I’ve just finished reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 blockbuster hit, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. It’s a far more slight and breezy novel than I’d expected and is the first novel in a while that I’ve finished in just a couple of sessions. The bulk of the book is structured as letters written by Werther, mainly to his friend Wilhelm, whose replies we aren’t shown. The final third features an ‘editor’ who steps in to provide other characters’ viewpoints. At a glance it’s (SPOILERS!) a tragedy about a young man who falls in love with a girl, Lotte, who is unavailable who doesn’t return his love. He pines for her, then he kills himself.
But here’s the thing. I read the first two-thirds of the book, until the ‘editor’ steps in, as a broad comedy. I think if I had taken Werther’s account at face value, I would have rejected him and his self-indulgent whinings entirely. I was genuinely surprised when the editor’s comments seemed to validate the majority of Werther’s views. But treating Werther as an unreliable narrator made the book a huge amount of fun for me.
For instance, take the September 10 entry. Lotte says,
“Whenever I walk by moonlight, it brings to my remembrance all my beloved and departed friends… but shall we know one another again, what do you think?”
Werther appears to misunderstand her, thinking she’s referring to the two of them meeting after death. It’s a classic misunderstanding and I laughed out loud.
I’ve read elsewhere that the instances where Werther’s grammar breaks down demonstrate his grief. But read this passage:
“And what grieves me, is, that Albert does not seem delighted as he—hoped to be—as I—thought to be—if—I am not fond of dashes, but it is the only way of expressing myself here—and I think I make myself sufficiently clear.”
To me, it illustrated Werther’s pomposity and his tendency to over-egg sentences with extra clauses and tangents. It seems as though he’s lost his way until he even becomes distracted by his own punctuation, and the final ‘I think I make myself sufficiently clear’ is laughable.
Werther is utterly melodramatic – admittedly, by modern standards. His adoration of Lotte reminded me a great deal of Adrian Mole’s over-the-top fixation on Pandora Braithwaite. In fact, after the initial meeting at the dance, Werther often goes for days without describing the woman he says he adores, and she becomes almost invisible in the middle section of the novel. Instead, Werther concentrates solely on her effect on himself. He seems absorbed with his capacity for love and pain.
I’ve just finished reading the fictional autobiography of Alan Partridge (‘I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan’) and the levels of egomania are pretty comparable, as are the paranoiac revisions and qualifications. It’s a terrific companion piece to ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. Werther’s continual closing comments about his own suffering seems as needy and self-serving as Partridge’s repeated closing statement, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh”.
I understand that I was probably reading the novel ‘wrongly’ and had mistaken a serious 18th century portrayal as a modern pastiche. But I wouldn’t have it any other way – my enjoyment was largely based on the fun I had trying to glimpse the truth beyond Werther’s rantings. This article gives an interesting account of some of the parody versions of ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ after its blockbuster success (plus Werther merchandising and clothing!). But as far as I’m concerned, the original was already a side-splitter.