Seen through my 21st-century eyes, the late 18th-century German Romantic classic, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is the tale of a deeply depressed, obsessive young man who needs some serious therapy. But even before the horrific school shooting in Connecticut a few days ago, I also read it as a case study of why the availability of guns needs to be limited.
**Spoiler alert: Predictable though the novel is, go read it and then come back if you don’t want to find out here how it turns out.**
The first two-thirds or so of the story is structured as a series of letters by Werther to his best friend, Wilhelm, interspersed with diary entries; it’s not always clear which is a letter and which is a diary entry. Werther appears to be somewhere between 19 and 24, in between the stage of living at home, dependent on his family, and out on his own and supporting himself for the first time. In the course of taking care of some family business, Werther decides to take an extended break in first one charming rural village, then another, Wahlheim, that truly enchants him. There he meets a young woman, Lotte, who he learns early on (though not before some pretty clear flirting on both of their parts) is engaged to be married to her longtime sweetheart, Albert.
It didn’t take long for Werther to annoy me. He rhapsodizes to Wilhelm about the pastoral landscape and the simple life that the peasants lead. “A wonderful serenity fills my whole being….I am quite alone, and pleased with life in this countryside, which seems to have been created for souls like me.” His letter about the pastoral inhabitants reeks of condescension: “The simple folk here already know me and have taken to me, especially the children.” It’s not surprising that Werther finds the Wahlheim area so idyllic: he’s a child of privilege, on holiday, with money in his pockets and time on his hands to play with the children. The hard work the “simple folk” must spend their lives doing to keep body and soul together doesn’t really register with him.
Far more serious than Werther’s juvenile romanticism is the progression of his crush on Lotte. He prolongs his visit and spends all the time he can with her, and also, necessarily, with Albert, who is always gracious to him even though Werther must be a bit of a chore to be around. For her part, Lotte does so little to discourage Werther that it seems quite possible that she’s thoroughly enjoying having two swains at once and has no idea of the ultimate depth Werther’s obsession will reach.
To the reader, though, Goethe’s foreshadowing makes the danger clear early on: Werther asks Albert if he can borrow his pistols for a trip, Albert freely delivers them to him, and Werther starts playing around with them, actually holding one to his head and joking about suicide. Though in this scene Albert doesn’t seem to get that there might be a problem, the narrative reveals much later that Werther talks about suicide more than once and that Albert and Lotte are concerned enough to talk about it with each other privately—and do nothing.
Werther leaves, continues to ruminate about Lotte, and drifts back after she and Albert are married. He eventually does start to get on Albert’s nerves, and no wonder: Werther is ALWAYS THERE, mooning around Lotte, who still doesn’t do a whole lot to discourage him. Only when Werther visits her when she’s alone, breaks down with her into tears over a romantic poem, and then ardently embraces her (which she gives every sign of wanting him to do) does she finally seem to realize that There’s A Problem Here. And even then—even though we learn that she and Albert have acknowledged more than once to each other their doubts about Werther’s stability—she voices no concern at all but helps Albert loan Werther his guns again. The only part of the ending that you might not be able to guess until you read it is whether the deeply depressed Werther kills only himself or takes Albert with him.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Much as Werther’s immature, melodramatic point of view annoyed me, he actually seemed fairly typically twentysomething to me. He thinks he has all the answers, but he’s kind and idealistic. He’s naive and unrealistic–yes, romantic–but he has a good heart and wants to make the world better. He’s wrapped up in himself, but the narrative reveals that he has many friends who love him. Albert, a stable and kind man, must have found him engaging and seen his fundamentally good qualities despite Werther’s wearing his attraction to Albert’s wife on his sleeve. I had no doubt that if Werther had talked to a therapist (OK, they didn’t have therapists in 18th-century Germany) or a more mature friend in person, or at least in real time (OK, no phones and no texting in the 18th century) about his crush and maybe taken some short-term anti-depressants (no Prozac in the 18th century, either), and if Albert and Lotte hadn’t so irresponsibly first encouraged his obsession and then gone into denial and given him a gun, his character would have emerged from his depression, stopped idealizing and hanging around an obviously unavailable woman, grown up, become a solid citizen (and, probably, a fairly responsible gun owner), and acquired some perspective and wisdom, as most of us do. But take an immature, narcissistic personality, provide him with lots of time but no meaningful outlet for his emotions apart from rumination, do nothing to discourage his obsessions, have everyone else deny that anything could be wrong, and give him a gun when he wants it with no questions asked, and we have excellent odds of at least one wasted life, whether an imaginary 18th-century German or a real 21st-century American.
Werther’s fictional problems in 18th-century Germany, like real life matters in 21st-century USA, are not simple and do not have just one cause or solution. It seems clear to me, though, that we need to stop the madness of unregulated, unquestioned, easy access to firearms in this country. And, though I don’t understand why Liza Long tosses off “it’s easy to talk about guns,” her essay on the challenges and heartache of parenting a disturbed or different child eloquently shows why it’s also necessary to address mental health. She doesn’t mention national health care, but her reference to having given up freelancing for benefits illustrates why that, too, is imperative. Until we make all three a priority, more lives will be wasted. Some may be ours; some will be people we love.