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Romanticism was deeply interested in creating art and literature of suffering, pain and self-pity. With poets pining for a love long gone and dead and authors falling for unavailable people, it appears that romantics in literature were primarily concerned with self-injury and delusion. In Goethe's novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther", we find another romantic character fulfilling his tragic destiny by falling victim to extreme self-deception.
Werther's story may appear simple and even trite to some- a young man falls in love with a woman he can never be with and deludes himself into believing that she loves him too only to be severely disappointed in the end. When nothing is left to look forward to, Werther kills himself. Durkheim describes this type of suicide as egoistic suicide where a person kills himself to make other people feel sorry. "Egoistic suicide," Durkheim writes, "results from man's no longer finding a basis for existence in life" (258). But on closer analysis, this story is anything but simple. It is a psychologically complex tale that fully unearths the extreme internal mental conflict that a person in such a situation would undergo. Many claim that this story is autobiographical in nature but that is beyond the scope of our present discussion.
Romantic literature was on the one hand concerned with tragedy and on the other it also dwelled on sympathy. It was the aim of most romantic writers and poets to engage in development of characters that would attract sympathy and pity. However in this novel, while it may be sympathy, pity or self-injury that served as one of the motivating forces behind creation of the character of Werther, it also appears that psychological exploration of the mental state of a person caught in this unfortunate situation was the main aim. Werther's character is seriously delusional. He deceives himself regularly making himself believe that Lotte, the woman he had fallen in love with, was also in love with him. He appears to study her every move, her every eye contact and then goes on to decode it in his own way that further aids in self-deception. Werther keeps finding different reasons for making himself believe that Lotte loved him or he was an inimitable being with a rather unique fate. For example he uses Lotte's sympathetic attitude towards him as justification for engaging in deeper self-pity, delusion and self-injury.
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Romanticism also had a serious interest in attracting in portraying genius going to waste due to unfortunate circumstances-mostly unrequited love. In this case as well we see Werther taking pride in his talents and then agonizing over the fact that they were withering away. He also began contemplating suicide even before the end was in sight which reminds us of the Romantic lunatic streak that was found appealing in young heroes of that time. In a letter to his correspondent, William, Werther writes: "It is a tragedy. My creative powers have been reduced to restless indolence." (64) He also expresses "sweet feeling of freedom" arising from the knowledge that he could leave the prison of body anytime he liked. (29)
It appeared that even before he had met Lotte, Werther was mentally preparing for his death through unnatural means. In his delusional quest to consider himself unique and then prove it, he had only used Lotte as an excuse. When it is clear that Lotte is not interested in him, Werther still keeps on deceiving himself by decoding her words and actions. In one scene, after his frustrated explosion, Lotte sternly tells him off: "I was, please, to think of myself," Werther then tries to decode her words as "Angel! For you I have to live!" (48). At the very first perceived sign of her interest, Werther declares: "[She] loves me .and how precious I have become to myself, how I--I can say this to you, who have understanding for such emotions--how I worship at my own altar since I know that she loves me!" (50-51).
Romantics viewed genius as some kind of tragedy in itself. For some odd reasons greater intellectual power was seen as a magnet for chaos and suffering. Werther seems to understand this better than anyone else around him and thus predicts and almost expects a tragic ending for himself. Werther becomes fatalistic in his views since he subscribes to romantic views on genius and its connection with fatality. He writes to William: "why genius so rarely breaks its bonds, why it so seldom bursts upon us like a raging torrent to shatter our astounded souls? My friend, it is because of the sober gentlemen who reside on either side of the river, whose precious little summerhouses, tulip beds, and vegetable gardens would be ruined by it, and who know so well how to build dams and divert all such threatening danger in good time" (31). Werther repeatedly deludes and deceives himself and his ending must not even be considered tragic for it appears that he craved madness and had it not been Lotte, something else would have forced him to kill himself. Werther seems to believe that there indeed exists a connection between genius and madness and is thus more than willing to prove that link. When Werther tries to kill himself by putting a gun to his head Albert questions his decision. "I simply cannot imagine .how a man could be so foolish as to shoot himself." To this Werther replies as if almost irritated by his question: "Oh you sensible people," he shouts. "Passion. Inebriation. Madness....I have been drunk more than once, and my passion borders on madness, and I regret neither. Because, in my own way, I have learned to understand that all exceptional people who have created something great, something that seemed impossible, have been decried as drunkards or madmen" (58).
Even Lotte appears to understand that Werther is motivated by a strange belief in his uniqueness. Love or unrequited love was nothing but an excuse he had used to deceive himself and engage in self-injury. When it eventually gets out of control, Lotte scoffs at his madness: "Be more manly! Divert this tragic devotion from a human creature who can only pity you....Don't you see that you are deceiving and ruining yourself on purpose?...Why me of all people, who belongs to another?...I fear that it is just the impossibility of possessing me that makes your desire for me so fascinating" (108).
Near the end of the novel, Werther expresses his desire to be buried in a grave far removed from other graves: "It would be too much to expect a faithful Christian to lie beside a poor unfortunate like me. Oh, how I wish you could bury me by the wayside or in a lonely valley, so that priest and Levite might bless themselves as they pass the stone marker and the Samaritan could shed a tear there" (126).
And also believes that he would some day meet Lotte in the world thereafter. These comments, views and beliefs indicate a delusional mind and also a man who wanted to be a victim in a strange cultic sense. He wanted to deceive himself into believing that he was unique and must therefore meet a tragic death. In true Romantic tradition, the author through Werther paints a picture of a man with a tortured soul that revels in tragedy and feeds on self-pity and self-deception.
1. Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Sociological Approach. Trans. John A. Spaulding. New York: Free, 1951.
2. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings. Trans. Catherine Hutter. New York: Signet, 1962.