French Response

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther

I was interested in Chris's characterization of Werther as "almost a formulaic sentimental hero--a deep-feeling and gifted man who is nevertheless estranged from society, sexually defeated, and doomed to early death." You see, I'm accustomed todealing only with sentimental _heroines_--to the point that the term "sentimental hero" sounds almost like an oxymoron to me. I keep expecting anything about sentimentality or sensibility to be by, about, and for women, probably because I'm far more used to nineteenth-century divisions of literary labor than to eighteenth-century formulae. I know, of course, that most of the well-known writers of sensibility were men--Sterne, Richardson, Rousseau, etc.--and then too, in my ownperiod, Dickens alone took a huge share of the lucrative sentimental market. But still I found myself almost astonished at the familiar emotional excesses and intimacies of sentimentality, embodied, in _Werther_, in a masculine protagonist.

I've therefore decided to keep the terms "sensibility" and "sentimentality" apart, at least in my own mind. To me, "sensibility" connotes a quality that belongs more to the eighteenth century and more to masculine authorship than "sentimentality," which seems somehow both more nineteenth-century and more feminine. I'd also argue that the latter term implies mawkishness, deserving derision. This might be expected from a term associated with things female.

But I'm fascinated with what Chris said about Werther's sexual _defeat_. One obvious difference between heroes and heroines of the formulaic kind, whether found in novels of sensibility or ofsentiment, is that, as Chris says, the hero perishes because his love is _unconsummated_, whereas for heroines, consummation ends in consumption. Still, though, the plots of _Clarissa_ and _Werther_ are similar enough to warrant remark. Don't you get the feeling that if Werther had been a dishonourable bounder andseduced Charlotte after her marriage (was he trying to do just that, however unconsciously? Interesting question for discussion), that if, as I say, he had completed his amorous quest, well, he would have been all right eventually--though perhaps subject to periodic fits of melancholy--while poor Lottchen must needs have been banished to a cold and lonely grave. As it is she ails and pines.

Several of the critics that Chris cites--Lukacs, Brissenden, Wellerby, and Atkins--seem to have the agenda of reclaiming this work from "'the mass of sentimental literature.'" In whatever way they phrase their conviction that _Werther_ is "radical" or "a rebel against the confines of bourgeois society," I can't help but feel that these are efforts to _re-masculinize_ the work, in a sense, by differentiating it from the quagmire of feminine popular art. "High" art has always been troped as masculine, "low" art as feminine. What do you all think?


I thought I'd share with you some possibly relevant excerpts from a dictionary of German literary terms that I found in a bookstore this summer. It helped me get a grip on some basic terminology, since I don't have much knowledge of German literature. Some of the definitions and sources will be familiar, but some things, for example Pietism, were new to me. Be warned: I've edited a lot out of some of the entries and not always noted it, and the faltering translations in brackets are mine.

_A Glossary of German Literary Terms_, E.W. Herd and August Obermayer, eds., Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otego Press, 1983.

Empfindsamkeit [Sentimalism]

Term applied to a literary and social development ca. 1740-1780 concerned with intensive cultivation of sentiment, sensibility, and introspection. Sources include self-scrutiny practised in Pietist circles, the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson, the works of Laurence Sterne, and Rousseau's _La Nouvelle Heloise_. Associated with enthusiasm for nature, fascination with death, especially in Edward Young's _Night Thoughts_ and MacPherson's _Ossian_, and close identification of love and friendship. The ability to feel intensely and to weep readily is often taken as a sign of a character's moral worth.

Pietismus [Pietism] Pietism was a reform movement in the Protestant church and religion, which flourished in Germany--although there were similar contemporary movements in other European countries, e.g. Puritanism in England--between about 1670 [and 1740].

Instead of the rigid dogmatic intellectualism of orthodox Protestantism Pietism emphasized the importance of individual and subjective aspects of religious experience. It emphasized feeling as opposed to doctrinal understanding . . . and the personal relationship of the individual to God. This led to the celebration of Christ as friend, brother, lover and husband of the soul.

. . . . The literary products of the Pietists . . . are not as important as the influence the movement had on literature later in the 18th century. The Pietists, through their constant practice in the observation and analysis of (religious) emotions, contributed greatly to the refinement and intensification of feeling, and to a language adequate to express it; e.g. Goethe's _Werther_ and Klopstock's _Messias_. The flowering of subjectivism cannot be fully understood without an understanding of Pietism. The Pietist cult of friendship as love, the greater importance given to woman as scho:ne Seele [beautiful soul], and the new sensitivity in the experience of nature were all to play an important part in German literature. . . . The predominant use of water metaphors was taken over and developed by later writers, especially Goethe.

Sturm und Drang [Storm and Force]

. . . The members of this loose-knit fraternity, most of them students of lower middle class origin, shared a set of beliefs which put them at odds with the existing political and social order, so that they consciously promoted a revolution in thought, feeling and style with impassioned intensity. They championed nature against culture, the individual against society, feeling against thought and spontaneity against the trained response. The high value placed on original, inventive imagination accounts for the label Geniezeit [genius-era], a term by which the phenomenon is also known, but Sturm und Drang with its operatic overtones of tempestuous passion and undirected drive towards satisfaction, is aptly characteristic of the youthful exuberance expressed.

Naiv und Sentimalisch [Naive and Sentimental]

In an attempt to explain the basic difference between himself and Goethe, Schiller in his essay "U:ber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung" [On Naive and Sentimental Poetics] (1795) made this distinction and developed it into a typology of literature.

The naive writer is fully integrated into his environment, is at one with nature, does not experience a distance between himself and the world around him and can therefore reproduce nature directly without having to reflect upon it or being conscious of it. This immediate reproduction of reality, according to Schiller, is the realist approach of the naive writer. Examples of such writers given by Schiller are Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe. The sentimentalische [sentimental] writer, however, is always aware of a distance between himself and nature and experiences this as a loss. He therefore constantly strives to regain this lost sense of unity with nature. He develops and presents concepts and notions which he hopes will achieve this aim. This, according to Schiller, is the idealistic approach of the sentimentalische writer. The genre typical of this type of approach are the satire, the elegie, and the idylle. An example of such a writer would be Schiller himself. The two modes of presentation are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it has been the aim of Klassik [neo-classicism] to combine them.

The terms are therefore descriptive rather than qualitative.

Amanda French