Content Warning for suicide.
I am kind of sad this book marks my first cannonball, but oh well…
When book bingo asked for a “White Whale”, I had a hard time picking a book. It’s just that I couldn’t think of anything I’d been meaning to read forever. And then I remembered the audiobook I bought back in 2016 when my bookclub read it, but I never did. It’d been sitting on my phone for over 5 years, and it was only a little over 5 hours, so I decided to give it a go.
Anyway, here’s a little background on this book. The Sorrows of Young Werther is Goethe’s debut novel, which he published when he was 24 years old, and it was apparently a hit. The preface to the book called it the Harry Potter of the 1700s, and even said Napoleon used to carry the book on his jacket pocket. However, it also appears to have caused a wave of suicides in Europe in the late 18th century aptly named “Werther Fever”, so it was banned after that. Goethe apparently grew to hate this book as well. The press seems to think it caused this suicide wave because it made suicide “fashionable” by making readers want to emulate the situations in the book, but I am certain it was because this book just sucked out people’s will to live.
So what else can I tell you about The Sorrows of Young Werther before I spoil the plot for you so you never have to read it? I made a list:
- The book is mainly told in an epistolary format, all letters from Werther mainly to the same friend, and he is a pompous, insufferable writer.
- The audiobook I have is terrible. There is some sad piano music in between the letters that makes it hard to hear the start and ending of them and the narrator who is clearly American tries to put on a terribly strong cartoon-ish German accent every once in a while and it’s horrendous.
- Werther is the most unlikeable character I have ever read. Bar none.
So on to the plot, and there shall be some spoilers from now on. So you might want to leave if you plan on reading this. Which you really shouldn’t.
Werther is a young man who thinks of himself as an artist and moved to the countryside to stay with his aunt(?), I think? I don’t remember, it’s not as if he ever mentions her again. From there he corresponds with a friend who apparently is in contact with his mother. He writes his friend almost every day to tell him about all he does in ridiculous levels of detail. He describes Nature and waxes poetic about art and painting and how nice the people on the countryside are, being careful to label every interaction with those below his station.
He eventually meets Charlotte, a young woman who is engaged to another man whom she loves deeply, and who is like a mother to her 8 siblings. Werther falls madly in love and strikes a friendship with her and basically talks of nothing else for months. He’s also kind of an arsehole because he’s so happy he’s verbally attacking people for being in a bad mood, the hypocritical douchebag.
Plus there’s this whole thing about him kissing the children, which did not age well, and prompts Charlotte to remind Werther she’s engaged and put some distance between them. Werther gets hopelessly depressed, then throws a tantrum and leaves without saying goodbye to get a job and finally do something productive with his life. And he fails miserably. I mean, newsflash: about 99% of us don’t like our jobs either, but we somehow still manage to go to work everyday without whinging about it constantly.
Long story short, he doesn’t even last 4 months before quitting and going off with a prince who took a fancy to him. And there is this one line where he writes his mother about not needing to send him the money he required because the prince gifted him cash which just made me extremely mad. You’re an adult man – you should not be living on mummy’ dime. Ugh.
Anyway, at some point while I was getting extremely annoyed and worked up he hears Charlotte has gotten married and goes back and becomes a friend of the family while not-so-secretly stalking her. He basically goes to see her and the children everyday and it’s just creepy. He just feels like he’s entitled to her and it’s so fucking uncomfortable to read. The book tries to paint it as if she is also torn between her love for her husband and her brotherly affection for Werther, but I call bullshit on that.
At this point we’re getting a narration as well as the increasingly incoherent letters. I mean, the guy has gone completely off the rails until he finally snaps and assaults her. She cannot do anything about it because it is 1774, but she asks him not to visit until her husband is back on Christmas Eve. Werther takes this as a personal slight and basically decides to take revenge by killing himself and having her receive a letter where he basically blames her for his death on Christmas eve. Even in the letter, he revels on the sadness he expects her to feel because of his death.
Honestly, he’s just an arsehole who blames everyone else for his perceived misfortunes and I just wished he had died earlier, possibly from an infant illness so I never had to hear from him to begin with. I’m giving this 2 stars because Goethe did write beautifully, and because I enjoyed writing this review, but my enjoyment of this story was zero.
Bingo: WHITE WHALE