Book Review: The Sorrow of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything, all our strength, happiness and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.” 

16640Read: 26th, February, 2018

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 5 seconds. Contains 819 words.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

DescriptionThis is Goethe’s first novel, published in 1774. Written in diary form, it tells the tale of an unhappy, passionate young man hopelessly in love with Charlotte, the wife of a friend – a man who he alternately admires and detests. Goethe upset the conventional literature of his day by having his hero propose suicide as a method by which anyone might end an intolerable misery. ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ became an important part of the ‘Sturm und Drang movement, and greatly influenced later ‘Romanticism’. The work is semi-autobiographical – in 1772, two years before the novel was published, Goethe had passed through a similar tempestuous period, when he lost his heart to Charlotte Buff, who was at that time engaged to his friend Johann Christian Kestner.

Goethe’s epistolary novel which was published in 1774, The Sorrow of Young Werther, is his critique of Romanticism. It is a semi-autobiographical work, which was written by Goethe at the age of 24. In 1772, Goethe went through somewhat similar experience as that of Werther, and once he got hold of himself, he wrote this book as a study, Kind of, to his criticism on Romanticism. Strictly speaking, Goethe was a Pre-Romantic but he seems to be influenced by romantic outlook, but it is also true that he talks beyond the confinement of Romanticism.

After experiencing the pain of not being able to be with the woman he loved and realizing that he can never have her, Goethe actually stopped being a romantic, he realized that romantic love is attractive but it creates sever problems too and it leads to terrible disappointments in life. In this book, he brings out the downfall of being a romantic, the dark side of Romanticism and what romantic love can do to a person, and he shows this with continuous degradation of Werther and his ultimate suicide.

“I am amazed to see how deliberately I have entangled myself step by step. To have seen my position so clearly, and yet to have acted so like a child!” 

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fogBefore we dive into knowing our Romantic hero, let’s first talk about Romanticism. I’m actually very fascinated by Romantic Era not because I’m a romantic but because this movement had a certain charm, I haven’t read many works from that era, but the music and the beauty it captures is mesmerizing. The set of ideas romantics believed in, their emphasis on emotions and individualism still exist in today’s world, we are all more or less romantics. Glorification of nature in resistance to modernization and bringing art to all the people not just aristocrats was a really good movement. After reading a little about Romanticism and Industrial revolution, I found that Industrialization and mechanization were both in favor for romantics and against their ideas. Against because of the exploitation of nature and a mechanical life but in favor because it also helped these artists in experimenting with their art. You may ask how so? If we talk about music for an example, during this time musicians could actually experiment more with their music, improvisation was done on musical instruments to bring out more sounds and all this was possible and easily done because of the technology and machinery available in the industries, which made it easier to make these instruments and make them for a large number of people in less time. Also with industrialization and increase in jobs, common people now could afford to enjoy art which was mostly dominated and enjoyed by aristocrats. How cool is that now? Very. Why did I talk about the music of all things? I believe that music was the most defining aspect of this movement. So, I like the nature aspect of it, I like the music.

Now coming to what I don’t like about Romanticism, Romantic hero, not my favorite type of character and the irrationality.

Traits of a Romantic hero:

  • Rejects established norms and conventions.
  • Rejected by Society.
  • Has himself as the center of his own existence.
  • Feels empty.
  • Talks about himself.
  • Feels lonely in crowded places.
  • And is incapable of understanding where he belongs.
  • For him, the purpose of life is romantic love.

This book does a wonderful job in capturing the beauty of nature, to show it as a pure and spiritual source of renewal, I also came to know that nature and traveling are actually most important motifs of German Romanticism. Goethe bring forward the sorrowfulness and the misery romantic love can bring in someone’s life, I’m not sure if he also trying to gain some kind of sympathy for the character here, if yes, then I’m not giving any.

I said I don’t like Romantic heroes because I can’t bring myself around the idea that there is no purpose in life without romantic love, that life is sorrowful and that life is absolutely miserable without it. I read and I watch about these characters walking around the city exploring its beauty, living their life with full madness and complete irrationality, I read about this character wandering in the city with no particular job to go to, strolling around listening to people and observing streets. I can digest something like that for 20 minutes or 4 hours while watching a short movie or reading a book, but living life like that, oh dear lord. I personally find all this very dangerous and killing yourself for passion is something I wouldn’t like to celebrate or idealize, but certainly, romantic heroes do or at least this one does. There is some kind of immaturity around this way of living.

I think what we need is a balance in life between the irrationality of Romanticism and coldness of Modernity. Enjoy the nature, celebrate your individualism and also consider the pragmatic way of life.