The Sorrows of Young Werther follows a young man’s love affair. Werther moves to the countryside, takes up an indolent pastoral life, and promptly falls in love with a woman he knows, from the beginning, is engaged to another man. Werther is structured primarily as a series of letters Werther writes to his friend, Wilhelm; short segments of the narrative are told in third-person, again based on Werther’s epistolary productions. This epistolary found-material / pseudo-true-story format was popular in Europe at this time; Werther exploits this format to offer a short, sharp tale of love.
Werther has intelligence, and “a noble nature” – but he is also a fanatical Romantic. Enthroning Feeling, he sets consistently at naught social convention, his own wellbeing, and the feelings of his friends and family. A short novel, Werther makes for an intensely frustrating read. We have all been in Werther’s position, or have watched a loved one in it: maddened by a love we know is hopeless. Werther’s attempts to free himself are few, feeble, and too late.
Werther tries to maintain friendly relations with his beloved. But he doesn’t try hard: he lets his feelings show, makes unreasonable demands, and creates rifts between her and her betrothed (eventually, husband). The betrothed, meanwhile, is a man to admire: both reasonable and considerate. Even Werther cannot deny his rival’s gifts; but to emulate his rival’s traits never occurs to him.
Finally taking his friend Wilhelm’s advice, Werther gets a job, and gets away. He finds himself above work, and is soon back making Charlotte and himself miserable. This interlude reads like a way to delay, by some pages, the tragic end for which Werther seems destined from the beginning. So does a nine-page interlude of excerpts from Ossian’s poem cycle — which Werther (Goethe) has translated, and which serves no purpose other than to remind you, in case you’d forgotten, that Werther loves tragedy.
Faust, the crown-jewel of Goethe’s literary work, follows a middle-aged scholar. He’s locked himself away for years, studying every extant discipline, seeking a unified theory of knowledge. This epic aim, naturally, eludes him. Declaring his life wasted, Faust makes a deal with the Devil: while Faust lives, he will enjoy every gift the Devil can bestow; when Faust dies, the Devil will have his soul for eternity.
Faust begins with an entertaining, meta-dramatic conversation between three men in charge of producing a play. The Poet bemoans the necessity of writing for common folk’s coarse tastes; the Joker demands as much incident as possible; the Stage Manager advises pragmatism. Next, in the Prologue, God demands a report from the Devil about the state of men’s souls on earth. The Devil makes a poor report. God holds up Faust, at least, as a man whom not even the Devil can corrupt. The Devil says, in effect, “Wanna bet?” God agrees. The Devil then goes about his business of corrupting Faust.
This is a modernised Devil: late in the play we learn that Mephistopheles, as he now styles himself, has renounced his old identifiers of horns, hoof, and cloven foot. Faust, who numbers magic among his scholarly pursuits, at once recognises the Devil, elicits his offer, and accepts.
After this promising beginning, Faust devolves into a variety-show. Functioning as part-vaudeville, part-travelogue, Faust carries us from a scene of Sunday street revellery; to a drinking-party where Mephistopheles performs parlour magic; to the hovel of a Witch whose servants are a family of apes; to a mountain-top revel featuring further witches, and mythical woodland creatures – all embellished with long monologues describing the landscapes we’re supposed to be seeing. In most of these scenes, Faust is a silent observer; in many of them, even Mephistopheles is largely inactive.
Drama was, for centuries, the masses’ primary source of entertainment. Goethe has clearly heeded the advice of his Prologue’s Stage-Manager character, to offer up scenes vivid and varied. But, without showing us what Faust makes of them, and how they advance his corrupting – these scenes remain fillers: irksome sideshows to muddle through. And these sideshows constitute the bulk of Faust.
A tragic love-story is the only opportunity Faust gets to execute his moral degeneration. Even there, the conflict Faust must be experiencing between lechery and conscience remain largely implicit, only articulated in the final act via invective directed at Mephistopheles. Invective unjust. For Faust knew what he was signing up for; all along, he has scarcely resisted it.
A contemporary reader will see in Werther and Faust a warning against any all-consuming pursuit. Such single-mindedness produces a species of madness which predisposes the agent to disregard social norms, and his own wellbeing. When his friend Wilhelm advises him to get away for his own sake, Werther scorns the prospect of what he considers an ignoble flight from pain. Werther valorises pain: whether from an ideological commitment to Romanticism; or because pain is, for him, the totality of love’s fruits. Faust, weary of a long pursuit of knowledge that has yielded him, he thinks, no fruit at all – accedes without hesitation to Mephistopheles’s offer. From the beginning, Faust despises Mephistopheles, and knows fully well that the eternal flames await him. (This prospect doesn’t deter Faust: but that’s not because he doubts that hell exists). Though cleareyed about the implications of his choice, Faust’s singleminded, locked-away, fruitless pursuit of knowledge has reduced him to a state where any change seems preferable.
Did Goethe write Werther and Faust as warnings?
Goethe was a pioneer of Germany’s proto-Romanticism. Werther would not have seemed to Goethe and Goethe’s readers as pusillanimous as he does to a contemporary reader. His commitment to emotion, for good or for bad, would have seemed a positive resolution, rather than a character failing. Insofar as Romanticism made the emotions respectable territory for art, Goethe surely saw his own artistic commitments as revitalising art – for, in the long run, what is art without emotion? On the other hand, Goethe’s own life suggests that he himself neither abandoned himself to emotion like Werther, nor passionately renounced faith like Faust. Goethe’s own career straddles art and science. Werther is partly autobiographical; but it was a placid friendship from real-life that Goethe transformed into Werther’s tragic love-triangle. Goethe’s own pursuit of knowledge was multifarious, and met with success. This is hardly the recipe for the dissatisfaction and desperation that drive Faust to dealing with the devil. There seems a strong suggestion that Goethe, enjoying a life where emotion was tempered by reason, wrote Werther and Faust as warnings. Unbridled emotion – or any singleminded passion – are, Goethe seems to suggest, good material for art, but hardly suitable for a happy life.
Whether or not Goethe wrote Werther and Faust as warnings, they do serve as such: especially if we compare their protagonists’ fates with the life-path chosen by their author.
I recently realised that most of the literature I’ve read is British. My pursuit of a wider reading I commenced with German; and where better to begin than with Goethe? Werther and Faust are considered Goethe’s best work, and Goethe in turn Germany’s greatest writer. My enjoyment of both books was very mixed: I found myself continually annoyed by Werther’s dedicated foolhardiness, and by Faust’s devolving into a variety-show with Faust and Mephistopheles regularly out of action for pages at a stretch. I hope and believe that, to a contemporary reader, Goethe is not the best German literature has to offer. (I feel similarly about Shakespeare: I admire him; but I prefer many British novelists, as well as many non-English playwrights, from Sophocles to Ibsen.)
Reservations notwithstanding, I enjoyed Werther and Faust as light reading, and as my introduction to German literature. I particularly enjoyed the translations: R.D. Boylan’s of Werther, and Bayard Taylor’s verse translation of Faust, which preserves the variety and beauty of Goethe’s.