Emotion, Art, and the Self in 'The Sorrows of Young Werther'

Updated on June 23, 2018
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Veronica has earned a Master's Degree in Literature from American University.

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Emotion, Art, and the Self in 'The Sorrows of Young Werther'

In the brief introduction to The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe writes directly to the readers about the emotional journey that they are about to undertake, stating that “You cannot deny your admiration and love for [Werther’s] spirit and character, nor your tears at his fate.” It is clear from the pages that follow that this beginning is meant to plant within us the first seeds of pleasure, isolated longing, and compassion which are meant to grow as we witness young Werther’s own growing emotional attachment to the engaged and unavailable Lotte. After witnessing Werther’s passion, spreading throughout his being like a terminal disease, and seeing the pitfalls of his emotional excesses, it makes one wonder what Goethe expects his readers to gain by relating to such a character. The introduction explains that we are to be consoled by Werther and his sorrows, we are to cry for him, but what, if anything, are we to learn from him? In short, what value can be gained from Werther’s emotions? Though there are many possible answers, if we look at the treatment of emotion, passion, and reason in The Sorrows of Young Werther, we can see that the value of emotion in this novel is linked to the value of art, in that it is able to reveal unexplored aspects of the self that have qualities of the sublime.

Emotion and art, and specifically their connection to nature, are the things that often occupy Werther’s thoughts, and define his character. Early on in the letters written to his friend Wilhelm, Werther reveals that he is an artist, but an artist that recognizes that everything he produces will never be as beautiful, real, or expressive as nature itself: “Only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist. […] A man shaped by the rules will never produce anything tasteless or bad […] and yet on the other hand, […] the rules will destroy the true feeling of Nature and its true expression!” (32). For Werther, shaping nature and modifying it, cutting it back instead of nurturing its growth, essentially destroys the “true feeling” of nature. Most of the tangible art that Werther attempts in the novel, whether it is poetry, drawing, or painting, is thwarted by the notion that whatever he creates will never be able to capture the “true feeling” and that nature is better left to speak for itself.

As a result, Werther is an artist with the frustrating inability to express “true” emotion through artwork, and who therefore turns to emotion itself to achieve what he cannot through visual art, treating emotion and art as interchangeable entities. His thoughts on art and emotion, particularly love, are the same as his thoughts on nature. Love is to be cultivated and nurtured, and not regulated and held back like Werther believes most people are prone to do. Werther believes that if a man regulates his own pure infatuation with a woman “he will turn out a respectable young chap, and I should personally advise any prince to appoint him to his council; but his love will be done for, and so, if he is an artist, will his art” (33). Love, art, and nature are all connected for Werther, and, in order to be experienced to the fullest, one must put his entire being into them. This, at least, is what Werther believes, and he longs to throw himself into one of these outlets because he thinks they will lead to sublimity within the self:

You ask why the torrent of genius so rarely pours forth, so rarely floods and thunders and overwhelms your astonished soul? – Because, dear friends, on either bank dwell the cool, respectable gentlemen, whose summer-houses, tulip beds and cabbage patches would all be washed away, and who are therefore highly skilled in averting future dangers in good time, by damming and digging channels (33).

Werther believes that “flooding” the soul with “true” emotion will essentially bring him closer to a divine experience that make him different from the “respectable,” rule-abiding people that he tends to abhor, who repress emotion for the sake of reason.

By treating love and art similarly, Werther views emotion as something that can be purposely created within the self. He treats the emotional aspects of the self as a work of art, and attempts to pick and choose the emotions he wishes to cultivate like a painter choosing his paints, or a farmer picking which seeds to plant. Throughout the novel, Werther suggests that a man can “create a world from within for himself” which preserves a “sensation of freedom” within the “prison” he lives (31). As if creating his own inner world from emotion of his choosing, Werther chooses to emulate the desires of the farmer lad he meets, who is in love with a widow that refuses to return his affection: “Never in my life have I witnessed (or, I might add, even conceive or dreamt of) intense desire and burning, ardent longing of such purity” (35). Werther is in total awe of the “pure affection” of the farmer lad, so much so, that he wishes he could see and know the widow he is in love with in attempt to experience the “true” emotion that the young man experiences: “I shall now try to see her too as soon as possible, or rather, on second thoughts, I shall avoid doing so. It is better for to see her with the eyes of her lover […] why should I ruin the beautiful image I have?” (36). It doesn’t seem a coincidence that in the very next letter, following his encounter with the farmer lad, Werther has met and is already deeply infatuated with Lotte, a different, but still wholly unavailable woman that inspires intense desire that can never be fulfilled.

Once Werther and Lotte meet and begin their relationship, Werther feels as if he has successfully taken steps in creating his own inner world which he believes will develop into the emotional truth-of-self he has been seeking in his artwork. It is clear that Werther views his desire for Lotte as a decisive act, and any pleasure he takes from her company is a reward for his own choices:

It is good that my heart can feel the simple and innocent pleasure a man knows when the cabbage he eats at table is one he grew himself; the pleasure he takes not only in eating the cabbage but in remembering all those good days, the fine morning he planted it, the mellow evenings he watered it and the delight he felt in its daily growth (45).

By comparing his desire for Lotte with cabbage, Werther evokes the image of the farmer lad while also re-imagining desire as the pleasurable by-product of cultivated emotion. By refusing to repress his attraction towards Lotte, even though she can never be his wife, Werther has sown the garden (the self) that he intends to flood with “true” emotion rather than restrict and control with reason, allowing himself to be a true artist and lover.

When Werther allows his desires to grow to unmanageable proportions, he finally experiences the sublime that he had been seeking, placing himself in a state of “wild and ceaseless passion” (68) that is at most times completely unbearable. Much like the sublime found in nature, the sublime within Werther is dark, terrifying, and yet pleasurable. Though he is in agony, Werther views his passions as a work of genius, much like an artist who throws himself entirely into his work and suffers for his art. He condemns people such as Lotte’s fiancé Albert for not seeing the greatness and power of such passions:

Ah, you sensible people! […] Passions! Intoxication! Insanity! You are so calm and collected, so indifferent, you respectable people […] passing by like the priest and thanking God like the Pharisee that you are not as other men. I have been intoxicated more than once, my passions have never been far off insanity, and I have no regrets: because I have come to realize, in my own way, that people have always felt a need to decry the extraordinary men who accomplish great things, things that seemed impossible, as intoxicated and insane (61).

Werther considers his emotional outpouring as a great thing, no matter how painful it may be. What he does not seem to have anticipated, however, is that by devoting himself entirely to Lotte and the desire he has for her, he has lost the connection between love, art, and nature: “My imagination has deserted me, my feeling for Nature is gone, and books nauseate me. Once we are lost unto ourselves, everything else is lost to us” (67). By living for Lotte, he has ceased to live for himself, and in creating his own inner world he has lost the natural state of his being. By being the artist/creator/farmer of his own emotions, he has lost touch with nature. He has created a paradox within himself in which he has formulated wildness, created a chaos that has no end.

In an attempt to put an end to the wildness of his passions, Werther leaves Lotte and moves to a new town to live a respectable life. This attempt ultimately fails, however, because Werther cannot accept living among “sensible” people that abide strictly to social and societal rules, consistently overruling natural emotion with manufactured reason. During his conversation with Miss von B. after an embarrassing dinner party, in which Werther inadvertently stayed beyond his welcome with guests beyond his class status, Werther remembers why he had shunned “respectable” society. After losing respect for his new friends, who pity him rather than understand him, Werther returns to Lotte, knowing that he is reopening the gates of his passion, intending to lose himself entirely to his devotion to her: “I only want to be near Lotte again, that is all” (88). Suicide then becomes a more suitable escape from inexhaustible passion, rather than repression, as it represents the power of his emotional excesses.

By transforming into an artistic figure within the story, Werther becomes less a figure to emulate, than to study.

By submitting himself to his passions, Werther lets go of the role of the artist and embraces the role of the tortured artistic subject. By returning to the sublime within himself, he becomes the subject that poets write about, and becomes the work of art that he strove for in the beginning of the novel. He even recognizes himself in the artistic portrayal of other tragic figures in fiction: “Then I read the work of an ancient poet and it is as if I were contemplating my own heart. I have so much to endure!” (101). Though he sees in himself the potential to be the beautiful tragic figure of poetry and art, he realizes that this vision will only be fulfilled through a truly tragic ending. Losing his life for the woman he is passionately in love with, but can never have, becomes the tragic ending he chooses for himself, and by killing himself with Albert’s pistols he ends his life by being both the artist, who constructs, and the artwork, which endures.

Though for Werther, emotion, the self, art, and nature are all connected, it still does not directly answer the question: what value can be gained from Werther’s emotions? By portraying Werther’s emotions as an artistic exploration of the self that leads to a ceaseless state of sublime, Goethe demonstrates the power of emotion in a way that is very different from other sentimental literature of the time period. In relating to Werther and by feeling for Werther, readers are being seeded with specific emotions; but instead of suggesting that these emotions are the stepping stones towards brotherhood and charity, it is suggested that they be used to explore the hidden, undiscovered aspects of the self. Such an unrestricted adventure of self almost puts The Sorrows of Young Werther in the same Gothic category as novels such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, since its dark exploration of passions and the self invoke feelings of traveling through the underground tunnels of a Gothic castle. That Werther’s terrifying passion promotes sorrow instead of fear, however, keeps The Sorrows of Young Werther within the realm of sentimentality, though its focus on the self holds itself in contrast to the selfless, charitable love seen in other works. By transforming into an artistic figure within the story, Werther becomes less a figure to emulate than to study. His progression from artist to art figure makes him an emblem of all-encompassing emotion that reveals dark, hidden truths within the self, where deeper paths only lead to loss of control and self-destruction.

Illustration of Charlotte at Werther's tomb (1783)
Illustration of Charlotte at Werther's tomb (1783) | Source

Works Cited

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. London: Penguin Classics, 1989.

© 2018 Veronica McDonald

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