Response Paper: _The Sorrows of Young Werther_

Craig Simmons


At the end of her report on _The Sorrows of Young Werther_ , Christine offers some topics for discussion and wonders if we as a class can "identify some stylistic characteristics... that lend the book such emotional power, and tend to invite sentimental readings?" Her question, I think, is an important one. Quite obviously, an exploration of _Werther's_ narrative form - its "stylistic characteristics"- can only help advance our understanding of the novel itself. Yet such an exploration might also serve as the starting point for a much broader discussion about the formal structure of the sentimental novel in general. Many of the narrative devices found in _Werther_ (the epistolary structure, the meandering emotional outbursts, the trope of the anonymous editor as author, the literary fragmentation) appear repeatedly in other sentimental novels of the period. Is this accidental? I don't think so. Using Leo Braudy's article "The Form of the Sentimental Novel" as a guide, I want to explore the possibility that these narrative devices might characterize the sentimental novel as a genre and help establish and reinforce its highly charged emotional atmosphere.

In his article, Braudy argues that "structure in the sentimental novel strives to imitate feeling rather than intellect, and embody direct experience rather than artistic premeditation." Because feeling and emotion are reactive, illogical, and unstable - they have the ability to change from moment to moment - the novel of sentiment must "oppose intuition to rationality; disjuncture, episode, and effusion to continuity and plot; artlessness and sincerity to art and literary calculation". The end result is a narrative form which valorizes the tumultuous inner emotional world of the novel's main character. Significantly, Braudy does not suggest that any one narrative device defines or characterizes the sentimental novel. Different authors obviously use different narrative forms to achieve their ends. At the heart of it all though, narrative forms such as epistolary structure, literary fragmentation, and anonymous editors all mimic the protean nature of feeling and "aspire to a literary open-endedness that will express a thematic ideal of open-endedness for the personality." In light of the Braudy article, perhaps we can better understand the significance of Goethe's decision to frame Werther's story as a series of letters assembled and edited by his close friend William. The epistolary form effectively privileges Werther's spontaneous emotional reactions to specific occurrences or events. Indeed, most of Werther's letters concern themselves with a single experience and the feelings it generates. The novel does not offer a comprehensive linear narrative but a series of isolated events which at times seem to bear little relation to each other. Thus on 8 July, Werther reveals the curious mix of emotions he feels as he watches Lotte drive off in a carriage, wondering if she will look back at him. Three days later on 11 July, Werther tells the story of Mrs. M., the dying woman who steals money from her husband because he gives her only a fraction of what she needs to cover the household's weekly expenses. The two letters obviously share no causal relationship; they narrate separate and discrete experiences. _Werther_ is a novel in which literary fragmentation becomes the governing structural principle behind the narrative. This is not to say that _Werther_ lacks a discernible plot or fails to cohere as a work of literature. Rather, its fragmentary form and meandering style represent what Braudy calls "an attempt to create a literature of emotional intensity." Ultimately, _Werther's_ fragmented epistolary structure presents what amounts to a comprehensive emotional portrait of a sentimental protagonist , not a progressive linear narrative. Returning to Christine's original question about style, I want to suggest that _Werther's_ sentimental power is as much a product of the novel's formal properties as it is the result of its melancholy themes and emotional subject matter.