Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe achieved international renown in 1774 upon the publication of his first novel, The Sorrows Of Young Werther. It had all the qualities that characterized the later Romantic movement, of which it was an important precursor: strong emotions, spontaneity of feeling (Goethe claimed to have written the entire novel in a five-week period), and an insistence on the primacy of the imagination. The success of Werther brought Goethe – then just 24 years old – international renown, including unwelcome attempts to discover in his personal life the people and places that had inspired the novel. And it forever associated him with a novel and a mode of thought that he would later repudiate. W.H. Auden, in his Foreword, dismisses the novel’s entire reception as a popular misreading; this is not, he argues, the portrait of a spurned lover, but of a monstrous egoist, “a spoiled brat, incapable of love because he cares for nobody and nothing but himself.” With due respect to Auden, I dissent, at least partially: the egotism of Werther is, in no small part, the egotism inherent to any lover whose affections are not reciprocated.

The plot is widely known, but merits summary: Werther, a young man from a family of some means, arrives in a rural village (the fictional Wahlheim), where he meets a beautiful young woman, Charlotte, who, to his great regret, is already engaged to another man. Over a period of months, Werther becomes closer and closer to Charlotte, her fiancé Albert, and her extended family, but when it finally becomes clear to him that her decision is final, that he will never succeed Albert in her affections, Werther shoots himself. The entire story, up until his death, is related in a series of letters to his friend, Wilhelm – an important formal decision, since it effectively renders the entire work a monologue: we never hear, directly, from any of the other characters, nor are we given much insight into their respective points of view. Was this decision made to heighten the egocentricity of the work, or is the egocentricity Auden detects in no small part a byproduct of this formal decision? It seems to me an open question. From the very first letter, sent on May 4, 1771, we get a piece of foreshadowing that offers some insight into what will transpire:

How happy I am to have come away! Dearest friend, how strange is the human heart? To leave you, one so dearly loved, from whom I was inseparable, and yet to be glad! I know you will forgive me. Were not all my other personal relationships definitely chosen by fate to torment a heart like mine? Poor Leonora! And yet I was blameless. Was it my fault that, while the capricious charms of her sister provided me with a pleasant entertainment, her poor heart built up a passion for me? Still – am I altogether blameless? Did I not encourage her emotions? Did I not relish her perfectly genuine and naïve expressions which so often made us laugh, although they were anything but amusing?

These are the novel’s opening lines, and they convey a great deal. Werther has left his closest friend, possibly because of the pain he inadvertently caused to Leonora, whose affections for him he did not reciprocate. After initially excusing himself for her feelings, he has a second thought (something Auden’s monstrous egotist would be incapable of): “am I altogether blameless?” He realizes that, even if inadvertently, he encouraged her feelings for him, and delighted in her affection. At the novel’s close, Werther’s beloved, Charlotte, will undergo similar self-doubt, wondering what role she played in leading Werther on:

She had become accustomed to share with him everything of interest she felt or thought; and his departure threatened to create a great gap in her existence which could not be filled again. Oh, if she only had the power to transform him into a brother, how happy she would be! – had she only been fortunate enough to marry him off to one of her friends, or could she be allowed to hope that his friendship with Albert might be completely restored!

She passed all her friends in review, one after the other, but found a flaw in each and could not think of one girl to whom she would not have begrudged Werther.

As she pondered on all this, she felt for the first time, keenly if subconsciously, that in her heart of hearts she secretly wished to keep him for herself, at the same time saying to her self that she could not, should not, keep him.

This late realization, that she is not “altogether blameless” in Werther’s affections for her, exculpates Werther, at least somewhat, from the charge of “monstrous egotism.” He did not invent Charlotte’s affections for him; they are genuine.

Auden provides further evidence for Werther’s supposed egotism through the figure of Albert, Charlotte’s fiancé. “If Goethe really wished us to be Werther’s partisan in the erotic triangular situation Werther-Lotte-Albert, one would have expected him to make Albert a coarse philistine to whom Lotte is unhappily married, but he does not.” This is a remarkably bad dramatic judgment coming from Auden, and unfair to both Werther and Goethe. To make us “partisans” of Werther by making Albert in any way loathsome would destroy the tragedy of the novel entirely. It is precisely because Albert is not loathsome that we sympathize with Werther and with Charlotte, though our sympathy need not preclude us from feeling that his suicide is overly dramatic, or that he is not rendered a prisoner of his own ego by his love.