On Goethe’s Werther

The protagonist and principle voice in Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, is an odd, if not slightly pathetic, incarnation of the human experience. The novel is comprised of a series of letters, irregularly spaced over a period of almost two years in which Werther narrates his love and infatuation with a local girl, Lotte. On its face, this epistolary novel seems rather old hat, derivative, unoriginal, but the levels to which the narcissistic narrator carries his obsession for Lotte are almost epic. Readers would recognize from the beginning the childish infatuation upon which Werther fantasizes about Lotte, being in love, and their occasional encounters in which Werther acts in an infantile and childish way. He idealizes this poor woman all out of proportion, ascribing all kinds of fantastic emotion and behavior to her without really knowing hardly anything about her at all. Lotte is betrothed to another man, and Werther knows this, so his love for her is unrequited, and they are a clichĂ©, star-crossed lovers a la Romeo and Juliet. Werther completely denies the cold, hard facts of the betrothal that make impossible any real sentimental relationship with Lotte, unwilling to even recognize on even the most minimal level that he understands why they cannot be together. The unfulfilled or unrequited nature of their relationship drives Werther into a deep depression, agonizing to Werther because she is both too close and too far away. I’m not entirely certain, though, that Werther would have reciprocated any physical moves made by Lotte. There is no sense that Werther would have known what to do if Lotte had moved in on him. Werther was in love with being in love, but a physical relationship with Lotte would have horrified him. He probably would have run away had Lotte suggested that they actually do something. Werther, as a man, is totally dysfunctional, pretending to be in love, but unwilling to experience anything real for fear of losing his dream to reality, fearing that the reality might not live up the dream. I called Werther narcissistic at the beginning of this note because Werther is not really in love with Lotte, he’s in love with Werther, with himself. Since he is the object of his own affections, a real physical relationship would destroy all of his illusions about the beauty and art of his imaginary girlfriend. As long as they don’t touch or kiss or have any other physical contact, Werther is safe from having to face the shortcomings, the disappointments, the realities of a physical relationship. He wallows in his misery as star-crossed lover, a character of his own invention, pining away for a woman who can never love him, enjoying every single moment of this degrading experience, which may only be an example of his low self-esteem. Nothing that he undertakes or plans comes to fruition, and he constructs himself as itinerant poet and artist, working alone on various and in sundry projects. Werther seems to enjoy his pain more and more as the situation between himself and Lotte becomes increasingly more untenable, including the marriage of Lotte to Albert, her fiancĂ©e. Werther is his own worst enemy, his own worst counselor, his own worst friend. The imaginary Wilhelm, the object of Werther’s letters, never seems to have any effect on Werther. Readers have marveled at Werther’s descent into the psychological maelstrom that is his failed artist’s life–some have admired his dedication to an ideal, others have walked away horrified. I tend to fall into the second category, horrified by the way he over-idealizes his relationship with Lotte, horrified by his childish narcissism, horrified by his inability to understand his own reality and move on.