The Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Cover of The Sorrows of Young Werther

Rank: B
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Spring, 2009

Author Name: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Review: So I read this thing not knowing who Goethe was or what The Sorrows of Young Werther was about—nor that it was so famous. As such, I believe I approached it as objectively as one might hope to. The result: I’m not overly impressed.

At this point in time, it’s extremely difficult to read this book without a flood of other books and writers intruding upon one’s mind (geez, I’m starting to write like that… Bad!). Here, read this short sample passage:

“I assure you, my dear friend, when my thoughts are all in tumult, the sight of such a creature as this tranquillises my disturbed mind. She moves in a happy thoughtlessness within the confined circle of her existence; she supplies her wants from day to day; and, when she sees the leaves fall, they raise no other idea in her mind than that winter is approaching.”

The whole book reads like this, with plenty of phrases, like, “Oh! Would that my unhappy soul could find respite in the gentle embrace of a recumbent oak!” I mean…you can’t write like that anymore—at least not sincerely. And The Sorrows of Young Werther is, if nothing else, thunderously sincere.

Werther’s influence on other writers (both contemporaries and those that were to come) can’t be disputed. In reading this book, I was struck by its unoriginality, and I believe this is because I’ve encountered so many stories published after Werther that either ripped it off, parodied it, or tried to reinvent it.

Blech. Let me try to inject some order into this messy review.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is about this dude named Werther who is smart, rich and well-connected. The book opens with a narrator who returns at the end, but for the most part, the book comprises letters Werther sends to his friend Wilhelm. In these letters, Werther tells Wilhelm of his life in the country, where he meets and falls in love with a woman named Charlotte, who, unhappily, is engaged to a rather dull but well-meaning man named Albert. Throughout the course of the book, Werther grows more and more attached to Charlotte, who, by the middle of the book, is married to Albert. Werther leaves for awhile, but eventually comes back, only to be driven further and further into despair by Charlotte and her happy marriage. In the end he has a scene with Charlotte, and then resolves to kill himself, and, lo, he is as good as his word.

Perhaps it’s my steady diet of Nabokov, but for at least the first three quarters of the book, I was under the impression that we’re supposed to think of Werther as totally crazy. After completing it, though, and reading about its reception, I think we’re actually supposed to sympathize with Werther. My modern mind simply can’t comprehend this. The guy is a nut—and the fact that he’s so sincere just makes him more of a nut. We don’t learn much about Albert, but if you put the one next to the other, Albert seems like the obvious choice, since Albert is a man, and Werther is a crazy, freaking psychopath. But that’s just my opinion.

The sincerity of the sentiment in this book is something a modern reader is unaccustomed to seeing in prose. No, wait, scratch that: the sincerity of the sentiment in this book is something a modern reader is unaccustomed to taking seriously in prose. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen too much by now; perhaps we’re a bit more critical; perhaps we’re more cynical. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to not want to ridicule this book.

But that very point led me directly to a startling revelation which I feel I must share with the world. This book is the perfect high school novel.

Think about it. In high school, students are supposed to “graduate” from the YA/Juvenile section of the library to Adult Fiction. This is usually done with older books as opposed to modern books, though, which can be problematic (honestly, who the hell thought that including Wuthering Heights in any high school curriculum was a good idea?). Most older books seem stodgy and their purpose is remote and uninteresting to the teenage mind. That’s why The Sorrows of Young Werther is so perfect. Not only is it short, but it’s written in short sections (each letter is dated, and each letter is very short). Even though Goethe seems intent on using every word in The New World Flowery Dictionary of Pretense: Froofy Edition, the book is an easy read (no long sections; no vague description), and the only person that will respond to Werther’s plight is a teenager. That’s what high school is, after all: a massive cauldron of boiling hormones. Every high school student has their own personal love triangle going on, whether they tell anybody about it or not; all of them will relate to and respond to the story. It is (for the third time) the perfect high school novel.

So even if The Sorrows of Young Werther is not for you, if you are or know a high school teacher, recommend this to them. If you’re in California, this would be ideal for 10th grade (11th is American literature and 12th is British, as I recall, which leaves 10th for world). It’s not too difficult for a 10th grader, provided they’ve got a dictionary and know which words to skip. Augment that with in-class discussion about vocabulary and Germany in the late 1700s, and, bam, that’s a unit!

Oh! Even better. Just in case your district doesn’t want to spring for copies of this book, your students can read it online, just like I did, at DailyLit.com. That way you can integrate Web 2.0, New Millenial, blah, blah, blah, and all that junk into it too. In fact, here’s an idea for a lesson: Students recreate their own version of Werther updated to the 21st century. The difference? Instead of letters to a friend, they’re either e-mails or posts on a blog! I swear, these lessons write themselves!

Man. Someone would really rather teach A Separate Peace than this?

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