Saturday, March 01, 2008

book review: The Sorrows of Young Werther

At the heart of this tragic tale of suicide by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the character of young Werther. Although he is warned that it is going to be dangerous if he falls in love with the local young beauty Lotte he is unable to stop himself and so the trouble begins.

Lotte is engaged to a man who is away studying law and for a few weeks Werther has a relationship that he forgets is not his alone to enjoy. He forgets about the fiancé and carries on falling deeper in love becoming a friend to Lotte’s brother’s and sisters and a reliable source of company.

But the inevitable happens and the fiancé Albert returns and with his arrival Werther is stunned. Firstly surprised to find himself liking his rival and then secondly to realise that there is no hope for him. He wavers between dwelling on the few weeks they had together to trying to prise himself away.

The book is told as a series of letters and diary entries and for most of the text he is writing to a friend who at this point advises him to move away. But Werther is distracted and unable to settle and ends up making a couple of faux pas with his employer and a potential love interest and in the ends resigns his position and heads back dangerously to Lotte.

There are a couple of premonitions of his own demise with Werther coming across a servant who had been besotted with Lotte and as a result lost his mind and then been driven to murder. At this point the letters are often addressed to Lotte and are a mixture of reminisces that try to paint a picture of a deep love in those few weeks they had together or are bitter about life.

Increasingly Werther becomes uncomfortable company and in the end Albert, rightly considering the social position, leans on his wife to try and get her to see less of the man. Her request that he reduces his visits sends Werther into a tailspin and he starts to plan his suicide.

Ironically his absences are felt by Lotte who by now starts to understand that maybe she also has a stake in the relationship and needs Werther around for company. The young man plans his end and writes various letters to Lotte that spell out his feelings.

The narrative is broken and picked up by a third party that tries to piece together those last days and hours. The result is that Werther does plenty of damage to Albert and Lotte by imposing his views and beliefs on them through his suicide note. He also makes sure that he is the ghost that haunts their marriage.

There is plenty in this reasonably short novel to inspire other writers and some of the moments at the end almost feel like the stuff of Hollywood with the dramatic ending of Werther’s life.

At the end of the book you feel that Lotte could be blamed for ignorance of anything maybe being too friendly with someone not mature enough to cope with friendship and not love. Albert is the protective husband but the fact he allows Werther to borrow his guns, when everyone suspects it is to kill himself, will haunt his marriage for ever.

But Werther elicits little sympathy because he failed to heed the warnings and then failed to accept reality. In the end it might have seemed a bit glib but a slap in the face accompanied by the phrase “there are more fish in the sea” might have been better than a pistol shot to the head.

Version read – Penguin paperback


Anonymous said...

Hi there Simon,
I just came across your review on Werther, and would be interested to hear your views/interpretation on the last two paragraphs of the book.('He had drunk only one glass of wine......No clergyman attended'.)

Simon Quicke said...

I read it to be a comment not just on the state of his mind - he is clearly not drunk in the literal sense. Obviously he is suffering from mental anguish in other ways but the point here is that he took the decision rationally.

In that sense he is also aware of the religious verdict on those that commit suicide with the clergyman not only being there to take last rites but not being there in the sense that the act is not condoned by the church.

In the moments after some one has killed themselves most people seem to spend a great deal of time trying to piece together the mantal state of the person and in this sense Goethe is underlining just how Werther was as he made his fatal decision.

Hope that helps...