Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe

Title: The Sorrows of Young Werther
Author: Goethe
Genre: Classics
Publisher: Modern Library
First published: 1774 (as Die Leiden des jungen Werther)
Pages: 176

Rating: 5 out of 10

I couldn't quite bring myself to enjoy this short tragedy by Goethe. It wasn't even 200 pages, but it took me longer than I had been expecting to get through it.

It is the story of a young man in 1700's Germany named Werther. He falls in love with a young woman named Lotte, but she is already engaged to another man. Even after she is married, Werther continues to love her, and they form a friendship, which is both heavenly and torturous to the despairing Werther.

The main thing that I disliked here was that I just wanted Werther to grow up and get over it. Reading the paragraph above, I must admit it is relatively sad, but really now. It doesn't even sound like the plot of a tragedy, just perhaps an unfortunate sub-plot.
Werther sees negativity in everything, and is constantly wishing he was dead and dwelling on suicide and weeping over his letters / journal. I have to admit that sometimes, the idea of a tragic, heartbroken man braving the sorrows of life can be an appealing story in some strange way. But rather than suffer in silence, Werther does so loudly and wants everyone to know it. Rather than gathering strength from his ordeals, he lets them weaken him into a weepy fool. I couldn't like him or feel any sympathy for him.

This book would have been agony if not for Goethe's skillful brilliance. He is, of course, one of the greatest writers of all time, and even in a book I can't particularly say I liked, he still manages to write beautifully and evocatively. His prose is majestically awe inspiring at times, though it does tend to ramble on a bit and sometimes wander and become pointless. I noticed while looking for quotes to collect here that I found plenty of gorgeous paragraphs, but couldn't seem to spot a single sentence or short phrase that caught my eye. And I'm not writing down a whole paragraph on my bookmark.

I wasn't familiar with the story of Sorrows of Young Werther at all coming into it, and as I tend to start imagining possible directions a book could go as I'm reading it, it somehow became set in my mind that Werther should become a poet.
Goethe's beautiful writing is here attributed to his character, since the book is Werther narrating in the form of letters he is writing. So the man's letters prove he can write, and I can certainly imagine him turning his sorrows into great material. He even loves poetry, and is a fan of Ossian (who is mentioned quite a few times).
Just a thought... but of course, Werther does nothing with his trials except dwell upon them in the form of cacophonous sobbing.

I couldn't say I liked this book, or ever came to sympathize with Werther.