An Atmosphere of Personal Apocalypse: Cyclical Mood and Symbol in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther

by Jeremy R. Strong

            Scrutinizing the way in which a person interprets his or her surroundings, can serve to reveal much about the inner workings of the mind of the subject in question. For this reason, I believe it to be useful to consider the way in which Werther, In The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, describes his surroundings. These descriptions, at least at face value, serve simply to reveal to the reader Werther’s mood while advancing the plot. An example would be in Werther’s entry for the 26th of May near the beginning of the novel, when he describes the first time he encounters Wahlheim as follows:

It is most engagingly situated on a hill, and when you are up above and following the path out of the village you suddenly have a view across the entire valley. A kindly innkeeper, obliging and cheerful in her old age, has wine, beer and coffee to offer; and best of all are the two linden trees whose spreading boughs shade the little church square, which is surrounded by farmers’ houses, barns and yards. It has not been easy to find so pleasant and cosy a spot; and now I have my little table and my chair carried out of the inn, and drink my coffee there, and read my Homer. The first time I walked beneath these lindens, by chance, one beautiful afternoon, I found the square perfectly deserted. Everyone was out in the fields except a boy of about four years old who was sitting on the ground and holding another child of perhaps six months that sat between his feet; he was holding it to his breast with both arms, so that he served as a kind of armchair; and, despite the vivacity that sparkled in his black eyes as he gazed around, he sat quite tranquilly. (32)

Despite the completely preposterous notion, introduced on the following page of the novel, that these two children aged 4 and six months could sit still for over two hours, this passage serves to capture for us Werther’s joyous attitude. This is accomplished through copious use of positive adverbs and adjectives, such as “engagingly situated” or “kindly innkeeper” (32). Even the children are not excluded from Werther’s circus of privileged wonder; to him, the one child becomes an image of relaxation, the “armchair”, upon which the younger child rests (32). 

However, in reading subsequent passages throughout the novel, through which Werther’s descriptions of his surroundings convey to us his emotional state, a pattern in his thinking emerges that helps us better understand not only Werther’s mind, but perhaps that of Goethe’s as well as both being guided by the cycle of the seasons. This metafictional wormhole within the text quickly reminds us that autobiographical considerations continue to haunt this work, even after 240 years; and in this case, even Roland Barthes would be hard-pressed to ignore them and perhaps have trouble advocating his “death of the author mandate” for literary criticism, were he himself still living.

Werther’s emotive glossing of his surroundings match up well with traditional ideals of the seasons. The novel begins at the end of the springtime, and as Werther renders his surroundings through the positive language that appears above, we could deduce that he is embodying the traditional equating of spring with new life and rebirth. He does allude in the first paragraph of the novel to a romantic entanglement he played a role in that didn’t end well, which we might assume at least partly occupied his winter months (25). He certainly seems to have escaped from some winter calamity, as he writes to Wilhelm, “how happy I am to be away” (25) before remarking on the 10th of May that “a wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, as these sweet spring mornings have” (26). If his language in May is evocative of renewal and his fixation on the children he paints for two hours symbolic of new life, then we could look to Werther’s language the first month of summer as designed to demonstrate his altered state of mind, given the change of season. In writing of his walks towards the “hunting lodge where all [his] longings lie”, Werther interprets his surroundings in a new fashion that is almost orgasmic in its imagery:

The chain of hills, and the gentle valleys!—Oh, to lose myself amongst them!—And I hastened there, and returned without having found what I was hoping for. Oh, distance is like the future: before our souls lies an entire and dusky vastness which overwhelms our feelings as it overwhelms our eyes, and ah! We long to surrender the whole of our being, and be filled with all the joy of one single, immense, magnificent emotion. (44)

This passage appears within the wider context of the letter, which is devoted to pleasure and unlimited access to nature, ideals that correspond best to traditional depictions of summer. You might admonish me at this juncture, for an arbitrary attribution of Werther’s patterns of describing his surroundings to the changing of the seasons, rightly pointing out that throughout the novel, the mood of his character is often unstable. However, it is when he is at his most desperate of moments, in the thrall of his decision to commit suicide, that Werther writes a bleak winter letter to Wilhelm in which he asserts “it would be better if I were gone” and “one ought not to pick the fruit before it is ripe” before two desperate final iterations of “farewell” (113-114). That Werther pens this letter on the precise date of the Winter solstice in 1772 Germany, December 20th, is no insignificance, particularly in consideration of the earlier orgasmic summer description example, which is drawn from a letter dated June 21st, the precise date of the 1771 summer solstice. The longest day and the shortest day are both part of the wider cycle of seasons and consequently of life, that Goethe has symbolically built into the structure of the novel. A cyclical movement of mood is crafted in this fashion, one that can only end in destruction for Werther. This personal apocalypse is foretold in the novel through the allusion to the symbol of the Ourobouros that appears at the dying of the last summer month of August:

And so I go my fearful way betwixt heaven and earth and all their active forces; and all I can see is a monster, forever devouring, regurgitating, chewing and gorging. (66)

Works Cited

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von. The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Ed. Michael Hulse. London: Penguin, 1989. 

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