Anyone who reads The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe instantly feels the emotional intensity portrayed by Werther, the protagonist. His speculations about life are indeed unique, especially in modern times when life often goes by quickly without notice. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why his immense emotion strikes a chord with readers as coming from someone crazy or dangerous. Werther’s mental state seems incredibly alive at some times while seemingly lifeless at others. This lifeless state of mind is similar to another sorrowful character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.
In his story of Billy Pilgrim, a similar wonder engulfs the reader, causing us to question the cause of both his mindset and of our own. These books bring a couple of interesting questions to mind How much emotion is too much? How little is too little? These characters struggle with powerful emotion in many ways, and are therefore judged as mad. The two protagonists engage in totally different journeys, but each of them leads the reader to discover the limits of human emotion. These limits are reached by Werther and Billy, therefore leading to both characters’ demise.
In simple terms, I think that Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five demonstrates the extremity of too little emotion, in contrast with Werther in The Sorrows of Young Werther demonstrating the extremity of too much emotion. Both of these characters live their lives in suffering because of this lack/surfeit of emotion. I’d like to start my analysis off with the odd style of Kurt Vonnegut and how he portrays his main character. Billy Pilgrim has mental problems. Too many to name, in fact. He has difficulty in almost every aspect of life because of these mental problems.
Vonnegut has concocted an anti-war novel that blames Billy’s health (or lack thereof) on the trauma of being in a war, but poor Billy has many problems even before the war. He seems to be extremely emotionally detached from all aspects of life. Yes, he gets married and has children, but it seems to be portrayed as somewhat sarcastic and unimportant. This is the danger of being unemotional in life. One of the strongest points proving Billy’s lack of emotion is when he is at war and essentially tries to set himself up for his enemy to shoot him (Vonnegut 29).
The incident seems very ironic considering Vonnegut’s anti-war opinions, because he seems to want Billy to honor the fairness of war. This action could have been better understood by the reader if Billy were in some state of acknowledged depression in which he wanted to die, but he doesn’t express this. This is one of the biggest differences in character between both Goethe and Vonnegut, as well as between Billy and Werther. Goethe wants to make it clear that Werther is in complete and utter despair. However, Vonnegut leaves the reader puzzled when trying to understand Billy’s motivation for his apathetic actions.
In contrast, Vonnegut makes Billy’s lack of mental stability clear with his detail about hallucinations, aliens, and the kooky actions of Billy Pilgrim. Goethe allows the reader to connect somewhat to Werther because we can all imagine being in pain over love. Another example of the emotional apathy of Billy is his belief in the ideas of the Tralfamadorians. They believed that each moment of time has been structured to exist, and that there is nothing anyone can do that will change the moment as it is destined to be.
This goes against human nature, because most of people’s lives are structured around setting ourselves up in a good position for success and happiness in the future. People are concerned about their safety, health, and emotions because they don’t want to have a miserable future. Billy completely disregards that because he believes that no matter what he does, good or bad, his life is going to be how it is destined to be. This is a huge part of his seemingly detached life because he doesn’t allow himself to have hope or goals. He doesn’t fear death because he views life as permanent moments, not moments that can be savored.
As the Tralfamadorians told him, “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (Vonnegut 23). Subscribing to that belief would cause anyone to float through life carelessly and without passion or emotion! Allow me now to contrast this emotional apathy of Billy to Werther’s sole devotion to emotion. Readers get to know young Werther fairly quickly because he is not afraid to express what is on his mind. He never worried himself with anything that didn’t have to do with his happiness, and therefore eliminated trivial worries that many people have.
From the book’s opening through about a third of the book, Werther writes Wilhelm (his best friend) about the extreme joy he experiences in life, especially relating to nature and his love, Lotte. His absolute glee is really over the top, and although it is better to be joyous than apathetic, I think this extreme emotion eventually sets him up for his deep misery. Goethe explores romanticism in this novel, and we rarely see any type of logic or reasoning that would get in the way of the emotional focus. This essentially is what makes the book work, and why it is so powerful.
However, readers notice the extreme obsession that sets in for Werther because of this complete and total devotion to emotion, specifically love. This devotion describes a symptom of melancholia. Whenever someone is obsessed with one thing and cannot function in normal life because of this one obsession, it ruins their life. Werther’s life is destined to end like it did because he became obsessed with something he could never have. Goethe makes it clear that Werther had an issue controlling his emotions from the beginning. Werther, however, makes this devotion to beauty and feelings seem very desirable and poetic at first.
He seemed to recognize beauty that other people let slip by unnoticed. For example, he expresses his contentedness; “A wonderful serenity fills my whole being, like these lovely mornings which I enjoy with all my heart” (Goethe 5). This is beautiful, and something expressed only by someone who is in touch with their emotions and with the meaning of joy. So you wonder how this can be a bad thing! Well, Werther looks to everything in life hoping it can be as beautiful as he imagines. Then, when it doesn’t work out that way, he gets even more disappointed because of those high expectations.
His overnight obsession with Lotte proves this. He sees a beautiful woman who possesses everything he thinks he wants. However, when he realized he couldn’t have her, this disappointment crushed him. Werther may or may not have been in love with Lotte. However, because of his overdramatic emotions, he became obsessed to the point of nothing else mattering in his life. This extreme emotion pushed him over the edge of sanity. He begins not only being obsessed with Lotte herself, but with anything she had touched or that reminded him of her.
He talks to her pictures and is therefore imagining her in places where she isn’t (Goethe 117). I believe that sane people can do insane things, especially in the name of love. Being hurt to the point of torture is inevitable, if done by someone with whom you are truly in love with. The thing that separates Werther from most is the point that he became obsessed with someone so quickly that he wasn’t even in a relationship with. He therefore set himself up for his own destruction! Finally, he took it as far as he could, by committing suicide. That is the ultimate human defeat caused by too much emotion or pain.
Both characters exhibited traits of madness, although they couldn’t be more different. As to which is worse I would say Werther’s torture was more unbearable, but Billy’s actions were madder. The power of love, in Werther’s case, caused his death because of the sheer strength of the associated emotions. The madness of war, in Billy’s case, caused his destruction. However, both characters demonstrated the capacity for madness before the involvement with their fatal causes- therefore I think that either would have had the same ends with any numerous storylines. Their weaknesses were inevitable.