A review of

The Sorrows of
Young Werther

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Central question: Can there be misery loftier than his?
Format: 176 pp., hardcover; Size: 8” x 5-3/16”; Price: $16.95; Editor: Will Murphy; Publisher: Modern Library; Book designer: Kathleen DiGrado; Cover text typeface: Engraver’s Gothic; Number of weeks Goethe claimed spent in writing the novel, and also number of months actually spent: 4; Topics on which the author also published scientific treatises: Morphology, botany, zoology, geology, meteorology, physics, and color theory. Representative sentence: “I treat my little heart like a sick child: whatever it wishes for is granted.”

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Benjamin Strong

Benjamin Strong lives in Brooklyn, and is working, sometimes, on a novel.

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