When he labeled The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) “a masterly and devastating portrait of a complete egoist” and its sulking hero a “horrid little monster,” W. H. Auden summarized today’s prevailing view of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s debut novel. But readers haven’t always been so certain that the book is mere satire or that Werther is such an asshole. The legend that it generated a teenage-suicide epidemic across Europe is dubious, but the novel’s international popularity two hundred years ago can’t be overstated. Goethe’s first biographer describes “a people’s book, hawked about the streets, printed on miserable paper, like an ancient ballad.” In China, fans collected porcelain figurines of the characters. Werther’s sorrows didn’t look petty to Goethe or to his original audience, and they ought to feel even more familiar to us.
Newly translated by Burton Pike from the author’s revised 1787 text, Werther is an epistolary account of a dilettante artist, pressured into diplomatic service by his parents and driven to suicide by overwhelming futility. While the bureaucrat Albert, his mild-mannered rival for the affections of Lotte, likes to be “buried up to his ears in files,” Werther feels suffocated by his amorphous secretarial tasks and a boss who insists that he rewrite every document he submits. Of one of Werther’s drafts the ambassador suggests, “It’s good, but look through it, one can always find a better word, a more appropriate preposition.” The situation of Goethe’s disgruntled personal assistant predicts the modern workplace—not just of Gogol’s and Melville’s clerks, but also of The Office and our own devils in Prada.
It’s no surprise when the histrionic punk gets ejected from the better drawing rooms. But, tellingly, Werther’s mean streak troubles his colleagues much less than his genuine sensitivity. The ambassador reprimands his underling for “all too excessive feeling,” while Lotte complains, “You are frightening when you are so merry.” Our hero’s attunement to his emotions in an age of reason renders him ill suited for friendships and capitalist pursuits (“a person who wears himself out for money… is always a fool”). The poor guy longs for a country life of the sublime, before conceding that the natural world is as hostile to him as this ambitious court: “Heaven and earth and their weaving forces about me: I see nothing but an eternally devouring, eternally cud-chewing monster.”
Speaking of monsters, Frankenstein (1816) is commonly recognized as an early work of science fiction, but without Werther’s example Mary Shelley’s novel could never have introduced the genre to its prime subject, alienation. Among the stolen books with which the lonely creature educates himself is Goethe’s cult classic, whose protagonist strikes him as “a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension.” Frankenstein’s monster—like Hal 9000 and like information-economy drones everywhere—is Werther’s virtual ancestor, a despairing misfit of technology, ruled for better or for worse by emotions that appear irrational and disruptive to the order of things.
To tell the story as Auden does—an after-school special on the dangers of narcissism—we have to believe Werther is a monster. I prefer to think of him as a Byronic jerk who doesn’t want to behave like a robot or to be treated like one.