The Romantic Hero Gender Politics In The Sorrows Of Young Werther By Goethe

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

Rebellion against the society and an absolute idea of self are characteristics associated with the Romantic Hero. They are in constant conflict with the society and the prescribed norms, yet they fall victim to the social system of ‘patriarchy’. While fighting against power structures and believing in the importance of individuality, they fall short in questioning the social organisation of gender and the resultant power structures. They often end up reinforcing pre-existing gender roles and hierarchies. The deep entrenched gender biases in society are evident in romantic works like Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ and Rousseau’s ‘Emile’.

In ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, all the events and ideas are filtered through the male protagonist—Werther’s gaze. On various occasions the chauvinistic side to his personality comes to light. Women, as presented through Werther’s perspective, exist as a means of further consolidating the hero’s agency, emotions and individuality. This is evident in his lack of interest in knowing or using the names of the women he interacts with, except Lotte and Fraulein B, his two friends, while he uses the names of the men he meets.

Werther is a man who strongly dislikes the mundane domestic life and feels at peace when surrounded with nature and indulging in art. He is shown to be strongly rejecting the traditional ideas of what men need to be like. But he ends up reinforcing gender roles when he is attracted to women in that domestic set-up, surrounded by or taking care of children. He mentions in one of his letters to Wilhelm— “all the upheaval in me can be stilled by the sight of such a creature who…within the narrow circle of her existence, gets by from one day to the next.” This shows his attraction towards the traditional and conventional gender roles adopted by women.

Another such instance is Werther’s lack of interest in knowing the widow and siding with the farmhand who misconstrued friendship as love and in a fit of jealous rage killed another man, the farmhand that succeeded him. He does not consider the woman’s perspective, who had her actions and amicable behaviour mistaken as reciprocation of love and was assaulted as a result of this passion of the farmhand. Yet, Werther feels that the farmhand is the true victim and pays no heed to the emotional and mental duress that the woman would have endured. Additionally, he also choses to only address her as the widow, reducing her station in life to that of the wife of a dead man.

This idea of considering a woman’s interest in friendship as love is also evident in Werther’s own relationship with Lotte. Werther on meeting Lotte, is enamoured by her presence in the ‘domestic’ setting, with her giving food to children. He falls in love with her but his love was never reciprocated by Lotte. She never hinted at any such feelings nor did she declare her love yet Werther absolutely believed that she loved him back and he hated the word like in association with his feelings toward her— “Like! I hate the word with a passion. What kind of a person must he be who likes Lotte?” Despite his continuous and passionate declarations of love in his letters, it becomes absolutely clear that Lotte is just a receptacle for his affections and he has no true regard for her person, when he often reduces her being to something that can be owned or possessed— ‘…still it would be unbearable to have him before my eyes in possession off all the perfections she embodies.” He also takes matters further when without her consent and despite her efforts to stop him, he kisses her—

“He clasped her in his arms, pressed her to his heart and overwhelmed her trembling and stammering lips with a rage of kisses.— ‘Werther!’ she cried, her voice choked, averting her face, ‘Werther!’—and with a weak hand she pushed his breast from hers.” This shows, Werther’s inflated sense of self and how from his perspective, Lotte’s friendship could only mean love.

Werther’s extreme emotions and ideas culminate in his suicide. Even in death, Werther’s intentions to induce guilt within Lotte are clear. He writes her a letter before he dies, where he claims that— “It is not despair, it is the certainty that I have suffered my fill and that I am sacrificing myself for you.” He is completely aware of the effects his actions will have on Lotte’s life and yet he goes through with them. The readers are told of the subsequent blame that is placed upon Lotte for Werther’s demise— “The old man followed the coffin with his sons, Albert could not do it. They feared for Lotte’s life.” Women, often tend to be blamed even today when the men in their lives die by suicide. This is a reflection of how it is expected of the woman to heal men and also accept their advances if they are aware of the fragile emotions of the man.

In Emile, Rousseau prescribes a method of education that focuses on the growth of the individual with in accordance with nature. While Rousseau suggests a system where instead of teaching children how to be citizens, they are taught how to be ‘man’. The romantic notion of self before society is evident. But it is important to understand that he addresses the child who needs to be educated as ‘he’ and thus excludes girls from his system of education. Furthermore, he states that once you train a child to be man, he will consequently be a good citizen. In doing, so he once again ends up excluding girls and women from not only the education but also the idea of being a citizen.

Rousseau also iterates the mother’s work of educating the child in the early years. He justifies his assertion by stating that by nature’s design it is a woman’s job, otherwise nature would have given man milk to feed the child. He states that while people may design systems for education, it is the mother’s responsibility to execute these plans. He also refers to nature as ‘she’ and says that nature is a primary educator for the child and the education by man should be in harmony with nature. From this it can inferred that it is being suggested that the role of educating the child is primarily a female responsibility.

His treatise on education puts emphasis on freedom of movement of the child. He argues against swaddling the kids and wrapping them up in fear of them hurting themselves— “Is not such cruel bondage certain to affect both health and temper.” He says that when allowed to move their limbs freely the children grow strong and if their movement is restricted, they will lack strength and be more prone to diseases—“The inaction, the constraint to which the child’s limbs are subjected…can only hinder the child’s growth in size and strength.”

While considering this directive it is important to acknowledge that social norms dictated that girls at the time should wear corsets from a relatively young age. Corsets were garments, that restricted body movement and were used to conform the body to a fashionable silhouette. Though, Rousseau argues against restrictive clothing for children, he does not question the corset and how it may have affected the growth of girls.

In addition, he divides the roles of the mother and father in educating the child. He asserts the importance of breast-feeding the child and questions the mothers who decline to do so. He states that women often contrive to be dissuaded from the task of feeding the child and in such situations a healthy nurse should be employed. The nurse should a woman who has recently become a mother and she should be healthy both in disposition and body. He states that the father has the duty of a teacher.

According to him the father is the best tutor for the child. But when a father is unable to undertake his duties or refuses to do them, an external tutor should be hired. He also states that whether or not a man fulfils his duties as a father is dependent on the woman— “When women become good mothers, men will be good husbands and fathers,” “ If the mother is too delicate to nurse her child, the father will be too busy to teach him.” This division of the place a woman and man occupy in the education of a child, conforms to the patriarchal system of gender roles.

Through the means of these two texts it can be seen that more often than not, even when the societal norms are being questioned, pre-existing gender hierarchies do not get proper attention. From Emile’s education involving the traditional biases of parenting duties to Werther’s evident chauvinism fondness for women in traditional domestic setting, it is seen how deeply entrenched patriarchy is and how it plays out in scenarios even when one is trying to fight the norms and power structures in society.


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