Post Road Magazine #28

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

David Samuel Levinson

I first read The Sorrows of Young Werther a few days after I returned to New York from being abroad for a couple of years. I had been living in Berlin with a man, a German lit scholar, who used to give me German novels because, as he said, I had a gap in my literary education. (He was right, and I read everything he gave me.) I had no idea Goethe's slim volume had traveled back with me until I started unpacking and found it in a side pocket of my suitcase. I thought I had lost it and remembered the afternoon the scholar had presented me with his own frayed copy. He'd already gifted me Elective Affinities, and though he didn't like Sorrows as much, thought it should also be a part of my sentimental education. As I was already in the middle of reading Elective Affinities, I set Sorrows aside and then subsequently forgot about it, as I'd forgotten about so many things those first few months in Berlin.

Relocating from one city to another can be disorienting, but relocating to a foreign city in which one doesn't speak the language involves its own particular brand of disorientation. In general, those first few months in Berlin were a harried, turned-around time for me, as I tried my best to acclimate. I thought I was doing a fine job of it, until the scholar announced he was breaking it off with me.

"I wanted you to fall in love with Berlin," he said, "but you haven't. You're homesick all the time."

It was true. I was homesick, though not for New York. I was homesick for a home in Berlin, a home I thought he and I would create together. Instead, we lived separately-his choice-and though we saw each other all the time, it felt as if we were living in different cities. He had his friends, I had mine, and we never could seem to bridge the gulfs, socially, domestically, and otherwise. A real pity, because I'd never met anyone with whom I shared such a ravenous appreciation for and love of books, though not even this was enough to bind and keep us together.

I mention all of this because it seems a fitting introduction to Sorrows, a paradigmatic story of a great love affair gone awry and the messy, complicated treacheries of the human heart. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend reading the novel the way I did-directly on the heels of a breakup-I will say that, given its darkly gleaming subject matter and wholly unexpected, if shocking, conclusion, it is a remarkable novel in and of itself.

We begin then with a letter from Young Werther to his best friend, Wilhelm, detailing his life in the fictional village of Wahlheim. A stand-in for Goethe himself, Werther is drawn as a sensitive painter with a moody, artistic temperament. Something of a misanthrope, he detests all of the societal norms placed upon him and wiles away his time outdoors, finding the natural world far more accessible and easily apprehended than the people who populate it. That is, until he meets the ravaging Charlotte, who beguiles Werther, until his "whole soul was absorbed by her air, her voice, her manner." It's love at first sight for our naïve hero, who had been warned early on in the novel to guard his heart against Charlotte, who is engaged to the worthy, moneyed Albert.

Unfortunately for Werther, he is far too young and too besotted to heed the warning and soon enough his heart belongs to her: "I found penetration and character in everything she said: every expression seemed to brighten her features with new charms,-with new rays of genius,-which unfolded by degrees, as she felt herself understood."

So begins the true sorrows of young Werther, who spends the rest of this short, epistolary novel falling further and further into love, unrequited though it may be. By the end, unable to justify his existence without her, the exasperated, unhappy Werther borrows Albert's pistols and shoots himself in the head. It's a gruesome final scene, though in the context of this breathtaking, sentimental novel, which launched the twenty-four-year-old Goethe into literary stardom, it is surprisingly apt, even moving, for which of us has not thought about suicide in the wake of love gone wrong?

"I have carefully collected whatever I have been able to learn of the story of poor Werther," the preface tells us. "To his spirit and character you cannot refuse your admiration and love: to his fate you will not deny your tears. And thou, good soul, who sufferest the same distress as he endured once, draw comfort from his sorrows; and let this little book be thy friend, if, owing to fortune or through thine own fault, thou canst not find a dearer companion."

Sorrows came along at a time in my life when I, too, thought I wouldn't be able to go on, when I, too, couldn't believe in a world without my love. Yet in some odd way it is also a novel about having to go on, about surviving our passions, and releasing the objects of our affection back into the world, not as the people we created and idealized out of existence but as the simple people they were, full of flaws and foibles and sadness of their own. Though it was not written as a cautionary tale, The Sorrows of Young Werther remains one of those novels I continue to cherish because of the hope it lent me-I read it, devoured it, put it away, then joined the living once again, because, unlike Werther, what other choice did I have?

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