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.
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