Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel which tells the story of the narrator Werther, through a series of dated letters his “best of friends” Wilhelm. The letters develop the character’s narrative, the ongoing of his inner life, by narrating his own sentiments and reflections on his interior state of mind. This at times moves over time from elation to despair across a few weeks, and moves eventually towards a more dramatic shift between those two emotions, sometimes within a single sentences. The exclusion of other points of views, other than dislodging interjections of the narrator, further contributes to a growing tension, as the reader has no other access to the narrative outside of Werther’s letters. As will be developed, these three elements, the narration of an unreliable first person narrative, epistolary narrative structure, and the exclusion of other points of view contribute to the growing tension that builds throughout the text and culminates with Werther’s suicide.
Werther’s letters to Wilhelm begin with elation. His first letter, dated May 4th, begins with “How happy I am that I am gone?” He apologizes to Wilhem, from whom he has been “inseparable” that he can find such joy in his absence. Werther has removed himself from society, and the misunderstandings that occasion “more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.” (Geothe, 4).
Werther’s subsequent letter continues to poetically describe his interior state, in which he finds a “wonderful serenity” that has “taken possession of [his] entire soul.” (Geothe, 5). He feels limited in his ability to describe to Wilhem his elated state of mind, but makes the attempt nonetheless.
In time, his letters begin to lay out a case against society, casting it as the source of problems that Werther’s has escaped by choosing to live outside of it. His musings are a reflection of Jean Jacque Rousseau’s view of human nature as good and pure until society corrupts it. Rousseau believed that human beings begin healthy and confident but then become corrupted when they are subjected to the expectations and judgment society places upon it. An old man he makes the acquaintance of during a visit with a woman he has become infatuated with reflects this view during a discussion of the causes of ill-humor saying, “country people are never ill-humoured,” further casting society as culpable for interior distress. (Goethe, 27).
Werther writes about an educated acquaintance that he has made who is in love with a woman who has been married once already and left jaded from that experience. He finds this pure and an end in itself, but finds that an ideal and pure love impossible given the strain that society places upon one in love, preventing them from being fully immersed in it. “Divide your time:,” he laments, “ devote a portion to business, and give the hours of recreation to your mistress . . . Pursuing this advice, he may become a useful member of society.” (Geothe, 11)
In his May, 22nd letter, dated only two weeks after he began his correspondence, the first glimmer of a growing despair. This contributes to an epistemological tension, as we are not allowed to experience Werther’s world outside of how he himself experiences it. His disenfranchisement begins by comparing the life of man with the life of a dream which confines and limits the human desire towards discovery. (Geothe, 9).
Werther feels elation at Charlotte becoming the object of his affection, and his distraction leads to an obsession which dominates his attention to the point of no longer being able to right anything but a brief correspondence to Wilhem. This distraction is felt powerfully by growing gaps in the narrative timeline. July, the month when Werther’s infatuation with Charlotte reaches a breaking point, contains a shift in the object of correspondence by including a missive to Charlotte in response to artistic commissions she wishes be made.
Because the epistolary given to the reader is selected from a fictional editor, we can only read the responses for what we must infer to be cautions from Wilhem. These responses also foreshadows Werther’s eventual demise as his musings allow for justified reasons for ending one’s life: “But would you require a wretched being, whose life is slowly wasting under a lingering disease, to dispatch himself at once by the stroke of a dagger?” Werther while saying that a disillusioned person would lack the courage to carry out such an act, call the end result a “deliverance” (Geothe, 35).
The sentiments expresses by Werther are bolstered by the dramatic shift in structure, which contributes, to the representation of the author’s elation, which is moving further towards dissolution since he has chosen an unattainable prize due to Charlotte’s engagement to Albert.
At the end of July, Albert returns and Werther’s letters take a further dive towards despair as the reason for Charlottes unattainability becomes a physical presence which forces him to leave a place he earlier describe as paradise. “Must it ever be thus, —that the source of our happiness also be the fountain of our misery.
The letters in which Werther comes to the most despair are also the shortest letters. His one paragraph August 21st letter begins with “In vain do I stretch out my arms,” and ends with “I weep over my future woes.” (Geothe, 44). In previous correspondence, the reader had more insight into not only Werther’s state of mind, but also his analysis of it. Now, the narrative structure and unreliable narrator has made a shift in only narrating his inner state, which is a dire one, and giving no analysis of it.
Traveling away from Charlotte, Werther’s letters resume their previous rigor, but he fails to regain the composure he had prior to meeting her. Finding himself in the court of an aristocratic society he has openly criticized further exacerbates his despair. Towards June, July and September of the subsequent year, the length of his letters again decrease in tandem with his state of mind. His July 16th missive is the shortest to date, only two sentences long calling himself a “wanderer through the world.” (Geothe, 63).
In a brief July 18 1772 missive, he admits to deluding himself in his plans to return to Wahlheim, which he does to be near Charlotte. In these letters contain less emotion than previous once, which reveal an inner state that is beginning to withdraw from the world.
The most dramatic shift in the correspondence occurs when the editor who compiles the letters interrupts to directly address the reader, shifting the Werther-Wilhelm correspondence to a more omniscient nature of editor-reader. Werther is in this correspondence referred to as the “deceased,” which seals his fate for the readers.
The narrative from there reads like a eulogy written by the deceased, in which Werther lays out his realization that he, Albert and Charlotte could not continue to go on under the present circumstances and not wanting to harm them, decides to kill himself.
The Sorrows of Young Werther’s narrative structure allow for a reader to sympathize with him, while the embedded editor reflects that account given by Werther that while liked by those around him, suffered from “ill-humour” which led him to take his own life, the epistemological tension stems not just from the content of the novel, but also the structure employed by Geothe in the writing of it.
Geothe, J. W. von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Trans. R. D. Boylan. Ed. Nathen Haskell Dole. Pen State Electronic Classics. 2003. The Pennsylvania State University.