Before I begin, I am bending the rules a little bit with this one. I am picking two books for today’s challenge. Both have very much in common, both in terms of their theme of unfulfilled love, and in regards to how they relate to me. Both are connected to pretty powerful moments and memories, and because of that, I think the power of them to move me is that much stronger.
Perhaps because I read it so recently, or maybe because its theme of unfulfilled love hit so close to home when I did read it, my first selection came quite easily. In fact, it was the first thought that sprang to mind when I saw the list of challenges on the first day. My first pick for day four of this challenge is Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Did it really have to be like this? — that the source of Man’s containment becomes the source of his misery?
That line succinctly expresses the overarching theme of this novel. It is a relatively short and straightforward narrative about a man, Werther, and his inability to come to terms with the fact that the woman he loves can never be his, as she, Lotte, is betrothed, and later married, to Albert. His love for her is passionate and deeply moving, and all-consuming to the point of self-destruction.
I have so much, and my feelings for her absorb it all; I have so much, and without her it is all nothing.
What makes this book so tragic lies in both the way that Werther attempts, and fails, at coming to terms with a love that simply can never be his, and in the beauty and power of the words that Goethe uses to describe Werther’s suffering. I couldn’t help but be completely consumed by the story once I started reading, and watching Werther grappling with the futility of his every action to sway Lotte’s heart in his direction moved me to tears more than once.
One of the most powerful moments in the book, and one in which I could scarcely hold back my tears, was towards the end, in a scene that would the last time that Werther and Lotte would be together. By this point, Werther has already decided to end his life, and Lotte, during the course of the meeting, grows to suspect as much. Instead of confronting the issue, they spend their last moments together with Werther reading to Lotte, a story mirroring their own tragedy, both aware of the power of the words they speak, yet unable to bring themselves to act upon it. They both break down as Werther reads, barely making it through the story.
A flood of tears poured from Lotte’s eyes, easing her beset heart and interrupting Werther’s song. He threw the manuscript aside, took hold of her hand and shed the bitterest of tears. Lotte leaned on her other hand, her handkerchief to her eyes. Both of them were fearfully agitated. They could sense their own wretchedness in the fates of the noble heroes; they sensed it together, and shed tears in harmony. Werther rested his feverish lips on Lotte’s arm; she trembled; she wanted to go, yet pain and sympathy lay numbingly upon her like lead. She took deep breaths to revive herself, and, sobbing, asking him to go on, imploring him in very heaven’s voice! Werther was shaking, his heart was fit to burst, but he took up the manuscript and read, in a voice half broken…
He reads another short passage from the manuscript, once again speaking to the impossibility of their situation, and once again he breaks down,
The whole force of those words overwhelmed the unhappy Werther. He flung himself down before Lotte in deep despair and seized her hands, pressing them to his eyes and forehead, and a premonition of his terrible intention flickered in her soul. Her senses were bewildered; she squeezed his hands and pressed him to her breast, bent towards him with feelings of deeply moved melancholy, and their warm cheeks touched. They were oblivious to the world about them. He clasped her in his arms, held her to his breast and covered her with trembling, murmuring lips with fiery kisses….
The book ends with a narrator stepping in and telling of the finding of Werther after he had shot himself. He was still alive, but soon to die. The narrator did not speak to what happened to Lotte and Albert. The story ended as abruptly as Werther’s short life.
The story cannot help but move us because it reminds us that in this life, we will all too often be refused that which we long for the most, that which we feel will make us whole. Werther could not come to accept it, and the result was tragic. And although thankfully we are not all Werther in the sense that we do come to accept our own refusals and rejections, at least to some extent, his suffering is expressed in such a way that it speaks to those feelings in us. The story tugs at us and forces us to face our own suffering and sadness in a way that, if only briefly, makes us wonder if we are capable of bearing their weight. Werther is deeply flawed, but also very human, and in that sense, Sorrows becomes a book about all of us.
On a personal note, and perhaps one of the reasons that this book sprung so quickly into my mind when I saw today’s category, is that I read this book shortly after my own heartbreak. It expressed my sadness better than I could have every thought to do, and it made feel sadness much more keenly than if I had been reading this book at a time when all was “right with the world.” Werther’s situation was too closely similar to my own, and the tears I shed for Werther, were in reality, also tears that I shed for myself. And now that this book has been linked to that moment in my life, I suspect that the any rereading of this book will always bring back a flood of memories and feelings of my own.
I read this book almost exactly one year ago, and I remember that aside from the intellectual satisfaction that I got from reading such a richly multi-layered text, feeling deeply saddened and moved by the story. Atonement shares much in common with Werther, at least insofar as it’s a book about unfulfilled and impossible love, and the narrative is so powerful and so expertly written that we cannot help but feel completely invested in the narrative and in the characters lives. Where Werther is simple and straightforward, however, McEwan’s novel is rich and complex, leading the reader through a narrative within a narrative that tells the story of mistakes with far-reaching consequences, love that is never fulfilled, and the terrible burden of guilt.
The end of this book is where the true tragedy lies, and it reminds me of what we feel when watching the last two minutes of the opera Tosca. The sigh of relief that we had just breathed towards the end of Part III of the novel, when we thought that ending would be a happy one, we quickly learn was merely a fabrication of the narrator, a way for her to come to terms with and atone for the role she played in rendering the love story central to the novel impossible. There was no happy ending, the lovers never had their reunion, and there was never any hope for a fulfillment of their love.
I can write forever about this book, and on so many different levels, but I promised to keep it brief. The entire narrative is one which reminds us, like Werther, that despite how much we long for someone, that desire and love, now matter how deep and seemingly perfect, may not be enough to overcome all the obstacles that life, and others, can put in our way. In this book, like Werther, love does not conquer all. And there, is where the sadness lies, with the realization that in real life, as in these stories, fairy tale endings exist only in fairy tales, and that unfulfilled love is a universal reality.