The Tragedy of Werther
Goethe’s work titled, “The Sorrows of a Young Werther,” exemplifies the desperate longing of a man to win his lady love. It documents how a youth named Werther loves without repose, with all his mind, heart, life, and soul a woman named Charlotte. The feeling of love later leads to desperation for his feelings not only affects his emotions, but his whole personhood, which leads to his tragedy.
The story of Werther is expressed in his personal account of his experiences. In his diary, he addresses a certain Wilhelm, who could be his friend, cousin, or an imaginary confidante. It could be deduced from his writings that Werther lives in solitary, with only a servant to care. From time to time, he mentions his mother who is assumed to be residing near his friend. From the way he writes his diary, Werther can be identified as a young man near his twenties. When he meets Charlotte and falls for her, Werther is still in his tender youth, based on the decisions he makes, and the restlessness to be near the person he loves. Because of this, he falls instantly for the girl, and is unable to control his feelings. He is unaware of what the future holds for him, and completely uninformed of the ways of love. As a young lover, Werther is very naive of the consequences of his acts. The way he discerns things shows his immature thinking. The scene in the house of the count is one proof of his immaturity and inept knowledge of the society. Also, his temper when he meets the ill-humored Herr Schmidt demonstrates a young man’s reaction to the people around him. His youth and other characteristics could have led him to his desperate affections for Charlotte.
The way Werther loves reminds us of the male protagonist in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” When Romeo falls for Juliet, he is in his early teens, and just like Werther, he too is unaware of where love could lead him or what it can cause him to do. Both lads are epitomes of passionate youths who would willingly do everything for their love. Just like Romeo, Werther is fully submitted to his feelings, and does not think of his own good (i.e., getting an education, fulfilling a career). What matters is the woman he loves, to be near her and obtain her favour. By the time he returns from his duty to the prince, Werther feels incapacitated to do what he does regularly, including his painting, conversations with the peasants, etc. He submits himself to thinking and dreaming of Charlotte all day. By the way he carries himself and feels for his love, Werther shares the experience of Romeo. Both characters are willing to die for their loved ones, and both actually did.
The case of Werther is only slightly different from that of Romeo in that his feelings for Charlotte lasts till he grows up, while Romeo’s affair exists barely for a week. However, both characters feel the same intensity of love. The love Werther bears is undying, unfading, and unyielding. It does not die even after Charlotte gets married. Werther continues to love even more when he comes back to his town. His love does not fade though he meets another woman during his work with the ambassador. And, it does not yield though he knows Charlotte will never feel the same for him.
In addition, Werther’s case is different from that of Romeo and other typical young lovers because his love is unrequited. Usually, in classic stories of love, we see a couple sharing and fighting for their love, such as Romeo and Juliet.. However, in Werther’s story, he alone loves, and is never granted the love he begs for because Charlotte is committed to another man named Albert.
Werther’s unfortunate state leads him to desperation. Like a spiral pit, Werther is pulled down and below, making him unable to retrieve himself. Little by little, and as days pass by, his passion for Charlotte grows deeper and deeper. From innocent love, his feelings of love later becomes a desperation.
Tracing roots of his desperation, it is important to consider how Werther used to live before he meets Charlotte. Alone in his dwelling, the young Werther may have suffered from too much loneliness. He does not have a family or a companion to fill his life. He also does not associate with friends aside from Charlotte and Albert. In short, he is fully focused on Charlotte, and fails to establish other friendships that can help him balance his feelings. Though he has a friend in writing, it would have been better if he had other friends of his age who could share his sentiments. His solitariness is one of the factors that lead to his tragedy.
From the way Werther conducts himself at the beginning, one may note the big change that he undergoes. His journey, which starts in his youth makes up a bildungsroman story. However, compared to bildungsroman heroes like Huckleberry Finn (Twain “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), Werther does not mature gracefully. In the beginning, we see the young Werther full of passion about life. He loves the scenery around him, the common people and their story, and his works of art. He feels so much for the nature in his hometown. The valley at Walheim, the linden trees, the fountain, the peasants’ cottages and barns—all these appeal to him each day. He considers them his paradise. He is accustomed to the place and cherishes it like no other. He loves to look at little children and makes friends with the common people such as the mother with two boys, and the peasant who is in love with his maiden. He is so fond of Charlotte’s siblings, and their view always makes him happy. In particular, when he falls for Charlotte, he becomes attracted to the lady’s siblings. As mentioned above, it may be his solitariness that inclines him to be fond of children and the simple things in life.
However, the content heart grows feeble with time. Little by little, his loneliness, which is partly caused by his aloneness and mostly by unrequited love, changes the way he views things. Instead of being wiser with time, he develops irrational beliefs such as his view about suicide, which he defends during his argument with Albert. He claims, “suffering may be moral or physical…it is just…absurd to call a man a coward who destroys himself…” For him, committing suicide is reasonable if the person does it to end his suffering. He declares that the suffering a man bears due to misfortune is similar to dying of an incurable disease. Both must have an end, and both could be ended with death.
Aside from his irrational views, Werther also fails to be a positive hero like Huck because of his inability to overcome his feelings. As some religions decree, a person must conquer himself in order to attain perfect happiness. But the character of Werther is unable to conquer his emotions, until they suffocate and overcome him. Charlotte even advises him to “Be a man, and conquer an unhappy attachment.” She thinks that Werther is a talented man, a person who has a bright future ahead of him, but the latter does not do anything to make a fortune out of his wits. Instead, he supplicates for a love that can never be granted to him. For Charlotte, this is clearly a waste of time.
Werther has totally different views from others. This is why he prefers to be in conversation with peasants, for those are the people who know about real life and suffering. He believes that “Persons who can claim a certain rank keep themselves coldly aloof from the common people” for they fear to lose their importance, the respect they gained for themselves.
He fails to associate himself with the people in the court for he is inept in social grace. He bases his opinions on what comes from his heart, which is based on love, sympathy to the oppressed, and compassion for the young and innocent. He is very fond of children, for like him, children speak the truth from their hearts, without fear of being censored.
His love for the children and innocence of speech is similar to that of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” For them, being in the company of children is a source of true happiness. The innocence of the children attracts such characters for it is what they know they have lost. This is why Werther is drawn more to Charlotte. The company of Charlotte’s siblings and even the woman’s nature, which he sees to be full of innocence, draw him nearer the love of his life, and eventually his grave.
Too much of the innocence does not benefit the young man. His confinement to his own world and feelings leads him to be indifferent to others, defiant, and even unmindful of the common laws. In the end, he seems to care less for other people who love him, and thinks only of Charlotte. He becomes defiant of reason as he expresses his support to the peasant who murders a rival. He also grows to be unmindful of the law when he tries to possess Charlotte in his arms during their last encounter.
While Werther submits in slumber and vows not to change his feelings for Charlotte, the world around him changes. When he returns to his hometown, he realizes that a lot has changed, his young friend, the son of the weary mother is dead, and Charlotte is already married to Albert. Everything around him is changing but he remains the same. He still lingers in the same place, where he experiences pain repeatedly. He still hangs out near the fountains, near Charlotte though he knows the woman will never show the same love he offers.
Werther also remains in his idleness. Compared to other bildungsroman characters, he does not develop much, but remains in his own world and does not transform even with the passing of time. Young Werther only develops severe pain and suffering due to so much love for Charlotte.
Further to this, he fails to associate with others, especially with men of reason such as Albert. Once his friend, Albert becomes a rival at the end, because he possesses the love that Werther desires. Aside from Albert, Werther despises those who do not think the way he does. Particularly, he is in negation with Albert and the judge as regards the case of the peasant lad because for him, the innocence of love should rule above everything.
In this consideration, we may say that Werther has truly corrupted not only his emotions but even his mind with the unreasonable feelings he has for Charlotte. This corruption leads him to think of committing suicide, although we may say that even before his suicide, Werther has already destroyed himself by submitting to his weaknesses, the causes of his tragic fall.
A character’s tragic fall or ending is caused by the individual’s weaknesses. In the story of Werther, we can find that the character submits to those weaknesses simply by failing to overcome them. Tragic flaws in Literature are related to the Seven Deadly Sins (Pontus, as mentioned in Tilby, “From Evil Thoughts to Deadly Sins: Evagrius of Pontus’s Psychology of Sin”).
In young Werther, we see many tragic flaws. One of which is sloth. His inactivity, inclination to loneliness, even his excessive sympathy for the oppressed all lead to this tragic flaw. From the vibrant and happy youth, Werther becomes anguished. His sadness becomes a disease too difficult to overcome. In fact, he is not able to overcome it, which signifies his early fall. Too much love and adoration lead him to suffer melancholy wherever he turns. The deafness of Charlotte to his pleads adds to this misery. Also, the misfortunes of the poor people around him create in him a desire to dwell more on his own suffering. He is not able to overcome this weakness because he is blinded by the love he feels.
The excessive feelings of love Werther has could be considered more than love. Love, if it is excessive, is related to lust, and is in the list of Seven Deadly Sins. This can be reasonably said because if it is only love that Werther feels for Charlotte, he will be content with the friendship they share. He does not need to have her as his wife, (as he dreams of) because he is allowed to visit her, anyway. In fact, Albert, the husband is very kind to him for letting him visit come near Charlotte though he knows Werther has more feelings than love of a friend. The couple is very accommodating, which could have also led Werther to push through with his feelings instead of overcoming them. In a way, the couple tolerates his acts and affections, by welcoming him to their house.
Werther can be accused of lust from the way he behaves himself at the end. He kisses Charlotte by force, takes her to his arms, and embraces her by the bosom. These actions suggest only one thing. He desires the woman more than a friend and companion. The innocent love that he feels once is tinged later with malicious affection of lust. Although he tries to hide it from Charlotte, the feeling still persists and he is unable to suppress it at the end. When he has finally decided that there is no hope that Charlotte would love him back, he demonstrates his ultimate wish, that is, to possess not only her heart but also her body. Thus, he says, “One hundred times have I been on the point of embracing her…what a torment it is to see so much loveliness..and yet not dare to lay hold of it!”
Another sin that Werther commits is envy. Obviously, this is towards his friend, Albert. He feels envious because he knows that the love of Charlotte can never be granted to him as long as Albert is in their midst. He likewise thinks that Albert does not deserve Charlotte for a wife for he “does not seem so happy as he — hoped to be — as I should have been…” He thinks that he and Charlotte would be happier together.
The respect that he once feels for the man turns to envy for the other’s lot. Werther wishes to be in Albert’s place not because of his wealth or intellect but only because of Charlotte. Although he believes in his heart that the woman loves him, Albert serves as a reminder of his misfortune, his loss. Although the two try to retain the friendship by being civil, it is very clear that they have become rivals, and in their rivalry, Werther is nonetheless the loser.
The envy he feels towards Albert is combined with anger. Anger or wrath is another deadly sin. He also feels this towards other people such as the ambassador, the elite society that mocks him, and those who do not view things as he does. When his anger piles up, it leads him to disappointment and later on, an uncontrollable depression.
As mentioned above, Werther appeases himself with the thought that Charlotte loves him. In the end, before he dies, he tells himself, “She loves, she loves me! Still burns upon my lips the sacred fire they received from thine.” He relieves his pain with this thought, though there is no mention if the woman really feels this way. He convinces himself of this thought either because of his pride or his hopeful longing. It is only through this
In talking about pride, if Werther really thinks that Charlotte loves him but is only reprimanded by the society’s laws, Werther yet demonstrates another sin that is pride. Thinking that Charlotte also loves him, the main character has left within himself some pride. We can likewise accuse him of this because he thinks that the depth of his emotions and his reasoning cannot be well understood by an ill-humored person. That is, he surpasses their wits with what he pronounces as love, which is a sign of self-conceitedness. On the one hand, for learned men like Albert, the rationality in Werther’s thought is too mean. On the other hand, for Werther, his feelings and passion are inexplicable and impossible to people of less-genuine heart.
The tragic flaws of Werther lead to his dilemma. In fact, Werther has too many conflicts within him. From a distance, one may perceive that his only conflict is too much love for Charlotte, but if we look carefully, this character has more than one. He has conflict with himself, with society, with nature, with God.
Conflict With Himself
Werther has a conflict with himself. He cannot face his fate and does not do anything to change it. Although he has opportunities, he insists on keeping his ways. When he meets Miss B, he cannot help but compare the girl to Charlotte. He always makes Charlotte a part of his conversation with the former, and clings to memories of the other even though they are apart. If there is any one who could help him overcome his misfortune, it is only him but instead of curing himself of his disease, he succumbs to suffer from it.
Wisdom tell us that the most difficult conflict a person can have is the conflict with oneself. Being young, Werther is unaware of this conflict because he thinks he is always right. Self-conceitedness leads him to think that he is right in his views about the world, while others are wrong. Clearly, this is a conflict of man against himself. By not knowing one’s faults, he does not know who to defeat. In Jungian Psychology, Werther’s shadow is himself. Because he does not realize his mistakes, his shadow overpowers him, leading him to think of killing himself.
The suicidal act is the act of the shadow to overpower Werther’s anima. According to Jung, when this happens, the person loses his balance, thus he is led to a tragedy. The tragedy starts with depression and later turns to dilemma. If the person does not overcome the dilemma, it can lead to neurosis or in Werther’s case, a suicide.
Conflict with Society
Werther also bears a conflict with his society. First, he finds it difficult to accept people who do not share his views and attitude. For example, he despises the ill-humored Herr Schmidt, and openly discusses the negative implications of being ill-humored. However, he does not notice that he too becomes ill-humored as time goes by because of the anguish he has over his fate.
Without doubt, Werther has a conflict with Albert. Though the two are good friends in the beginning, Werther complicates things between them by insisting his irrational views about suicide. This also irritates Albert but does not affect him that much for he has other things to think of. Werther, on the other hand, stays preoccupied with his irrationality, and develops hatred towards Albert. First, this is influenced by their differing views, second by the envy Werther feels towards Albert.
The society where Werther belongs to is also a source of conflict. The experiences of the people around him put a burden on Werther. First, he is devastated by the death of a boy he once painted, then the misfortune of the peasant lover, and finally, the fate of the secretary who falls for Charlotte. All these problems confounded in his mind, thus forming hatred to the world. He is stricken by the sufferings of other people that he forgets the better side of life. His view about the peasant lad who murders a rival is a concrete sign that Werther has conflict with the rules of society.
His conflict with society is also evident in the way he deals with the ambassador. He cannot maintain a positive relationship with the ambassador because the other’s ways totally clashes with his personality. He develops an exclusive world that will not welcome anyone who has views that are different from his. Even the prince who is fond of him but has different views fails to please him. Only the count who shares his views successfully breaks into his exclusive society, aside of course from Charlotte.
Another conflict he has with society is his inability to accept changes. He is content with what he has, does not wish to change anything, even the nature around him. He resists customs and societal rules. This is evident during the dinner at the count’s house. When he faces humiliation, he is unable to redeem himself, which tells us his inability to be flexible. With this we can say likewise say that Werther is hard headed. He is unwilling to learn from his mistakes, unable to learn from others. He insists on what he grows up with, and is not ready to change that. This adds up to his dilemma. His inability to accept change and to make a change disappoints him too deeply.
Conflict with Nature
A character’s conflict with nature can arise from physical conflict with the environment or an inner conflict the latter brings the individual. In Werther’s case, the conflict with nature revolves with the effect the environment brings the character. Werther is too attracted with the nature around him. He considers it his paradise. However, its effect on him is not all positive. In fact, it may be the reason for his idleness. The comfort that nature gives causes Werther to be idle and to think only of his feelings for Charlotte. The once source of happiness later becomes a cause of his loneliness for the “cold, monotonous existence” it offers. Although he does not recognize it, nature becomes his enemy for it overpowers him, confounding him till he cannot escape its beauty.
Conflict with God or the Divine
Werther does not claim conflict with God or religion but it shows in the way he conducts himself. Undergoing depression, it is common nature to search for the existence of a divine being within oneself. However, Werther does not communicate with God although he believes in Him. He fails to do this because he knows the decree of religion against his plan. Moreover, by demoralizing his human nature, Werther completely denies the existence of the divine or the laws of religion. At the end, the fate he pursues shows his denial of the divine or of religion.
The many conflicts that Werther experiences undoubtedly leads him to confusion, depression, and later on to dilemma. When he finally cannot bear the dilemma, Werther resorts to suicide, because he thinks this would end up all his sufferings. In psychology, this experience could be a sign of neurosis. The character’s inability to control his tragic flaws is one sign that he is not psychologically healthy. A person who is mentally well will not allow himself to commit all the sins mentioned above, such as sloth, lust, envy, wrath and pride. Rather, his inner strength would allow him to realize his mistakes and balance himself.
Werther’s inability to balance himself is demonstrated in the last part. There is a shift in the narrator at the end of the story, which describes the fate of the main character. It states that “Sorrow and discontent had taken deep root in Werther’s soul, and gradually imparted their character to his whole being. The harmony of his mind became completely disturbed.”
For some, Werther ‘s condition could be considered a neurosis. The inability to balance oneself is one sign, and his denial of the conflicts that exists between him and the world is another. Furthermore, his decision to end his life, a motive that is certainly not normal to average people, is an ultimate sign that Werther is not psychologically well.
It is compelling to think how a young man like Werther develops the thought of ending his sufferings through suicide. As discussed, the character’s dilemma starts from his desperate love for Charlotte. However, certain aspects in Werther’s life contribute to this inclination, such as his idleness, isolation, and inability to adapt to changes. The work of Goethe is successful in making its readers realize how a person, especially the youth, could be affected negatively by unrequited love, and how the suffering could lead one to lose his senses and opt to a radical decision of committing suicide.
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