The Sorrows of Young Werther contains characters of nearly all ages, but its primary concerns rest with Werther, Lotte, and Albert, three youths at the threshold of adulthood. As Goethe depicts it, young adulthood is a dangerous time: the authorities of youth (parents, teachers, elders) become less powerful, while the young adult’s own perceptions begin to seem like the only reliable, true guide in the world. Werther is a classic example of a youth in the grip of such self-absorption, and while the novel acknowledges that this is both normal and understandable for his age, it also portrays both the absurdity and destructiveness of self-absorption that goes unchecked.
The very form that Goethe chose for The Sorrows of Young Werther suggests self-absorption. The book is an epistolary novel, a novel written as though it were a series of letters, and the only letters presented are Werther’s. Therefore, Werther’s voice—and his endless rhapsody about his emotions—is the only voice readers hear. In addition, Werther’s letters do not show evidence that he ever listens to Wilhelm, his primary correspondent, or even that he cares much about their friendship. The letters rarely allude to anything Wilhelm has written, and when they do, it’s typically in the form of rejecting advice or justifying some mistake Werther has made in spite of Wilhelm’s pleas. Thus, Werther comes to seem self-absorbed to the point of isolating himself; nobody can temper Werther’s actions, perceptions, or emotions because he won’t listen to anyone else. In fact, the only relief from Werther’s narration comes when he has descended so far into his madness that the editor must take over and explain that Werther succumbed to his passions. In other words, Werther is so self-absorbed that the entrance of another voice does not indicate Werther’s willingness to listen and share the stage—the presence of a new narrator shows that Werther has died.
Werther’s relationship with Lotte also highlights his self-absorption in two ways. First, Lotte is not a self-absorbed character, so her presence highlights Werther’s own flaws. Though Lotte is Werther’s age, she is not still a youth; after her mother died, she took on the adult responsibility of raising her siblings, and she has taken on the adult commitment of marriage. Since Lotte’s life is so closely connected to others—namely Albert and her siblings—Lotte understands empathy, compromise, and respect. She lives so much for others that she cannot be self-absorbed, unlike isolated Werther who cannot fathom that another person’s perspective could be equal to his own. Second, Lotte seems to inspire new heights of self-absorption in Werther. Though Werther claims to love Lotte above all else, his actions towards her lack empathy and respect, which casts doubt on the maturity of his definition of love. For example, when Lotte asks Werther to stop courting her and allow Albert to be her husband with Werther as simply their friend, Werther cannot honor her request or even understand the difficult position he has put her in. Locked within his crippling self-absorption, Werther utterly disregards Lotte’s needs in favor of his own desires, which ruins their ability even to be friends.
Werther’s self-absorption is tied inextricably to his insistence on prioritizing emotion over reason. While reason is a powerful moderator of impulse and emotion, Werther insists that reason (book learning, the advice of others, self-reflection) is unimportant. While this can be interpreted as a valid value judgment, Werther’s choice of emotion over reason also seems, in a different light, to act as a justification for selfish behavior. Since dividing the mind from the body and labeling the mind as less important conveniently excuses the mind from its duty to temper and second-guess emotions, Werther’s idea that his behavior is outside of his control allows his selfishness to rule him with impunity. In this way, Werther’s self-absorption allows him to justify whatever behavior his emotions lead him toward. And this behavior, in turn, is destructive: it’s deeply troubling to Wilhelm, it seemingly terrifies his mother, and it pushes away his dearest friend, Lotte, while making an enemy of her husband. Within the insular system of Werther’s own mind, all of this—even his suicide—is justified, because his emotions are justified by the simple fact that he has them.
While Goethe takes Werther’s pain and passions seriously (he doesn’t mock or judge Werther outright), Werther’s actions speak for themselves. Werther is a character who has, to an extreme extent, allowed his self-absorption to rule him, and it leads him to mistreat others and, ultimately, to behave in ways so self-destructive that it costs him his life. The novel, then, gives the sense of a normal developmental stage run amok. Most young people contend with self-absorption to some extent, but Werther’s story shows that, if unchecked, self-absorption can be deadly.
Self-Absorption of Youth ThemeTracker
Self-Absorption of Youth Quotes in The Sorrows of Young Werther
Dear friend! do I need to tell you that you who have so often endured seeing me pass from sorrow to excessive joy, from sweet melancholy to destructive passion? And I am treating my poor heart like an ailing child; every whim is granted.
I well know we are not equal, nor can be; but…he who supposes he must keep his distance from what they call the rabble, to preserve the respect due to him, is as much to blame as a coward who hides from his enemy for fear of being beaten.
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…
When I was younger there was nothing I loved better than novels. God knows how good it felt to be able to sit in some corner on a Sunday and share with my whole heart in Miss Jenny's happiness and sorrows. Nor do I deny that that kind of writing still has its charms for me. But since I so rarely come by a book, it has to be one that is quite to my taste. And I like that author best who shows me my own world, conditions such as I live in myself and a story that can engage my interest and heart as much as my own domestic life does.
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.
My dear fellow, that is the uncertainty I am left in; and my consolation is that perhaps she did turn to look at me! Perhaps!
No, I am not deceiving myself! …Yes, I can feel—and I know I may trust my own heart in this—Oh, dare I utter the words, those words that contain all heaven for me?—I can feel that she loves me!
I have started on a portrait of Lotte three times, and three times I have failed disgracefully; which depresses me all the more since I could take a very good likeness not so long ago. So then I cut a silhouette profile of her, and that will have to do.
True, it is wrong to steal: but if a man goes thieving to save himself and his family from starvation, are we to pity him or punish him? Who will first cast a stone if a husband sacrifices his unfaithful wife and her worthless seducer in the heat of his righteous wrath? or if a girl abandons herself for one joyful hour to the irresistible pleasures of love?
It cost me a wrench but in the end I decided not to wear the simple blue frock-coat I had on when I first danced with Lotte any more; it had become quite unpresentable. Still, I have had a new one made, exactly like the other, down to the collar and lapels, and the very same buff waistcoat and breeches as well.
All of these reflections prompted a profound realization, albeit one which she was not consciously aware of, that her secret heart's desire was to keep him for herself, yet at the same time she reminded herself that she could not and might not keep him; her pure and beautiful nature, which at other times was so lighthearted and readily found a way out of predicaments, sensed the oppressive power of melancholy, banishing the prospect of happiness. Her heart was heavy, and her vision was clouded by sadness.