Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review: "The Sorrows of Young Werther"

The Sorrows of Young WertherThe Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became interested in reading this book after having seen the movie "Young Goethe In Love" (German title simply "Goethe!"). I wasn't sure what to expect; after all, this is a novel that came out in 1774! I confess I expected stilted language, and so on. Not so. Whether owing to this rather recent (2005) translation or not, this edition is immediate and vital in its language.

The story is of a young man who forms a passionate attachment to a woman--Lotte--despite knowing from the beginning that she is promised to someone else. The novel takes the form of letters Werther writes, mostly to a friend named Wilhelm, whose reactions we can only infer from later responses written by Werther.

In the beginning, Werther is a hearty soul who loves nature, art, and children, and who has a lot of insightful observations to make about people, and life in general. He is ruled by his emotions, and his affinity for young children inevitably puts him in the path of their mothers, whom he clearly likes just fine. When he meets Lotte, she is surrounded by little ones, who turn out to be her younger siblings; their mother is dead, and she is raising them. He and Lotte, along with a larger group, attend a dance, and in the carriage on the way there, Werther falls in love with Lotte, whom he finds charming, interesting, lively, good-looking, and irresistible. I found her charming, too.

Unfortunately, Lotte's fiance returns from a trip, and they are married. Unlike in the movie, Albert is a good guy, dependable and steady, as opposed to Werther's wild passion. Three's a crowd, and being on the outside looking in slowly drives Werther to distraction, a state he expresses in ever more desperate terms, to his friend Wilhelm. Along the way, we meet two other lovelorn would-be suitors, ruined by their desire for women they can't have; one of them driven to madness by his unrequited love for Lotte herself!

I felt badly for Werther, who tears himself to shreds with his impossible desire for Lotte, but at the same time, there was a whiff of creepy stalker to him, too, in my opinion. He idealizes her, he falls fast, and then he can't face reality, driving himself to the edge of suicide. Lotte wonders at one point if it isn't her very unavailability that draws him. Then again, the heart wants what it wants, and Werther's heart and soul want Lotte. 

This is a passionate, timeless story about two unforgettable characters and the doomed attraction they have for each other. I loved it, and the only reason I didn't give it five stars was because of a six-page stretch near the end of the book, where Werther reads Ossian to Lotte. The scene is crucial, but the Ossian is laughably dated (the only thing in the book that is) and almost unreadable to modern eyes. Ossian aside, I loved this book!

One final note: as with so many editions of classic novels, the introduction blithely gives away important plot twists, a pet peeve of mine. It's as if the editors can't imagine that the book may be being read for pleasure. So, if you read it, leave the introduction until *after* you've read the novel itself!

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hedgewitch said...

I dimly remember reading part of this in high school, in a very stilted translation which eventually turned me off. Now you make me want to revisit it--I also remember reading that this novel started a 'fad' across Europe in its day, of young men dressing like Werther and reading from the book to their assorted beloveds. Thanks for a stellar review, Shay.

Daryl said...

i love your review posts and while most of what you read is my cuppa .. its always interesting to read what you fell be it poetry or prose

Cloudia said...

Your pleasure is evident and contagious!

ALOHA from Honolulu
=^..^= . <3 . >< } } (°>

Mama Zen said...

I've never read this one. I may have to check it out!

Jonathan Ashleigh said...

“The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the writer of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. It is a marvelously done parody and takes on similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books reflect on each other and think everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”