Werther writes letters to his friend Wilhelm describing the idyllic rural retreat in which he plans to do a little drawing. He meets Lotte. She is betrothed to another, Albert, but in Albert's absence Werther falls in love with Lotte. The loves is neither consummated nor indeed returned but Werther is a classic romantic hero, ruled by his wild unbridled passions. When Albert returns and marries Lotte, Werther despairs. He becomes gloomy and suicidal. The letters stop; the 'editor' then narrates the final days with extracts from further letters and the suicide note and large quotes from 'Ossian' the forged epic poem that Goethe adored.
This is all wild, romantic, passionate prose full of dashes - oh! - and exclamations. And coupled with extreme rectitude and punctilious etiquette. It is a sort of cross between Jane Austen and Emily Bronte: Wuthering and Sensibility. Not really my cup of tea. But remarkable as a landmark in romantic fiction with the classic Byronic hero driven to self destruction by untamed (except they are tamed) lusts. It is also surprisingly short.
In the letter dated 18th July Werther notes that a world without love is the same as a projector without a lamp which suggests that even in 1771 the magic lantern existed. Perhaps when Goethe spoke of these 'transient phantoms' he was thinking a little of Plato's Cave parable (which might suggest that magic lanterns properly date to 500 BC!) Indeed wikipedia suggests that the magic lantern was used by Cristian Huyghens before 1660 and that Germans (such as Kircher who describes a similar device in Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae) and Walgensten and Count Cagliostro were using lanterns to summon spirits; perhaps Goethe linked this to the legend of Faust that he was later to dramatise.
In the same letter Werther talks of 'Bologna rock': "if you lay it in the sun it will draw in the rays and shine for a while at night". Bologna rock is barium sulphide; it was exhibited in 1611 by Galileo according to my source.Sometimes it is amazing how old seemingly modern notions are.
My favourite quote from this book is from the letter of 20th October 1771 in which Werther writes "It is certain that since we are so made to compare everyone with ourselves and ourselves with everyone, happiness or misery lies in those circumstances with which we associate ourselves, and then nothing is more dangerous than solitude." I think I understand what he means but I do not think I agree with his conclusion.
It is a classic which you have to read with a little pinch of salt.
January 2012; 131 pages.
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57