Original Publication Date: 1774
Genre: epistolary novel, loose autobiography
Topics: unrequired love, commitment, social acceptance and the lack of it, suicide, nature, nurture, sense of existence
Review by : Bridget/Anachronist@portable pieces of thoughts
The Sorrows of Young Werther (German, Die Leiden des jungen Werther, originally published as Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is comprised, for the most part, of letters written by a hopelessly romantic young man named Werther to a friend named Wilhelm with the addition of editorial notes (those notes try to balance the inveitable drawbacks of first-person narrative).
Werther, a sensitive young man of some means, flees the complexities of life by taking refuge in the countryside. There he indulges his imagination by immersing himself in the idyllic delights of untained nature. His happiness reaches new heights when he meets Lotte, a charming sweet-natured young girl, a daughter of a local town dignitary . Soon he finds out that Lotte is engaged to a likable but unimaginative local official, Albert, currently absent. Werther’s ecstatic love soon tortures both himself and Lotte as it begins to conflict with the norms of polite society. Is Lotte too naive to understand that in Werther she has acquired an ardent admirer, not a friend? Is she aware of his easily-inflamed fascination, or the violent depths of his stifled emotions? Is she oblivious or heartless to his passionate despair once her fiance has returned? Just how long can she juggle two lovers, or even control her own dainty heart–which Goethe chastely and tantalizingly hides from us?
Werther’s pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend on the day when the entire aristocratic set normally meets there. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther’s recitationof a portion of “Ossian’. Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them — Lotte, Albert or himself — had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else Werther decides to take his own life.
After composing a farewell letter, he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretext of going “on a journey”. Lotte receives the request with great emotion but sends the pistols. Werther shoots himself in the head, but dies only 12 hours afterwards. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral is not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.
This book not only details Werther’s doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte, it also contains the most beautiful meditations on just about everything important in life: love, beauty, nature, philosophy, art, religion. The opening scenes of the story with their description of landscapes exude the highest philosophical ideals of the time and offers an excellent insight into the workings of the Romantic mind.
The whole story was based on true events. Goethe himself met a very lovely girl called Charlotte Buff, at a ball in Wetzlar, where he arrived looking for a job after finishing his studies. During the summer of 1772 a close friendship developed between Charlotte, Goethe and Christian Kestner (her fiancé). Charlotte was eventually obliged to tell Goethe plainly that he must not expect her to return his feelings. At seven o’clock on the morning of September 11th Goethe quit the town without warning. Away with friends in Koblencz, Goethe heard of the suicide of his former acquaintance at Wetzlar, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. In September 1771 Jerusalem had taken a job in Wetzlar as secretary to von Hoefler, an ambassador. He was of an artistic disposition, and had been cold-shouldered by Wetzlar’s high society. Goethe returned to the town to find out the details of Jerusalem’s death. He asked Kestner for a written account, on which he was to base the final pages of his novel. Goethe later described the writing of the work as the business of four weeks, during which time he proceeded with the unconscious certainty of a sleepwalker, and specifically spoke of it as a “confesion”.
Accordingly Goethe seems to have put a lot of himself into this novel. To love and to have lost someone to death is one thing. To love and to have the beloved betray your love is quite something else. But to love and to know that you can never consummate it, to distance yourself from the very thing you draw life from is unbearable for Werther.
The story itself is simple enough, but the varying degrees of Werther’s pain explore the depths of human depression. Goethe’s insights into human emotion are right on the mark, and he expresses them in haunting and moving language. He shows us the problems inherent in loving and idealizing something a bit too much. The novel is also a sensitive exploration of the psychopathology of a gifted but ill-adjusted young man (no, emos haven’t been invented yesterday). The letter form expresses well one-sided and lonely communication, also interposing an ironic distance between the reader and Werther, which makes this book a work of exhilarating style and insight.
It used to be a very important and influencial novel to a quite modern degree. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature; he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe’s style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The book also started the phenomenon known as the “Werther-Fieber” (“Werther Fever”) which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel. It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. Towards the end of Goethe’s life a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any fashionable young man’s tour of Europe. I bet any rock star or contemporary celebrity would be so proud of such an effect.
The primary problems I had with the work were the repetitiveness of Werther’s self-pitying missives and a certain incredulity connected to his state of mind. In the final analysis, a persistent feeling that Werther was a silly and unjustified stalker in his fixation and self-indulgent in wallowing, dulled significantly the impact of his fate. I couldn’t sympathize with Werther falling for a woman who clearly stated that she was already involved with another man. I kept waiting for him to finally shoot himself, and when he did my feeling was, “thank god, no more self-pitying”.
I think I also struggled against Goethe’s ideal of female perfection – a woman whose biggest asset is the fact that she can act like a mother to her siblings after the death of their mother, sounding all the time really average and dull. To tell you the truth this paragon of feminie virtue appears more sensual and maternal than truly sexual but those were the times and paragons (sigh). Finally the language was a bit too flowery for modern standards.
Highly recommendable. A cornerstone of Romantic literature that inspired many poets, it should be a key text for anyone studying the genre. Short and sweet – perfect for a summer read, but not to those who have recently gone through a rather painful break-up.
Download The Sorrows of Young Werther by J.W. von Goethe at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|
Original Publication Date: 1907
Genre: Literature, Germany, England
Topics: Gender roles, friendship, epistolary, feminist
Being an ongoing fan of Elizabeth von Arnim’s writing, I had read quite a few reviews of this epistolary novel on-line, and thought it’d be a fun read. It was – it was also quite a bit more serious overall than I had been expecting, but that’s not a criticism at all. Now, having completed it, my overall opinion of this novel was that it was a perfect balance of emotions and a very real consideration of how relationships can evolve over time, whether you want them to or not. (Plus – there are occasional sharp instances of wit sprinkled throughout the book.)
As mentioned, this is an epistolary novel but only from one perspective. It’s a collection of letters from the forthright Rose-Marie Schmidt, a young German woman with whose family Roger Anstruther, a fairly well-off English young man stays as he completes language lessons from Rose-Marie’s grumpy father. Rose-Marie’s mother, now dead, has been English and so in many ways, Rose-Marie considers herself English. (She’s a little too emotionally honest to be a true English person though. ) J
I know no mood of Nature’s that I do not love—or think I do when it is over—but for keenness of feeling, for stinging pleasure, for overflowing life, give me a winter’s day with the first snow, a clear sky, and the thermometer ten degrees Réaumur below zero.
Just before Roger leaves their house to return to England, the reader learns that the pair had confessed their love for each other, but due to class differences et al., they had sworn to keep their love secret until Roger has told his father. The structure used by von Arnim to only show the letters of Rose-Marie to Roger (and not his replies) works extremely well as you, as the reader, become much more aware of how one-sided the relationship is at times. Rose-Marie is a literate and eloquent writer, who has been raised in a small town in Germany to be honest and plain-spoken. Her mother has died, her father is a grumpy SOB and together, they have a good-natured housekeeper with a boyfriend who is a keen (but poor) trumpet player. (One of the strands of the plot reveals that the family ends up having to ask the boyfriend to leave the trumpet at home when he visits his girlfriend, the maid. The trumpet playing had turned into a very loud reflection of how their romance was going, and when it was going downhill, it got very noisy!)
Just like the protagonist of “Elizabeth and her German Garden” (1898) and the women in “Enchanted April” (1922), Rose-Marie is witty and clever academically (although with little chance for continuing education apart from books). Although she is portrayed as something of a rural outsider, she is emotionally intelligent, much more so than Roger, and it is she who really holds the reins of their friendship right from the beginning (once the blossom of young love has faded). She is a few years older than Roger, and once their engagement fades, she takes on the mantle of being an older sister type for him, telling him details of village life and proffering him advice about life. (As we are not privy to Roger’s perspective, we don’t know how he receives this, but the correspondence continues so it must have been acceptable.)
Papa was delighted, I must say, to have had at last, as he told me with disconcerting warmth, at last after all these months an intelligent conversation… (when Mr. Anstruther pays surprise visit to house in Jena).
Rose-Marie is not the traditional wilting heroine of the literary world. She is independent, she designs her own life in her own way (only limited by money, really), and she has a caustic wit which surfaces frequently throughout the novel. I really admired her no-nonsense approach to the impractical Roger and his roller-coaster emotions, and so when I came to the end of the book, the ending was perfect for how the story and the characters had been built. I turned the last page and sighed with satisfaction. That good.
Just loved this one.
Download Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim at Project Gutenberg|Girlebooks
Original Publication Date: 1902
Topics: Genius, loneliness.
Review by : Chrisbookarama
How would I describe Mary MacLane? She is the personification of a meeting between Sylvia Plath and The Craft’s Fairuza Balk character in Lorde’s basement. She’s that goth girl in the back of your High School English class who thinks she’s smarter than the teacher, and she’s probably right. She’s the girl your mom warned you about.
“This is not a diary. It is a portrayal. My inner life shown in its nakedness.” That explains what The Story of Mary MacLane is about in the author’s own words. At the beginning of 1901, Mary set about recording her “three months of Nothingness.” She begins by telling the reader that she is a genius, an egotist, and there is no parallel.
Mary was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and grew up in Butte, Montana. Of her family she doesn’t have much good to say about any of them. They all bore her. They did leave the legacy of being “the real MacLane” of her generation.
I am the real MacLane of my generation. The real MacLane in these later centuries is always a woman. The men of the family never amount to anything worth naming—if one accepts the acme, the zenith, of pure selfishness, with a large letter “s.”
Being a singular woman, she feels her genius wasted in Butte. She waits for the devil to bring her happiness. This is her favorite topic. Mary wanted her memoir to be titled I Await the Devil’s Coming, but the publisher wasn’t having it. She begs the devil to come and marry her for “three days” and has imaginary conversations with him. The devil is a man, a manly man, just as she wants him.
“What would you have me do, little MacLane?” he would say again.
I would answer: “Hurt me, burn me, consume me with hot love, shake me violently, embrace me hard, hard in your strong, steel arms, kiss me with wonderful burning kisses—press your lips to mine with passion, and your soul and mine would meet then in an anguish of joy for me!”
Mary has one friend, a former teacher who moved away, her anemone lady. She writes her long letters, some she sends. Mary is in love with the anemone lady.
I feel in the anemone lady a strange attraction of sex. There is in me a masculine element that, when I am thinking of her, arises and overshadows all the others.
“Why am I not a man,” I say to the sand and barrenness with a certain strained, tense passion, “that I might give this wonderful, dear, delicious woman an absolutely perfect love!”
And this is my predominating feeling for her.
So, then, it is not the woman-love, but the man-love, set in the mysterious sensibilities of my woman-nature. It brings me pain and pleasure mingled in that odd, odd fashion.
Do you think a man is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?
When not thinking about the devil, the anemone lady, and sometimes Napoleon, Mary steals and lies to entertain herself. She has conversations with tinkers, and dirty old ladies. She takes long walks on the prairie, and writes her portrayal.
The Story of Mary MacLane is a strange book. It was quite a hit with teenaged girls when it came out. Mary wished for someone to understand and many young women did. In many ways Mary, for all her genius, is like other girls. She is waiting for something, for her life to start. She thinks forty is old (she wouldn’t live to see fifty), and enjoys her body. She even has a crush.
Even though I raised my eyebrows at her claims of genius, once I read her words, I couldn’t disagree. This was not the kind of writing the public of 1902 would expect of a nineteen year old lady. She opens herself up, knowing “I am not good. I am not virtuous. I am not sympathetic.” She’s sexual and angry and all the things a good Victorian girl shouldn’t be.
In 2013, Melville House republished The Story of Mary MacLane as I Await the Devil’s Coming.
This was a LibriVox recording read by Kristin Hughes. Ms Hughes has the kind of voice perfect for Mary.
Download The Story of Mary MacLane by Mary MacLane at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|