The book ‘English sorrows of young Werther’ is about the individual and the subjectivity that results in doing so. The main character – Werther – is in an endless battle with himself. The romanticism inherent in this piece did pave the way for a different type of literature that was more personal and sensitive.
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A recurrent theme in the book
This book was representative of a kind of revolution in literature owing to the prevalence of the theme of subjectivity. The author challenged popular assumptions on the individual by deeply reflecting on him through the main character. Werther was an incredibly complicated individual as can be seen by his feelings for a married woman, his intolerance of a formal job, and his self-absorption. The tumultuous nature of his life indicated that human beings were complex and unique.
They were not orderly or predictable as projected in literature from the previous era. Therefore, one could not peg on certainty because it did not adequately explain humans. To this end, Goethe (2003) felt that it was imperative to explore the self through his character. This was why Wether was always focusing on himself through his feelings, his quest for happiness, and sometimes his irrationality.
In certain instances, Werther comes off as a person whose knowledge of self is uncertain; he is artistic and longs for an intellectual who can understand him. For instance, he criticizes Heinrich, who was living an unfulfilled life because of his lack of knowledge. He asserted that he preferred to be dead than to be mad as Heinrich was.
On the other hand, he does not fit in when he mistakenly attends a meeting of elites and gets kicked out.
Additionally, his continuous struggle with the love of his life and the friendship he had with her husband still testifies to the ambiguity of Werther’s life. This eventually leads to his suicidal attempt and subsequent death. The journey of discovery of the major character is, therefore, a journey into the concept of individualism, one-sidedness, and subjectivity.
Aspects of German and European culture that Goethe is discussing or taking on
Goethe was taking on the orderliness of the enlightenment era by addressing its shortcomings. It created societies in which the youth (as seen through Werther) were disillusioned and neglected. They had several demands but were often not allowed to express them. Further still, they were passionate but did not have an outlet for letting these out (Hunt, 2001).
Goethe was probably unsatisfied by the intellectual solutions offered by the neo classical school of thought hence explaining why his major character frequently endorsed the personal over the objective. Indeed passions and feelings were a rarity, and the author felt a need to challenge this notion by including them in his piece.
Some values that the book is promoting
Goethe probably believed in artistic inclinations and spontaneity. Werther continuously demonstrates this through his assertions and his choices more so when he decides to follow his passions when pursuing Lotte. The author believed that creativity was best expressed through impulsiveness and the promotion of one’s intuition. The author tells the audience through his main character that true beauty lies in the ability to be instinctual. This often meant that logic had to be put on the periphery.
To the author, art was art because of its reflection of the personal experiences of the artist. This, to him, was the reason why the enlightenment could not offer the answers that his book was offering. The latter era usually promoted the use of reason and facts, but the problem was that everyone could access these facts (Hunt, 2001). To produce something authentic, one had to look within oneself and honestly bring out what was in there.
The irony that lay in these values was that society never really endorsed them. Werther acknowledged that when he asserted that people always tend to categorize great accomplishers as mentally unstable. Indeed, it was always very difficult for Werther to feel like he belonged in his society because no one could relate to such excessive romanticism. His ideas could not find comfort in the conservative and religious society that he lived in.
Some devices and techniques used in the novel
Goethe (2003) gives a lot of preference to nature in the novel. He uses it as imagery for the battles that were going on in Werther’s mind. At the beginning of the novel, the author talks about the Wahleim town in a serene way. It is at this time when Werther meets Charlotte and falls for her. However, towards the end of the novel, Lotte tells Werther that he must leave her because she now loves her husband. To this end, he is unhappy and dissatisfied with this state of affairs.
The subsequent description of the landscape in Wahlheim is dramatically altered. The walnut trees that had previously characterized this area were no longer existent, and the land had lost its beauty, much like Werther had lost his love.
The things that made the town so endearing to Werther were lost, and this paralleled what had just happened to him when he lost Lotte’s visiting privileges. This imagery of nature and its similarity to the issues that Werther is going through can be related to the theme of subjectivity because they help in portraying his individualistic struggles.
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Symbolism is a key trait in the novel and at no point is this brought out than in the September 12th letter. Werther is with Charlotte and Lotte holds a bird which pecks her on her lips. She then directs the bird to Werther’s lips and asserts that it is as if Werther is kissing her. This bizarre method of expressing affection between the two of them illustrates how evasive love was between them.
The bird was a symbol of the mere taste of pleasure that Werther was entitled to. He could never really be physically satisfied by the love of his life. On another level, the bird also signified the bond that brought Charlotte and Werther together. These two fully appreciated nature, and it is this artistic tendency that brought them close to one another.
Additionally, it is the only avenue that they were allowed access to as lovers. The bird as a symbol advances the theme of subjectivity because its use is quite personal and only creates meaning when one understands the issues that Lotte and Werther are going through. The struggles and inaccessibility that Werther had to intimacy and love show how subjective this matter is.
Goethe (2003) also uses Irony as a tool for advancing the theme of subjectivity. He shows how contradictory humans are through the technique and therefore, cannot be generalized using objective facts. In the second part of the book, it can be seen that Werther identifies with the peasant class and even endorses the simplicity with which they live their lives.
However, one can see that he keeps getting financial support from his mother and is therefore of a higher class than they are; his reverence for the working class is detached from actual reality because he has not yet lived that life. The paradox occurs when he finds himself amid elites who consider him a member of a lower class.
They force him out of the convention, and it is at this point that readers can see the irony of the class system. It worked well for him when he was a member of the privileged class, but that immediately changed when the same individual was not noble. The class system was contradictory even when one was analyzing the same individual.
Hunt, L. (2001). The Makings of the West: Peoples and Cultures. NY: St. Martin’s Press
Goethe, J. (2003). The Sorrows of Young Werther: Translated by R.D. Boylan. Pennsylvania: Penn State Electronic Classics Series