Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther at the end of the Enlightenment, a time that saw the role of religion drastically diminished in favor of reason and science. But despite the waning power of religion in Europe, Goethe’s Germany remained largely Christian, with an audience who was generally against suicide on moral grounds. Still, suicide is a theme that circulates repeatedly in The Sorrows of Young Werther, and it’s Werther’s infamous suicide that ends the novel. While being careful not to take his audience’s concerns lightly, Goethe uses Werther’s death to craft a counter-argument that presents suicide as a natural, sometimes unavoidable act. Such circumstances, he says, occur rarely, but a general societal prohibition against suicide forces some (like Werther) to live an intolerable life that might, perhaps, be worse than death.
Werther is overwhelmed by his excess of emotion, which seems to be the sole cause of his suicide. Such rampant feelings, he says to Albert, are like a tyrannical power terrorizing a country. Usually a country has law and order to protect it, just as people use logic and intellect to help quell emotions. But when emotions come on strongly and quickly, mere logic becomes an insufficient tool with which to combat emotion, and the heart ends up in charge of the mind. In a real country, tyrannical rulers are usually overthrown by revolution. In Werther’s analogy, the only way to overthrow emotion is through suicide. The grandiose scale of this analogy highlights the internal drama that Werther feels as his emotions take over. The war of emotion inside his head seems as large as any war between nations, and one can imagine the kind of terror he must have felt as he sees himself losing that war.
Indeed, Goethe uses that terror to highlight why suicide makes sense as a way out for Werther. Though his actions may be rash, overblown, and juvenile, Werther clearly tried to overcome his infatuation with Lotte. He left Wahlheim, moved to a new town, and tried to begin a new life. His emotions, though, remain in control of him all the while. As they gain increasing command, even his language (usually quite elegant) begins to fail him. His sentences become progressively unstable and interrupted, marred by gaps in thought and a failure to find the proper words. Such devices allow the reader to viscerally experience Werther’s increasing agitation; reading his narrative becomes as painful and burdensome as Werther’s emotions themselves. As a result, the audience must consider the question of his suicide more personally and in a more real, concrete way. Knowing his plight, and what he’s already done to try to escape it, they must consider what other scant options Werther has for reclaiming his life.
Nevertheless, The Sorrows of Young Werther should not be read as a glorification of Werther’s suicide. Much of the book is autobiographical, reflecting a love triangle that the author found himself in during his youth. Goethe wrote it as a kind of exorcism of that youthful transgression, and he once said that Werther had to die so that Goethe might live—clearly, then, Goethe is glad for the willpower that he found to move past this painful moment in his youth. Still, the act of writing healed Goethe where it did not heal Werther. In this, Goethe seems to posit that, for some, suicide might be the most appropriate solution. While Goethe never intended to glorify suicide in his work, and came eventually to reject the primacy of emotions that he championed in his novel, he never rejected his view that traditional Christian values needed to be questioned thoroughly before being applied in daily life. His relationship with religion remained complex and equivocal, and he is remembered as referring to himself neither as a Christian or an un-Christian, but rather a “non-Christian.”
Suicide Quotes in The Sorrows of Young Werther
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.
I grind my teeth and mock my own misery…I go rambling in the woods, and if my walk takes me to Lotte's and I find Albert sitting in the summerhouse with her in the greenery, and I cannot bear it any more.
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.
I have so much, and my feelings for her absorb it all; I have so much, and without her it is all nothing.
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.