‘The Sufferings of Young Werther’: There’s a thin line between love and obsession
Classics were my first literary passion. Lately, however, contemporary literature has found a consistent place in my personal library and, from the moment I chose to share my impressions of the books I read, it has even monopolized my readings. I must admit that I chose “the easy way”, considering the review of classical literature a challenge for which I did not feel ready. But, because everything has a beginning, and because with today’s novel I revived this old love for classics, from now on I will venture into the land of classics too. I take the first step with Goethe and ‘The Sufferings of Young Werther’.
About the author
According to the www.britannica.com, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe was born in 1749 in Frankfurt and died at the age of 83 in Weimar. Considered the greatest German literary figure of the modern era and one of the most important personalities of universal culture, Goethe was a poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theater director, critic and amateur artist. He appears as the central and unsurpassed representative of the Romantic movement in European culture.
His masterpiece, ‘Faust’, is and will remain a point of reference in universal literature, but I mention a few other works imprinted by Goethe’s genius: ‘Egmont’, ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’, ‘Elective Affinities’, ‘Prometheus’, ‘Theory of Colours’, ‘The Sufferings of Young Werther’ etc.
About the book
‘The Sufferings of Young Werther’ is a novel inspired both by a personal love experience of the author, but also by the tragic life story of his good friend, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, who committed suicide at the age of 25, causing a wave of suicides all over Europe, “in Jerusalem style”. The novel is structured in four parts with a predominantly epistolary format. Goethe takes us through a wide spectrum of human emotions, from the ecstatic state in front of the beauty of nature or in front of the smile of the loved one, to the agony of the dying man overwhelmed by his own suffering.
We recognize in the words of young Werther – the main character of the book, the author’s own feelings and existential questions. Nature is described with exaltation and it mirrors the state of spirit of the beholder; thus, it can be spectacular or arid depending on whether the viewer is happy or unhappy. Man’s smallness and temporality, the state of unhappiness as the basis of the act of artistic creation, the (self)destructive impulse of man, as well as the relationship he has with religion, with God or with death, all of these are concerns exposed in such a way that, without doubt, I can say that Goethe would have been Goethe even without Faust.
Returning to Werther, he is a young man with a contemplative nature towards external nature and human nature and for whom life is not a series of events, but a series of emotions. Emotionally unstable, he easily passes “from sorrow to immoderate joy” and “from sweet melancholy to violent passions”; he is aware of this predisposition, but he looks at it with a fatalistic resignation: “For is not this anxiety for change the consequence of that restless spirit which would pursue me equally in every situation of life?” Werther is driven by a relentless hunt for intellectual and emotional challenges, for which he leaves even the peaceful life of the crown Prince’s castle where he was a guest.
As soon as he meets Lotte, his soul is invaded by a love destined to remain unfulfilled, Lotte being already engaged. Goethe lets his reader understand by himself how, in the whirlwind of feelings, the young man does not even consider the possibility of asking the girl to choose between him and Albert, the future husband. The passion, which Werther feels as a burden and the main cause that sabotages his peace and happiness, manifests itself dually in an indissoluble connection: the passion with which he loves and the passion with which he suffers. The inner storm he is experimenting divests him of his ambitions, of his desires regarding his career, of his artistic aspirations and, gradually, of any connection with the surrounding reality. Even when he socializes, he does it with people with the same predispositions. The young Miss B., with whom he shares the same fatalistic view of life, looks like Lotte, but this is a temporary relief from his own suffering. That suffering, he puts at the center of the universe and it eclipses even the evidence of the fact that he himself can cause similar suffering to this young woman. Premonitory, Miss B. will dramatically state “I am often tempted to open a vein, to procure for myself everlasting liberty”.
Despite the fact that there are moments when he becomes aware of his madness and its devastating effects (“If I were not a fool, I could spend the happiest and most delightful life here.”; “A man under the influence of violent passion loses all power of reflection, and is regarded as intoxicated or insane.”), he completely abandons himself in front of it. Thus, the idea of suicide gains ground from one day to another and it is preceded by the need for self-flagellation. From seeing suicide as a natural consequence of intense emotional suffering, which he compares to somatic disorders, to making the irreversible gesture, is just one step.
The way the newly married couple, Lotte and Albert, relate to Werther’s obsession can be intuited beyond Werther’s subjective perspective, as this is the only perspective we have. However, Lotte’s attitude at the end of the story manages to surprise us.
Will Werther take the irreversible step? Sit comfortably in an armchair and let yourself be carried away in the story of a morbid love, which digs into the deepest corners of the human soul. The book is … Lust For Flying.
To the author:
Großer Goethe, ich verneige mich vor dir! (Great Goethe, I bow respectfully to you! –Google translation, German language)
- “There can be no doubt that in this world nothing is so indispensable as love.”
- “We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things.”
- “Must it ever be thus,—that the source of our happiness must also be the fountain of our misery?”
- “Once we give ourselves up, we are totally lost.”
- “Ill-humour arises from an inward consciousness of our own want of merit, from a discontent which ever accompanies that envy which foolish vanity engenders. We see people happy, whom we have not made so, and cannot endure the sight.”
- “A man under the influence of violent passion loses all power of reflection, and is regarded as intoxicated or insane.”
Read more book reviews by Raluca Neagu here.