{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Last week, I read a great book, a hopeless love story of a young man and his journey to death. Its a very intimate account of a doomed love affair and it is really delightful (if I may say so) how passionately Goethe handles our hero's longing for his love, how beautifully and meticulously the graceful picture of his lover is painted. In a semi autobiographical novel told in a series of letters, Goethe dissects romantic love, social clichés and at times raises questions about love, life, death and passion.

As you all must be knowing the plot by now, since I termed it as a tragic love story. As a customary here is a brief plot. A young man, Werther falls in love with lovely Charlotte, who is already engaged to Albert. Since Albert is away for some assignment, Werther spends a delightful time with Charlotte. After Albert's return, Werther soon realizes that he has to break all the ties with Charlotte, he tries not to meet her, in order to put an end to his daily trauma of seeing her, wanting her but a hopeless certainty of not getting her. After a last brief encounter with Charlotte, where she showers her love treasure on Werther's lips, Werther takes his life away to wait to meet her after death. The story has by now became a cliché, but as a real work of art The Sorrows of Young Werther lives in his youth till date.

The Sorrows of Young Werther was supposedly the first bestseller in European history and its success led to a flurry of artistic creativity in Europe but most famously it resulted in young men emulating Werther by wearing blue jackets and yellow vests and committing Werther-style suicides. The question is whether the novel champions suicide. In a way, it does, but than lots of work of art dear death than life at least in concept. In an extremely enlightening tirade our young hero, Werther, tells Albert about the similarities about physical and mental trauma and how everything is allowed in passion but the novel is not about suicide or dying, its more about love and that classic romanticism we often talk about. Then comes the eternal question that I have asked for long, why all the famous love stories are tragic, as of now, we shall leave this question for a rainy day.

There are several things about the novel that I loved apart from it being tragic and a love story. The one thing is Goethe's use of nature, which is used to a dual effect here. Firstly as a portal of external beauty and a testimonial of rampant beauty in the world lying in every landscape and the creativity galore by the creator of all these mesmerizing scenic images. This use of nature is explored in the early part of the book where young Werther is happy and trying to see nature as a piece of art, and he dabbles with poetry and painting. Actually at one point Werther remarks "Can we never take pleasure in nature without having recourse to art?" The second use of nature is to depict the condition of our hero as he climbs down the stairs of melancholy. Although here the nature serves as a backdrop to the despair of Young Werther, Goethe goes a step further to show that we ourselves make an illusion of nature (or rather any surroundings) to mirror our state of heart. Werther sees gloom in the same landscapes which showered pure delight when he was with Charlotte and exclaims why he was so happy and light then and now those pillars of happiness seems so hopelessly haunting as the beautiful face of dearest Charlotte. Goethe's use of nature as a backdrop of Werther's broken heart is exemplary and creates much of foundation for the unrequited love and longing.

I am a big fan of subplots and some times I feel more intrigued by the subplot than the main story. A sub-plot, in my opinion, should not be a tool to push the story forward or a tool to provide respite from the plot itself. A subplot should bring some universality to the story being told ( I don't mean to say that it should strengthen the main plot, but it might do that). Here in The Sorrows of Young Werther there are two subplots that interested me. First is the story of a young man, secretary to Charlotte's father, who too cherished passion for her and was dismissed and now he has turned mad. Werther meets him, when he was looking for summer flowers in chilling winter for his princess. To his delusion, Werther reacts " You were happy !, as gay and contented as a man can be! God of heaven! and is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he has acquired his reason, or after he has lost it? Unfortunate being! And yet I envy your fate: I envy the delusion to which you are a victim. You go forth with joy to gather flowers for your princess,-- in winter, -- and grieve when you can find none, and cannot understand why they do not grow. But I wander forth without joy, without hope, without design ". The second plot is more involved, where Werther favors for a servant who had been formerly attached to a widow, and has killed the other servant who replaced him after his dismissal from service of widow. Werther fights vehemently for him to gather some pity for him and to save him from the impending danger, Later he retorts " You cannot be saved, unfortunate man, I see clearly that we can't be saved". All these situations brings Werther to realize that he is going in the same path and probably same woes wait for him too. Thematically, these episodes resonate with the feeling that in society, love should get its approval and the passion of love is universally misunderstood and only those who are in same situation can grasp the misery and anxiety of the people trapped there. Also the episode with murderous servant brings about how the the noblest feelings of love and attachment for loved one can convert themselves to jealousy, hate and violence for others. Even Werther starts rearing a seemingly irrational jealously for Albert and questions himself "What is the use of my continually repeating that he is a good and estimable man? He is an inward torment to me, and I am incapable of being just toward him."

While building an ultimate figure of a romantic hero, Goethe shows utmost respect to every minute feeling of his hero, Werther's every idea and observation is captured with intense intimacy, china-like vulnerability and truth. How true is the feeling when Werther says " Heaven reward him for it!" observing that Albert always refrains from kissing Charlotte in his presence or the episode where Charlotte kisses and plays with a canary and our hero turns his face away so as not to excite his imagination or when Werther describes death as "One lifts up the curtain, and passes to the other side, -- that is all! And why all these doubts and delays? Because we know not what is behind -- because there is no returning -- and because our mind infers that all is darkness and confusion, where we have nothing but uncertainty." or how artistically he describes his end to Charlotte "For the last, last time I open these eyes. Alas! they will behold the sun no more. It is covered by a thick, impenetrable cloud.Yes, Nature! put on mourning: your child, your friend, your lover, draws near his end!". In all these tiny moments we come closer to Werther's agony and his passion for Charlotte.

The famous episode of Werther's last meeting with Charlotte where Werther reads out an Ossian (Werther starts enjoying this imaginary poet over Homer as his obsession deepens) poem to Charlotte, moved by poem that resonated Werther's trauma and passion, in a stroke of trembling passion, Charlotte covers his lips with a thousand kisses and the world seems to disappear from their eyes, the last happy moment in poor Werther's life. This episode must have been enacted a thousand times on stages, films and operas but still Goethe's words have not lost their charm.

In the preface Goethe writes "And thou, good soul, who sufferest the same distress as he endured once, draw comfort from his sorrows" and that is true for any great work of art. How much depressing or bitter they may get, but they always provide solace to the soul by giving a better understanding of life. Here Goethe carves a figure of a tragic romantic hero and the idea of fatalistic romanticism that centuries have emulated and will continue to do so.


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TaRuN said...

Brilliant cover.. probably the most impressing cover of a book I have ever seen. But I have to admit that I haven't read the rest of your post simply becoz I don't like to read the plots of movies and books I haven't had chance to encounter yet :)

Abhishek* said...

Hi Anurag

Read you posts and thoroughly enjoyed. I must say you have a very nice taste.

Cant wait to start this book. But I am sure it wudnt be available in Pune. Plz tell me where can I find this one. And those movies too.


anurag said...

Thanks a lot Abhishek.

You can get this book online here

Regarding movies in Pune, I am not aware of any DVD shop which stacks good foreign cinema, but it must be there.

rasika said...

This is one of my favourite books - I studied it on a literature course in Bamberg, Germany two years ago - and I liked your comments on it! Especially what you say about Goethe's use of nature (I only wish you had mentioned the sublime scene at the party, where Werther and Lotte go out onto the balcony after the rainstorm and look out over the landscape), Werther's revisiting of certain places whose meaning has altered for him, and the subplots (they have a great resonance). Also what you call the "meticulous" care and grace with which it is written (like one of those contemporary miniature portraits lovers used to carry), how "every idea and observation is captured with intense intimacy, china-like vulnerability and truth"; but how passionate it all remains... Am much enjoying your blog! and those by other Indian bloggers you have links to, the seriousness of the writing and the breadth of your interests are all very inspiring

anurag said...

Thanks a lot, Rasika.

I just visited your blog. u know, I saw 'Waking Life' last night only :)

Jonathan Ashleigh said...

Recently there was a parody of "The Sorrows of Young Werther" that published. In the new version, "The Sorrows of Young Mike" by John Zelazny, the protagonist is infatuated with Werther but lost and in love with multiple women as he travels around the world with a copy of his favorite book. It is an interesting modern retelling.