Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (trans. Mayer & Brogan)

"My friend," I exclaimed, "Man is human, and the small amount of intelligence one may possess counts little or nothing against the rage of passion and the limits of human nature pressing upon him."

Copy I read this week
Close followers of this blog will know I recently read Mikhail Lermentov's "Princess Mary," an early 19th-century novella which I viewed as a piece of Russian Romanticism.  This inspired me to borrow, from the local university library, one of the foundational texts of the Romantic movement, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.  I read Werther in the 1990s, when I was working at a New Jersey bookstore for minimum wage, in a paperback Penguin edition that I believe I still own, but which is packed away in storage.  The hardcover edition I read this week was put out in 1993 by The Modern Library, and presents a translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Louis Brogan that first saw light of day in 1971, the year of my birth.  It includes on its back cover a quote from Thomas Mann that includes an anecdote indicating that Napoleon Bonaparte was a tremendous fan of Werther.  Well, we won't hold against poor Goethe the fact that one of history's premier monsters was practically president of his fan club.

Think back, if you can, to the year 1771!  The place, Germany!  The Sorrows of Young Werther is, primarily, presented in the form of letters written by our title character, a sensitive soul who likes to draw, write, read Homer and look at mountains, and who apparently has enough money that he never has to do any work, has a servant, and is always throwing money to the poor.  The letters in Book One (73 pages in this edition) are to Wilhelm, a friend of Werther's.  Werther is spending the summer in some little country town to run some trifling legal errand for his mother (some aunt is trying to keep Mom from getting her share of an inheritance or something) and, it seems, to get away from some love triangle mess back home.  "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?"  This whole book, from page one, is about people being carried away by their caprices and passions and causing themselves and others considerable suffering.

Out in this little town Werther meets and falls in love with a pretty girl, Charlotte, whom he calls "Lotte."  Lotte is more than a pretty face--she likes the writers Werther likes and she is the picture of virtue, dutifully and lovingly raising her little brothers and sisters after their mother's death.  But Lotte is not on the market!  The girl of Werther's dreams is engaged to Albert, an honest, decent, level-headed and productive citizen!  In the intro to this edition modern English poet W. H. Auden declares that Albert is a "square!"  Werner spends all his time either hanging out with these two paragons or weeping his eyes out alone because Lotte will never be his.

A ringing endorsement from the Corsican Ogre
In Book Two of the novel (just 17 pages) it is autumn and winter, and Werner has left the country to take some kind of diplomatic or civil service job at court, working with an "envoy," a "Count," and a "Minister," drafting documents.  In letters to Wilhelm and Lotte he complains that the people at court are obsessed with status and the rat race, and ruin every day with their bad attitudes.  Due to an embarrassing faux pas at a party, in the spring Werther quits his job and moves back to Lotte and Albert's environs. In Werther's absence Lotte and Albert have married.

The last section of the novel, entitled "Postscript" and running 70 pages, is a conglomeration of documents written by Werther and narration by a nameless editor who has investigated Werther's last days.  Werther hangs around Lotte, putting strain on her marriage to Albert, and he gets upset when some guys want to chop down some trees he likes and when a guy with whom Werther identifies, a component of one of the novel's ubiquitous love triangles, commits murder.  Werther finally goes off the deep end and commits suicide with some pistols he borrows from Albert.  (A friend in need....)  This suicide is no surprise to the reader; not only has it been foreshadowed again and again, with Werther discussing suicide with Albert and writing to Wilhelm about committing suicide and even play acting suicide with Albert's pistols back on page 57, but after the "editor" baldly tells us on page 135 that Werther has decided to kill himself, we have to wade through 30 more pages before the deed is done.

I didn't enjoy The Sorrows of Young Werther as much as I had expected to.  With the exception of a mind-numbingly tedious seven-page extract from James MacPherson's famous fraud The Works of Ossian (MacPherson wrote poems in English that he based very loosely on Gaelic sources and then claimed they were translations of centuries-old manuscripts he had discovered) the book is an easy read, but it is repetitive, extravagant, obvious, and fails to pull the heartstrings.  There is no surprise, little ambiguity or depth, and surprisingly little insight into 18th-century life or thought.  And who can care one way or the other about these goofy characters?    

Among the elements I thought reflected "Romanticism" in"Princess Mary" was how the narrator waxed poetic about Nature, expressing his love of the trees and the dew and the sunlight and all that, and how all the characters acted irrationally, tossing reason and logic out the window and taking catastrophic risks because they are driven by passions for love, revenge, or honor.  We see some of these same elements in Werther.  There's lots of talk about how lovely mountains and valleys and sunsets and the rest are, and when he is mentally stable Werther blabs on and on about how much he loves Nature, but somehow the book fails to inspire any of these feelings in the reader.

The edition I read in
the '90s resembles this 
More interesting to me was the recurring theme of how intelligence, education, knowledge and reason can be a detriment rather than a virtue, can make people less happy rather than more happy.  Werther argues the charm of the classical poets comes from their ignorance: "You see, dear friend, how limited and how happy were the glorious Ancients!  how naive their emotions and their poetry!"  Werther later claims that true emotion, love in its purest form, is felt by "those people whom we call uneducated and coarse."  Werther and Wilhelm have been diminished, not elevated, by their educations: "We educated people--miseducated into nothingness!" When Werther meets a mental patient who has been released into the custody of his family, the maniac asserts that he was happier when he was totally insane and chained up in an institution than he is now, free and partially cured.

At the same time that Werther's rhetoric denounces the intellect, suggesting that education and reason corrupt, or deaden, or sadden us, the actions of the characters, especially Werther himself, demonstrate that people do not act logically, are not guided by reason, but are instead driven by whims and irrational passions.  It is hard to believe that Goethe is celebrating this emotionalism, even if the character of Werther is, because their passions drive the characters to destructive actions: among other disasters, we hear the story of a girl who committed suicide because of a love triangle, and the story of a man who committed a bloody murder because of a love triangle.  Werther, in a debate with Albert and in response to the aforementioned murder case, claims that suicides and murderers should not be judged guilty or punished for their sins because the passions that drove them are like a disease, and we don't blame a guy for catching the flu!  This surprisingly modern attitude towards mental health and crime (think of how nowadays we aren't supposed to look down on drunks and compulsive gamblers and junkies as irresponsible jerks with no values and no common sense, but instead to empathize with and support them as victims of a disease) is probably the thing in Werther that made the biggest impression on me this time around.

In my real life I have often been moved by the beauty and sublimity of mountains, oceans, sunsets, lightning bolts, birds and so on, and all too often I have acted stupidly over a woman or because I was angry about something.  I should be a receptive audience for what Goethe is selling here.  And yet I was not emotionally affected by Goethe's novel.  Is Goethe to blame because the book is too extravagant, too repetitive, too poorly structured?  Or could the translation be (in part?) to blame?

Don't be fooled by the cover of this kindle edition! 
The only German I know is stuff I've picked up via pop culture that does not paint a flattering portrait of the German people, phrases like "Schnell! Schnell!," "Achtung, Spitfire!," "Judenfrei," and "schadenfreude."  So I am in no position to criticize Mayer and Brogan's translation.  But I still have some questions.  When Werther causes confusion during a dance by making some missteps, he uses the phrase "everything was at sixes and sevens," which I always think of as a British idiom.  Do Germans say this as well? Or is Werther making a clever joke related to the fact that the dance he screwed up was an anglaise? Or are Mayer and Brogan just translating some German cliche they fear their American audience won't get into an English cliche they are confident English readers will know?  (I had similar questions when Werther used a variant of the phrase "It's all Greek to me.")  I would have appreciated a footnote or endnote here, but this edition has no notes.

Several times I felt that notes would have been appropriate.  Sure, I am familiar with The Vicar of Wakefield, but presumably some readers of this edition of Werther were not.  And even though this is my second reading of Werther I had no idea what or who the Klopstock that Lotte and Werther are so excited over was, or what Emilia Galotti was all about, until I googled them.

Obviously, I don't regret reading a major novel by a major writer, but I won't be recommending The Sorrows of Young Werther to people with the enthusiasm with which I recommend other canonical novels, like Don Quixote, Moby Dick, or In Search of Lost Time.


  1. Goethe still gets a lot of nods and bows these days, but my hope is that it is for his poetry and aphorisms, as, I'm with you: Sorrows is a load of syrup. I'm just riffing here, but I think the reason for its sustained popularity is its soap opera qualities, which in turn qualify it for mainstream popularity. Have you read Norwegian Wood by Murakami? It's a very similar story, and, accordingly, is also one of his most popular books, particularly amongst young people susceptible to such decadent, simple thought. Yes, an ignorable classic.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only Werther skeptic!

      When I lived in New York the media seemed full of references to Murakami, and grad students in the fine arts I knew, as well as a Japanese guy in my dorm, would talk about him all the time. So I read one Murakami novel, but it left me cold, and I don't recall much about it. I don't even remember the title.