That One Book – The Sorrows of Young Werther

I am a literature snob. I can’t deny that fact about myself. In all other areas of life, I am quite open minded. But when it comes to literature I am a real snob. I despise badly written stories. I get the shudders of disgust when someone messes up their grammar. When I read, I need to be touched, not necessarily entertained. I need to feel, I need to sense that the whole rainbow of human emotions is being described. So I don’t like feel good books, I don’t like popular fiction or chicklit. I am definitely a literature snob.

How Books Have Shaped Me

Books have always played a huge role in my life. My grandfather taught me to read at the age of 4 and ever since then, I have devoured books. It has gotten a little less over the years, but still, books are my refuge. I had to leave most of my hundreds of books back in Sweden when I moved. But that also gives me the joy of slowly building up a library in my new home.

I am very old school when it comes to books. I love holding an actual book, I love the way an old books smells, or the scent of one that has never been opened. There is not the same joy in reading when I am holding a tablet or sit in front of my computer.

My love for writing and expressing myself through the written word comes from loving to read. I started writing poetry at the age of 7, I wrote my first short story at age 10 (won a contest with it!). When I was a kid, my favourite books were Pippi Longstocking and Momo. I also loved Enid Blyton and the Grimm Brothers.

The older I got, the more I read books that were considered “high brow”. I realized that I didn’t need excitement or entertainment most. What I needed I was to see the beauty in words and word play. I wanted to experience emotions when reading, I wanted to be able to relate, but also to understand more of the human condition. And I love books that reflect society, that describe the evils of the world while also making sure that there are ways forward.

All this lead me to eventually study literary studies and the history of philosophy at university and get some fancy degrees in those subjects. I got As through everything, I was an honour student. And I really was able to translate my love of the written word into something more tangible than writing online reviews on goodreads. And I am still very happy that I chose that path. I have learnt so much. About appreciating comparative literature, world literature and yes, understanding the reasons for why people would choose Twilight over War and Peace.

That One Book

I often think with longing, Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God!

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Of all the books I have read, many have changed my way of thinking. I had a really hard time to pick just one book, one story, because so many have touched me in so many ways. Dostojevskij, Tolstoj, Kafka, Grass, Mann, Voltaire, Brontë, Dickens, Murakami. The list goes on and on. But there is one book that I have read most. I think it is the one that has made me feel the most anxious, the saddest, the most hopeful, the most helpless and the most desperate. And that book is The Sorrow of Young Werther (1774) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

I read the book for the first time at age 15. I had to, for school. If you go to school in Germany, you will end up having to read Goethe. I read the book in one day. And I cried. And I cried. I could feel the pain in those letters Werther wrote, I could feel the rejection, the despair, the heart break, the hope and the end of the story made me sob like a baby. Reading the book was cathartic. I felt like I had gone through all human emotions and came out better on the other side.

We are all a bit Werther

The human race is but a monotonous affair. Most of them labor the greater part of their time for mere subsistence; and the scanty portion of freedom which remains to them so troubles them that they use every exertion to get rid of it.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

I returned reading the book over and over through the years. It just had a huge impact one me. I have always been able to find the situation I am to be represented in that book in one way or another. A lot of people describe the book as the sad account of a broken heart. But there is also a lot of beauty in the story. The simple pleasure of life in a society where productivity and capitalism hadn’t taken over yet. The beauty of art and nature, and the power those have in reminding us of the necessity of life and living.

It is also a representation of societal pressures where people used to not have a lot of choice in who they were to wed or what kind of lives they would be able to live. If you weren’t part of the aristocracy, you were either damned to a life of hard work, or you had to forever make yourself small in the presence of those in power. And love, while a strong power, was not the driving force in life’s decision. While we today might be slaves to capitalism’s pressures, we still have more freedom than people two hundred years ago had.

The Pain

That children don’t know why they want what they want, all learned teachers and judges are unanimous. But that adults, just like children, tumble about in the world without knowing where they come from and where they’re going—that they act in accordance with their avowed aims just as little as children do—that they can be ruled by cookies and cakes and lashes just as easily as children—this no one wants to believe, although it seems to me so palpably true.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

The love triangle is painful to experience through Werther’s eyes because he is a good person. He doesn’t want to destroy his love Charlotte’s life, and doesn’t even deeply despise the man she was forced to marry. His hatred had to have an outlet though, and he became the target for his own despair. The end of the story is dreadful, and not short and passionate as you’d imagine. Instead, it gives a true account of how suffering doesn’t always end quickly. It can get worse and drag along quite terribly.

The Werther Effect

I have been more than once intoxicated, my passions have always bordered on extravagance: I am not ashamed to confess it; for I have learned, by my own experience, that all extraordinary men, who have accomplished great and astonishing actions, have ever been decried by the world as drunken or insane.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther created something that is called the Werther effect. Young men all over Europe took their own lives after reading the book. They found themselves in the same kind of despair that the protagonist of the story describes. They copied the clothing that was detailed in the story and ended their lives the same as Werther did. This made the book become banned in many parts of Europe for a long time.

It is maybe macabre to love a book that pushed so many into suicide. But I look at it from a different perspective. The Sorrows of Young Werther is a book that makes you feel. It makes you relate, it makes you feel human and it makes you have to suffer with the protagonist. At the same time, it also is a great mirror held into the direction of a society. A society where a lack of free will, a lack of freedom to choose who you want to be with, and the arbitrary nature of who you fall in love with, can break hearts and minds.

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3 Responses

  1. Molly says:

    This is not a book I know at all. I shall definitely look it up though


  2. Elliott says:

    I enjoyed this post, Devi. I have read some Goethe but not this one. That’s an amazing story that it would have such an effect on people. Did you have to read any of the stage plays by Gerhart Hauptmann? When I was in college the first play I was in was The Rats. Here is a good book I think you will like… The Shadow of the Wind.

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