor.Throughout his life, Werther has been urged to embrace rationality and think things through. Ultimately, however, he realizes that he cannot control his passions; to the contrary, his passions control him. Werther meets another like him, who cannot control himself either: “his passion for the woman…had daily grown on him, to the degree that he finally had not known what to do…He had not been able to eat, to drink or sleep; he had felt as if something was choking him(103).” Werther, too, feels as if some higher force is controlling his actions. Werther is not punished for letting his passion rule him; he takes his life, and this is what he has longed for more than anything. He welcomes death with open arms: he “shuddered with awe and also with longing” (133). Werther’s death is heroic, at least in his eyes; this is proven when he reads from some songs of Ossian to Lotte. He says, “Tall thou art on the hill; fair among the sons of the vale. But thou shalt fall like Morar; the mourner shall sit on thy tomb” (149). He envisions his own death as similarly heroic, with Lotte weeping for him atop his grave, because he was brave enough to take his own life. He argues profusely with Albert, Lotte’s husband, when Albert says that suicide is weak: “For it is certainly easier to die than bravely to bear a life of misery” (59). Werther never changes his view on this subject, believing that suicide is grand. Goethe also uses the epistolary form to glorify Werther’s death. It is common for heroes to be described as god-like, immortal, and impervious. Because the letters show the passage of time and end with Werther’s death, Werther is dropped to the rank of a mere mortal. However, he is still a hero, and the fact that his death is imminent only suggests that he is normal: an everyman hero. In this mannner, readers are encouraged to relate to Werther, and to embrace his romantic ideas.Though “The Sorrows of Young Werther” appears to praise the classical outlook on life, a closer reading reveals that Goethe is, to the contrary, espousing the romantic view. It is the classical element in those around Werther that kills him, for none of his friends can stand the fact that he has let his heart guide him through life. His death touches those close to them, despite their many differences. It is passion that rules Werther: he can do nothing to appease his heart, and must ultimately accept that perhaps this is simply how life is.

Werther As a Force of Nature

From the beginning of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther emphasizes his connection to Nature in order to embellish the tragically creative persona he presents to Wilhelm. As his infatuation with Charlotte grows and he laments the injustice and misfortune of his situation, his views distort; we see his self-perceived affinity with Nature becoming more twisted and less peaceful. A turning point in this tranformation can be seen in his entry of 18 August; Nature is no longer sublime and beautiful to him, but merely sublime and filled with the potential for destruction: Werther finds himself paralyzed by the thoughts of his own destructive powers.Werther is describing the anguish of his unrequited love for Charlotte, which has transformed his previous love for Nature into torment. The extent of his torment is described in the form of a vision: “It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my eyes,â€? hinting at an epiphany-changed Werther, expecting to feel attachment and oneness with Nature, but “instead of prospects of eternal life, the abyss of an ever-open grave yawned before me.â€? The image of a curtain being drawn aside to reveal a Truth which concerns “the prospects of eternal lifeâ€? has strongly religious connotations; despite its lack of precision, this phrase conveys a wealth of images associated with ineffable experiences as in Biblical stories of religious epiphanies; curtains are prominent in Old Testament descriptions of the ark and the Holy of Holies — where a curtain encloses the heavenly presence. Such a religious tone indicates that Werther views this revelation with the fervency of a prophet, willing to allow it to determine his fate.Inflated imagery dominates the rest of the paragraph: Werther finds himself overshadowed by storms, torrents, the ocean, time, and Nature, the “all-comsuming monster.â€? These parallel his fear of his own destructive power: that at some scale he, too, is all-consuming, and could destroy a world in the same way an earthquake swallows a village.Werther finds himself before “the abyss of an ever-open grave,â€? which symbolises to Werther the tenuousness of his life: that he might plunge into the abyss as easily as falling into a hole in the ground. While a grave is a clear connection between this world and the next, an abyss is of a completely different category.\footnote{Abyss, in its original sense, means “an other-worldly pit,â€? in contrast to the weaker modern connotation.} That Werther can magnify one into the other gives this paragraph a fantastic flavour: in Werther’s dreams and visions an earthly grave becomes otherworldly and grows in magnititude when he interprets it.Werther continues with this image of life’s tenuousness: “Can we say of anything that it is when all passes away?â€? Werther’s question is more clearly emphatic in the German: “Kannst du sagen: Das ist! da alles vor ubergeht?â€? One can picture Werther standing at the edge of his abyss shouting these words at the turbulent grey sky, in the sort of stereotypical angst-ridden soliloquy he would, no doubt, enjoy giving.Imagery of blindly consuming forces bolsters this image, as Werther expounds upon existence’s ephemerality: “Can we say of anything than it is when all passses away — when time, with the speed of a storm, carries all things onward — and our transitory existence, hurried along by the torrent, is swallowed up by the waves or dashed against the rocks?â€? Although Werther changes metaphors for this fateful natural power three times in the course of the sentence, the image of coursing water, relentless in its flow, is explicit in each: time is compared with storms, torrents, and ocean waves — a human may be carried away by time, like a sapling may be uprooted and carried away by coursing water. The imagery of rushing water parallels that of the sentence itself: although the sentence is long, its flowing nature — especially its many dependent clauses — and common imagery carry the reader to finish the sentence before realising that the metaphor for time changed several times midcourse. The image of being swallowed by such forces is also introduced in this sentence — the waves are of such enormousness (and enormity!) that they could simply engulf one’s existence and extinguish it. In some sense, one could see a beginning of the swallowing motif in the vision of the abyss, which is sometimes described as engulfing humans in older poetry and literature.In accord with this swallowing motif, Werther concludes, “There is not a moment that doesn’t consume you and yours — not a moment in which you don’t yourself destroy something.â€? The first part of this sentence continues the theme of time as an active force; that time could consume a person inverts the usual image of humans as consumers of time; one is literally eaten by each moment which elapses. Thus, Werther’s imagery evolves: instead of merely being caught in the flow of time, one is consumed by each sucessive moment in what might be seen as a perverse game of Pacman.The second half of the phrase reveals an interesting leap of logic; Werther concludes that because each person is consumed/destroyed, each must also consume and destroy. While it’s possible that Werther has simply jumped to conclusions, brooding about the destructive power of Nature, and concluding that he, as part of Nature, must also be inherently destructive, a more plausible conclusion is that Werther has imagined a world on a smaller scale, for which he is a large force. This alternate interpretation evokes the initial scene when he observes “the little world among the stalksâ€? (6), and finds himself so entranced with the insects and plants on such a small scale.In fact, Werther shows his concern for such small worlds: “The most innocent walk costs thousands of poor insects their lives; one step destroys the delicate structures of the ant and turns a little world into chaos.â€?

Nature in The Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is the embodiment of the Sturm und Drang literary movement that swept through Europe. Werther reached the height of popularity and inspired many young people, even leading them to dress like him. Werther, with the temperament of a romantic, always chooses his heart over his head. It is this heart over that head mentality that leads him to his own self-destruction. By reading the letters Werther writes, we are taken into his thoughts and feelings. Werther feels a deep connection to nature and his surroundings. Through Werther’s connection to nature, we see how the natural world influences him. Through Werther’s letters, we see how the outside world mirrors the inside world of himself. Through the genre of Sturm und Drang, we see how Werther is the perfect example of stormy weather. As exhibited in The Sorrows of Young Werther, for Goethe, nature has a power over humans and their well being.

The role of nature in the novel is exhibited in positive and in negative ways. The first part being, the external beauty of nature and its affects and passions in Werther’s writings. This use of nature is explored in the beginning of the novel where Werther is filled with joy and enjoys seeing nature as art. He writes, “today I witnessed a scene which, if written down plainly and exactly, would be the loveliest idyll the world has ever seen…must we tinker about with Nature before we can enjoy it” (Goethe 35). This is seen when he actively paints and writes poetry. Werther writes, “I had produced a harmoniously correct and arresting drawing without putting into it anything whatsoever of my own…only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist” (32). Werther attributes his talent to nature. He says that he did not change nature in his art, he only put down exactly what he saw. When he writes to Wilhelm, he shares in the joy of nature when he is happy. In the beginning, Werther tends to focus on the beauty of nature, but others do not. They focus on the physiology and technical features of nature and ignore the beauty and purity, which Werther associates nature with. Werther doesn’t like how men take nature for their own civilizations, he writes:

patriarchal ways come vividly to life about me, and I see them all, the ancestral fathers, making friends and courting by the spring, and I sense the benevolent spirits that watch over springs and wells. Oh, anyone who cannot share this feeling must never have refreshed himself at a cool spring after a hard day’s summer walking. (27)

Werther does not understand those who do not receive joy from nature. When nature is beautiful, Werther feels good. When Werther feels good, he sees the beauty in nature. Werther’s mood and how nature is perceived by Werther go hand in hand. When Werther is feeling good, he sees nature as good. Werther has an intense connection to nature. It lifts his spirits. But it can also bring him down.

Often the weather outside affects how one feels on the inside. This is true for Werther. In his letters, it is seen how the outside nature changes his emotions and feelings inside. The second use of nature in the novel is to depict the condition of Werther and his journey to his ultimate destruction. Werther writes that he has a special connection to nature and that he knows when his mood is going down based on the natural world. He describes this to Wilhelm, “the sun was still a quarter hour from touching the mountains…it was very sultry, and the ladies voiced fears of the thunderstorm…I set their minds at rest by affecting expertise in matters of the weather, though all the time I was myself beginning to suspect that our pleasures would be dealt a blow” (37). It is this connection to nature that leads Werther to feel the way he does. If the weather is sunny, he prepares for good things, but if not then he knows things are about to become dreary. Nature serves as a backdrop to Werther’s despair. Goethe goes even further as to show that nature mirrors the feelings of humans and vice versa. Goethe’s use of nature as the setting for Werther’s heartbreak creates the foundation for his unrequited love. Goethe uses nature to correspond to the feelings within Werther, as seen in the dance scene with Lotte. Lotte tells Werther of Albert and non-coincidentally, lightning strikes, “everything was in disarray and Lotte’s entire presence of mind and tugging and pulling were needed to restore a hasty order… lightning, began to flash more violently, and the thunder to drown out the music” (41). The lightning strike mirrors the way Werther feels stricken by Lotte’s announcement. Werther spends so much time in nature and thinking about nature that it becomes a part of him. Werther sees his sorrow displayed in the world around him.

Sturm und Drang, or Storm and Stress, is something very familiar to Werther. Werther and the weather have similar dispositions, they are both unpredictable and always in flux. Werther becomes the nature that he experiences. Werther writes on October 20th, “…we are so constituted as to be forever comparing ourselves with others and our surroundings with ourselves, our happiness or misery depends on the things in our environment…” (73). Moreover, nature not only affects his emotions, but he depends on nature. They are one. This is again seen when autumn arrives and Werther feels himself “yellowing” (90) along with the leaves on the trees. Werther is in complete harmony even with nature’s cycles. Werther says that he becomes autumn, “as Nature’s year declines into autumn, it is becoming autumn within me, and all about me” (90). Goethe is using nature to explain how Werther is feeling. Nature takes over Werther’s life, whether he knows it or not.

For von Goethe, nature is an expression of human feelings in the same way that human expression depends on nature. In The Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther’s emotions depend on his surrounding environment. Goethe’s novel acts as an argument for the power of nature. Through Goethe’s writing it is seen that through nature, Werther receives his sorrow and his joy. Whether it is a positive influence, a negative influence, or a complete immersion, it is shown that nature has a power over humans. Throughout the novel, it is seen that nature can change a person. A man can be moved to create art and experience joy, he can be sorrowful and experience ill thoughts, and the complete nature of a man can be altered, all due to nature.

The Suicide of Young Werther: A Pathological Release

In the form of a semi-autobiographical epistolary novel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) composed the highly emotional Die Leiden des jungen Werther within a matter of weeks. Suitably known as a “Briefroman” in German, the novel is a compilation of letters from Werther to his friend, Wilhelm, and is assembled from May 4, 1771 until December 1772 by an unknown third narrator, who concludes the novel after Werther takes his life. It is this narrator who mentions the presence of Lessing’s tragic play Emilia Galotti, opened to an unnumbered page atop Werther’s desk as he slowly dies on the floor. The significance of this reference to Emilia Galotti is fiercely debated, with theories ranging from political to personal reasons as to why Goethe incorporated the bourgeois tragedy. Analyzing key letters written to Wilhelm depicts the deterioration of Werther’s mental state and the manner in which his anxiety and depression lead to his death. In comparison to the concept of suicide in 18th century Europe, Werther’s suicide focuses on the pathology and is independent of religion or theological discourse.

Werther’s suicidal thoughts occur throughout the novel, suggesting Werther’s propensity for mental health instability and his opening sentence “Wie froh bin ich, dass ich weg bin!” (How glad I am to be gone!) portends a proclivity of escapism (Goethe 2). As early as his May 22nd letter, Werther broods over man’s limitations and the activities which merely prolong the “wretched” human existence. He glorifies one’s ability to take his own life, writing “And then, with all his limitations, he nevertheless always has in his heart the sweet feeling that he’s free, and can leave this prison anytime he wants” (Appelbaum 15).

Werther’s pessimistic attitude prevails despite his bursts of happiness, with him claiming that these moments of bliss will be short lived and lamenting to Wilhelm, “Must it so be that whatever makes man happy must later become the source of his misery?” (77). Lotte, Wilhelm’s source of bliss and misery, admonishes him for his excessive compassion (Goethe 50). In truth, Werther has more empathy for the world than he can bear and these emotions weigh on him with a heaviness that contribute to his depression. He outlines his disinterest in reading, nature, and art, previous pastimes of his, concluding with a melancholy “When we lack ourselves, we lack everything” (Appelbaum 81). Coupled with his depression, Werther yearns for something more – such as in applying for the embassy position – but his anxiety inhibits him. Trapped between these opposing feelings, Werther turns to thoughts of self-harm, with imaginative scenes such as jabbing a knife through his heart (109). The reader may notice that Werther’s suicidal inclinations are mentioned with increasing frequency and complexity, as he applies analogies to describe his tormented feelings. Such can be found in the March 16th entry: “Naturalists tell of a noble race of horses that instinctively open a vein with their teeth, when heated and exhausted by a long course, in order to breathe more freely” (111). This description also foreshadows his unnecessarily bled arm after committing suicide (201). Werther outrightly states his yearning for a permanent respite with “I am often tempted to open a vein, to procure for myself everlasting liberty” (111).

The mysterious third-person narrator returns to chronicle Werther’s laborious death scene, in which Lessing’s Emilia Galotti lays open on Werther’s desk. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) was Goethe’s literary predecessor and while the two intellectuals never met, Goethe credits him as an inspiration (DeGuire). There are many theories regarding Goethe’s intentional omission of Lessing’s name. Given the absence of any reference to which act, scene, or page number to which the play is open, the most logical reason is that Goethe wanted the reader to focus on the essence and overall message within Emilia Galotti. Many interpretations of Emilia Galotti in Werther are political, having to do with a critique of the bourgeois. Dr. Mary DeGuire argues, however, that “Goethe’s inclusion of Emilia Galotti at this textual site marks Goethe’s aesthetic disagreement with Lessing’s ideas concerning pain and beauty in death” (94-5). This is a valid argument, given that Emilia’s death is quick, her beauty is retained, and her father lays her on the floor whereas Werther is discovered with paralyzed limbs and his brains spilled out, yet a pulse continuing to beat six hours later (Lessing 68; Appelbaum 201). This truly sickening scene destroys the romanticization of suicide which Werther had previously painted. It is not until twelve hours after committing the deed that Werther is finally released from his suffering (Appelbaum 201-3). Despite the graphic discrepancies between Werther and Emilia, both death scenes share similarities in motive and circumstance, such as the existence of a love triangle. Death serves as their only escape from the entanglement between passion and sin – through Emilia’s feelings of impurity from the Prince and Werther’s romantic last encounter with Lotte. Additionally, Emilia and Werther hope their deaths benefit their loved ones. While Emilia sacrifices herself to maintain her virtue, as that is her father’s will, Werther sacrifices himself in order to restore contentment and serenity to Lotte’s life. In a final comparison, borrowed weapons are the means with which each suicide is committed and are handled by the one whom each victim wishes to appease. As Emilia’s mediary suicide is suitably carried out by her father’s hand, Werther delights in the fact that Lotte touched the pistols; she from whom Werther wished to receive death (197).

As a contrary interpretation, perhaps no symbolism exists between Emilia Galotti and Werther. It may be that Goethe simply modelled Werther’s end after a suicide of actual occurrence, namely that of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem (1747-1772). The son of a theologian, Jerusalem made acquaintance with Goethe in 1765 in Leipzig during the latter’s study of law. Jerusalem had Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as his patron, as an extension of his father’s friendship with the author of Emilia Galotti. Goethe and Jerusalem were not fond of each other and thusly fell out of contact until a chance encounter in 1772, the same year in which Goethe met the inspiration for Werther’s love, Charlotte (Lotte) Buff, and her fiancé, Johann Georg Christian Kestner. Before Jerusalem killed himself, he wrote a letter to Kestner asking to borrow his pistols. Goethe used Jerusalem’s exact words in Werther’s request to Albert, writing “Would you lend me your pistols for a trip I intend to make? Farewell and be happy!” (Appelbaum 191). Similar to Werther, not only was Jerusalem suffering from failures in romantic and diplomatic realms, but more significantly, the last book for him to read before his suicide was Emilia Galotti. While Goethe did not address the plagiarism of Jerusalem’s death, he described the Briefroman as “an innocent mixture of truth and fabrication” in a letter to Charlotte (Appelbaum vi-iii). In this way, the significance of the Emilia Galotti reference may only reach as far as being a tribute to a man whom Goethe hardly knew, although it is more generally assumed that Goethe wanted the reader to assess Werther’s suicide based on the morals in Emilia Galotti.

The condemnation of self-killing, which was formally based on religious beliefs, underwent a change of thinking during the Enlightenment. Goethe saw suicide as a necessary subject of discussion and his use of the taboo topic epitomizes Werther as Sturm und Drang literature, an offshoot movement of the Enlightenment which advocated nature, anti-establishment, and boldness (Appelbaum vi). Despite the few accounts of alleged copycat suicides – also known as the “Werther-effect” – which resulted in the novel’s publication ban in various locations, there is no evidence to prove any epidemiological consequence (Niederkrotenthaler). The concept of self-murder, as suicide was known since the 1650s, was common well before the 18th century and was characterized as a crime, in addition to being considered an expression of pathological madness (Bähr). Due to St. Augustine’s declaration that the 5th commandment “Thou shalt not kill” applied to suicide as well as murder, suicides were subject to moral and religious implications. Lutheran’s believed suicide to be a result of the devil, with Martin Luther arguing that suicides were merely damned people “overpowered” with evil and who might still be saved by God, although God’s discernment on this matter was ultimately equivocal (Stuart). On the other hand, Catholics asserted the act as a mortal sin, as suicide cannot be absolved through confession. Under the fear of eternal damnation, the idea of suicide by proxy came into being. This entailed a murder of an innocent person, generally a child, in order to save them from the damnation of life as well as allowing the murderer a confession before their execution. While murder was the most common form of suicide by proxy, suicidal individuals might commit a different capital offense or falsely confess to such a crime. The earliest recorded suicide by proxy occurred in 1612 and this phenomena continued well into the 18th century, when German jurists designated the act “mittelbarer Selbstmord.” The remains of suicide victims were handed over by the Catholics and Protestants to the authorities for disposal. The location of suicide graves varied from region to region in Germany, but were generally either cremated, thrown into the river, or dumped in a mass grave underneath the gallows (Stuart).

These religious penalties were alluded to in Werther, as the protagonist wrote to Lotte in his suicide letter that he wished to be buried in a secluded spot, between two lime trees in the church courtyard, explaining “I don’t want to give pious Christians the unpleasantness of laying their bodies down next to an unfortunate wretch” (Appelbaum 199). Furthermore, during the account of Werther’s burial, the third person narrator writes that no clergyman attended which corresponds with the Catholic belief that suicides were not worthy of proper burial (Goethe 202). As stated by Dr. Andreas Bähr, the concept that is known today as “suicide” reflects a gradual and complex historical process of pathologizing and decriminalizing the act of taking one’s own life. Prior to the German term “Selbstmord” and the relative normalization of suicide, “Selbstentleibung,” or self-disembodiment, was used to describe self-murder. In the German dictionary from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German writer Joachim Heinrich Campe defines “Selbstentleibung” as “das widerspiel derselben (der selbsterhaltung) ist die willkührliche oder vorsätzliche zerstörung seiner animalischen natur…die totale heiszt die selbstentleibung” (The contrary of this (self-preservation) is the arbitrary or intentional destruction of its animal nature … the whole is called self-disembodiment).

In Goethe’s autobiographical Dichtung und Wahrheit, he writes that suicide “demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew.” Given that Goethe had anxiety and depressive episodes, perhaps writing Die Leiden des jungen Werther was a method of cognitive rationalization for Goethe and a cathartic strategy for coping with his own mental health (Holm-Hadulla). According to Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, “suicidality plays a role in the novel a long time before the suicidal act at the end,” a reflection of Goethe recognizing the predisposition to mental health issues. Can anyone without suicidal tendencies truly understand the motivation or mindset of someone who commits suicide? Through creating a therapeutic piece of prose for his own suffering, Goethe may have also been attempting to educate readers who simply cannot fathom such a depth of despair that one would take their own life. Additionally, by incorporating Emilia Galotti, Goethe proves that such feelings of anguish are not isolated occurrences. The reader can only hope that in his afterlife, Werther is able to remark to himself once more, “Wie froh bin ich, dass ich weg bin!”

Works Cited

Bähr, Andreas. “Between “Self-Murder” and “Suicide”: The Modern Etymology of Self-Killing.” Journal of Social History (Spring 2013) 46 (3): 620-632. doi: 10.1093/jsh/shs119 http://jsh.oxfordjournals.org/content/46/3/620.full

DeGuire, Mary. “Intertextuality in Goethe’s “Werther”” Diss. U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von. “Thirteenth Book.” Trans. John Oxenford. The Autobiography of Goethe: Truth and Poetry From My Own Life. Gottingen ed. N.p.: Library of Alexandria, 1882. N. pag. Print.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von, and Stanley Appelbaum. The Sorrows of Young Werther = Die Leiden Des Jungen Werther: A Dual-language Book. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004. Print.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “Wörterbuchnetz – Selbstentleibung.” Wörterbuchnetz – Deutsches Wörterbuch Von Jacob Grimm Und Wilhelm Grimm. Trier Center for Digital Humanities, 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Holm-Hadulla, Rainer M. “Goethe’s Anxieties, Depressive Episodes and (Self-)Therapeutic Strategies: A Contribution to Method Integration in Psychotherapy.” Psychopathology 46.4 (2013): 266-74. Karger Publishers. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Emilia Galotti. Ein Trauerspiel in Fünf Aufzügen. Comp. Michael Holzinger. N.p.: Berliner Ausgabe, 2016. Print.

Niederkrotenthaler, Thomas, and Arno Herberth and Gernot Sonneck. Der “Werther-Effekt”: Mythos oder Realität?. Neuropsychiatr. 2007; 21(4): 284–290.

Stuart, Kathy. “Suicide by Proxy: The Unintended Consequences of Public Executions in Eighteenth-Century Germany.” Central European History, vol. 41, no. 3, 2008, pp. 413–445. www.jstor.org/stable/20457368.

Malaise in J.W. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther

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”[1]. 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”[2]. 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”[3]. 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”[4]. 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”[5]. 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”[6]. 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”[7]. 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”[8]. 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”[9]. 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”[10]. 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”[11]. 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”[12]. 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.

Bibliography

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.

[1]Vartan Gregorian, The Road to Home: My Life and Times (New York; Simon and Schuster, 2008), 83 [2]Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe [1774], The Sorrows of Young Werther (Minneapolis; Filiquarian Publishing, 2007), 19. Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition. [3]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 [4]Margaret Church, Structure and Theme – Don Quixote to James Joyce (Ohio; Ohio State University Press, 1983), 42 [5]Martin Swales, Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1987), 50 [6]Martin Swales, Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1987), 49 [7]Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts (New York; iUniverse, 2001), 106 [8]David Constantine, The Sorrows of Young Werther (New York; Oxford University Press, 2012), Introduction xxiv [9]Martin Schoolman, Reason and Horror: Critical Theory, Democracy and Aesthetic Individuality (New York; Routledge, 2001), 29 [10]Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts (New York; iUniverse, 2001), 106 [11]Thomas J. Scheff and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts (New York; iUniverse, 2001), 106 [12]Martin Swales, Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1987), 30