Title: The Sorrows of Young Werther
Review number: 9
Genre: Romance? Classic?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
Summary: Amazon uk says The first great “confessional” novel, this is a story of unrequited love, drawing on personal experience. Werther, a sensitive young man, falls in love with Lotte, knowing she is to marry another. Unable to subdue his passion, Werther’s infatuation torments him to the point of despair.
Why did I read the book: my partner has been pestering me to read this ever since we met. This is one of his favorite books.
I usually follow a pattern where I present the characters, the plot and then talk about what I like/didn’t like.
If I were to do this with Werther, it would take me one paragraph. Seriously. Like this: The book is a compilation of letters written by young Werther to his friend William telling him how he has been spending his days in a fictional town in Germany, observing Nature, talking to the simple folks, reading Homer and sketching until he meets this girl Lotte who is betrothed to another, falls in love, becomes OBSESSED with her, can not think of anything else, until he kills himself because “Oh dear Lord one of us MUST die”. The end.
And no, I did not like it. The book is too short, the plot too thin, I felt no sympathy for Werther whatsoever and I have been racking my brains because of the guilt I feel for not liking it. I mean, this is a Classic, an Important and Historical book and here I am, thinking that Lord of Scoundrels is a much better book and wondering if the collective minds of literature critics all over the world would automatically combust into flames if they were to read my humble opinion.
I did some research to try and understand more of the background. Werther has a place in History and a place in the History of Literature for it was one of the precursors of the Romanticism. I talked about Romanticism in my previous post and how it has themes such as the observation of the nature and emphasis on emotional turmoil and where feelings were given free reign, all of them present in Werther. This theme of obsession and utter helplessness before a situation seems to have been alien to readers before this and it caused havoc in Germany and made Goethe famous when Werther was published.
So, taking this into consideration, do I get to say anything at all about the plot? Of how it is so extreme and how I cannot relate to it?
Is there a line I should not cross – is it disrespectful to what is considered a masterpiece?
Critics also tell me that the Catcher in the Rye is one of the best books written in the 20th Century or that Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made but what if I don’t agree? What if I find Catcher in The Rye merely a book about a boy who needs to get a grip or Citizen Kane one of the most boring movies ever to grace my DVD player?
Are there absolutes when it comes to books and movies? What makes a book a Classic? Is it a Universal and Absolute given? Who decides that? Does the historical period when such list is compiled make a difference? Where does the subjective aspect of each reader come into play – each person has its own likes and dislikes, isn’t it? I for instance, love Shakespeare but know a great number of people that cringe to the mere thought of reading or watching his plays.
(Such tricky questions…..I plan to investigate further and so I have decided to read a list of essays by Italo Calvino: Why Read the Classics in hope that some light can be shed. I may be pestering you with more inconclusive thoughts later on.)
And to return to the review itself, I guess what I am trying to say, very convolutedly, is that even though I appreciate the fact that The Sorrows of Young Werther is considered a classic because of its uniqueness in its own time, I still didn’t enjoy it very much. Maybe a 18th Century reader was completely taken by such emotional intensity but my 21st century sensibilities make me want to shake Werther and say “Puh-lease , get a grip man, pull yourself together! You are a man, not a rat!” And please don’t get me wrong: I like emotional turmoil; I like a man overcome with emotions. Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite heroes and you don’t get more turmoil than that! But there were so many other intricate feelings in Wuthering Heights as well and I was able to relate more.
And that’s that, I am afraid.
Notable quotes/Parts: ……hummm. I can’t think of anything.
Additional Thoughts: Thackeray, a satirical writer, contemporary to Goethe, wrote a wonderful little poem that summarises Werther perfectly (thanks to Joanna Bourne for pointing it out to me):
WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.
Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.
So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.
Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.
Verdict: Read it if you like reading the Classics. I didn’t like it but I do not regret reading it, if that makes any sense.
Rating: 4 – Not without some merit.
Reading next: The Last Hellion by Loretta Chase