The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurrt Vonnegut

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurrt Vonnegut

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The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurrt Vonnegut The word madness can be used to describe many different things; however, it is not a word with a definite and simple definition. The usual connotations that the word madness seems to convey, such as anger, delusion, and just plain crazy people, are used in ways that we separate ourselves from the “crazies” and makes us able to say: Wow! Look how crazy and stupid these people are on the Jerry Springer Show. The ability to be the looker and not the one being mocked and laughed at is just a human way of separating ourselves from people that differ from the norm and makes the looker feel more like a normal and functioning member of society. In the two novels that will be discussed in the essay, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurrt Vonnegut, it can be debated that both are mad, or on the contrary that both are not mad.

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The view that I will take is to look at how Billy Pilgrim and Werther are affected by their emotions as they progress through their respective literary lives. Personally I think that Billy is a man with varying emotions and that Werther is a man who’s emotions are running out of control.
While reading Slaughterhouse Five it seemed to me that Billy Pilgrim had a very unique outlook on life. No matter what the situation, he seemed to just go with the moment and not worry about anything else. I believe Vonnegut states Billy’s sense of his emotions perfectly: And so it goes. In this first part of the essay I will discuss Billy’s emotions and how they work to influence the mental states in which he is portrayed. The first instance I would like to discuss involves Billy while he and the “Three Musketeers” are trying to make it back to the Allied Forces side. As the group is crossing the bridge they are fired upon and everyone jumps into a ditch. As Vonnegut continues, “Billy stood there politely, giving the marksman another chance” (Vonnegut 33). Obviously he is void of emotion at this point in the book. He doesn’t seem to care if he gets shot and dies. Any person in their right mind would have taken cover in the ditch. The fact that Billy just stands there, while showing no emotion, just shows that he is in a very odd state of mind. It almost seems as though Billy doesn’t believe that a war is even happening. This is fairly easy to believe though since he hasn’t had a gun since enlisting, has no protective clothing, and is as thin as a tree limb. It also makes for a tense moment in the book. The way that Billy seems to react in this situation plays itself out many times in the book.
The second quote that I think helps understand Billy’s emotions occurs after the Germans decide to capture him a second time and take pictures of it. “Billy’s smile as he came out of the shrubbery was at least as peculiar as Mona Lisa’s, for he was simultaneously on foot in Germany in 1944 and riding his Cadillac in 1967.” (Vonnegut 58), which is quit a peculiar thing to have happen in a war. It seems so absurd that Billy is being captured by Germans for the second time and yet, he’s still just smiling about it. This isn’t a lack of emotion on Billy’s part. If anything he is probably just having a laugh at how idiotic the situation is. Even though Billy Pilgrim quite an extreme character it’s hard not to laugh along with him.
Much later on in the novel there is a passage about their honeymoon. Billy and Valencia have just made love and she starts crying. When he asks why she is crying she replies that it is because she is so happy because she never thought anyone would marry her. “Um,” is his only response, which also gave me quite a laugh. This response is just another insight into Billy’s emotional state, which seems to be a kind of happy go lucky attitude. Later on in the same paragraph there is more evidence to support his emotions towards Valencia. “He had already seen a lot of their marriage, thanks to time-travel, knew that it was going to be at least bearable all the way,” (Vonnegut 120) which only solidifies further that he doesn’t really have strong emotions towards anything, not even his wife.
The section of the book that made me think the most was the part where the Tralfamadorians are about to come and take him away to Tralfamadore as he swigs on a bottle of “dead” champagne. After being lifted up to the spaceship, Billy has a short exchange of words with the Tralfamadorians. “Why me?” (Vonnegut 76) he asks. “That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is,” (Vonnegut 76). This is a very philosophical exchange between Billy and the Tralfamadorians; however, I think that this exchange embodies the way that Billy handles his emotions and his outlook on life. The way he goes about his life follows this very closely. He doesn’t seem to care about a why at any point in his life. This is the way that Billy deals with the reality that he is in. As a coping mechanism he just doesn’t seem to ask any questions or want any answers for that matter. He lives each moment like a bug trapped in amber and there is no why. It seems to suit him quite well and makes for a very intriguing novel.
The other character, Werther, from the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther has a problem with his emotions affecting his mental state way too much. He certainly has an sensitive demeanor and to me he seems a little bit crazy from the start. There are several instances that prove this, but I will focus more towards the end of the novel where it is much more obvious.
It seems to me that Werther and Lotte’s relationship seems to begin harmless and progressively become more strange ending in tragedy. In one particular letter to Wilhem he states: “Oh, how my blood rushes through my veins when my fingers unintentionally brush hers or when our feet touch under the table. I shrink back as though from a fire, but a secret force drives me forward again, although everything swims before my eyes.” (Goethe 46). This passage gives a lot of insight into their relationship. He describes how the blood rushes to his fingers or toes whenever they touch and that he immediately pulls back, even though he wishes he could embrace her entirely. Also, the mention of a “secret force” seems to be what turns into his obsession later. Lastly, the way he says that everything is swimming in front of his eyes just proves how intoxicating she is in his eyes.
As time passes in the book it seems that relations between the two are starting to get very serious, but only on Werther’s end. He begins to feel that she is the only thing good in his world and that without her he is incomplete. A quote from the novel proves this: “I have so much in me, and the feeling for her absorbs it all; I have so much, and without her it all comes to nothing,” (Goethe 113). To me this is particularly striking because he has become so obsessed with Lotte. Earlier in the story she even told him that he should be a man and give up on a prize that belonged to someone else. This short letter entry is also becoming much more common. Not only are his letters shorter and less frequent, but they no longer talk of happy walks or his total enjoyment of nature. To me, this is also a sign that he is out of control of his emotions and it ultimately leads to his demise.
In his final suicide note, Werther makes clear his reasons for killing himself. He writes: “Here, Lotte! I do not shudder to grasp the cold and dreadful cup from which I am abou to drink the ecstasy of death. Your hand gave it to me, and I do not flinch. All, all the desires and hopes of my life are fulfilled!,” (Goethe 165). This quote is strikingly malicious towards Lotte I believe. She never seemed to lead him on in a way that should lead to his total obsession with her. It is also as if he is blaming her for his death by saying that she is handing him the cup of death that he doesn’t flinch to drink. Apparently Werther is in a very bad point in his life and has made up his mind to kill himself. His emotions are just too crazy about Lotte that he says he would gladly kill himself because all his hopes and desires are complete. Perhaps he believed that he found true love, whether she liked it or not, and he was prepared to end his life in order to let Lotte and Albert. In his own mind I’m sure he thought of himself as a martyr.
There are so many instances from each book dealing with emotion that an entire other novel could be written about the subject. In my findings it seems that Billy Pilgrim has emotions but he just doesn’t know how to deal with them, and therefore his character reacts the same way. He never really seems to know what to do. As for Werther, it is clear in my mind that his emotions got the best of him. There was no need for him to “sacrifice” himself in the name of Lotte. Surely there was another girl out there that would have suited him just fine. All in all, the emotions from the characters in both books made them very interesting and intriguing novels.

Works Cited

Goethe, Jjohann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. New York: Random House, Inc., 1971.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991.
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