Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How happy I am that I am gone! 

For a second I thought that this was in reference to the guy getting ready to blow his brains out. A little misdirection and foreshadowing that leads to confusion can go a long way in hooking a reader. The next lines:

My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of man! To leave you, from whom I have been inseparable, whom I love so dearly, and yet to feel happy!

According to Elmore Leonard, Goethe has used up his allotment of exclamation marks for a novel, though in Goethe's defense, he may not have read that bit of writing advice. The rest of the long opening paragraph has a feeling of ranting to it, which hints at the narrator's mental state quite well, knowing what we know of young Werther and his sorrows, assuming readers are familiar with this story before they start reading it.

I know you will forgive me. Have not other attachments been specially appointed by fate to torment a head like mine? Poor Leonora! and yet I was not to blame. Was it my fault, that, whilst the peculiar charms of her sister afforded me an agreeable entertainment, a passion for me was engendered in her feeble heart? And yet am I wholly blameless? Did I not encourage her emotions? Did I not feel charmed at those truly genuine expressions of nature, which, though but little mirthful in reality, so often amused us? Did I not—but oh! what is man, that he dares so to accuse himself? 

You get the idea. Nervous breakdowns are usually accompanied by an influx of thoughts related only by the punctuation used. Though young Werther's sorrows have not yet begun, we can see he is ripe for grief with the next line:

My dear friend I promise you I will improve; I will no longer, as has ever been my habit, continue to ruminate on every petty vexation which fortune may dispense...

First thing said:

"Shall I help you, pretty lass?"

This comes a couple pages in, depending on the edition you are reading.

Overall, I'm fairly certain Goethe did not write the opening of this short novel with the purpose of providing a marketable hook to sell copies. Even when he wrote this, he was fairly well known with a previous work. The hook was in the byline. Nevertheless, there is great emotion in this opening and the first glimpse of a character that is not quite as stable as you and I like to think we are.

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. The Sorrows of Young Werther ranks as the 78th best.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Theodore Moracht

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