The Sorrows of Young Marianne: Correspondences Between Goethe and Austen

March 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, made waves in the German literary scene almost immediately upon its publication in 1774. Just five years later, the novel was translated into English, attaining a comparable level of popularity in England (Long 169). Celebrated British author Jane Austen was born in 1775, just a year after the novel’s initial publication. One can readily assume that Austen had the chance to read The Sorrows of Young Werther due to its immense popularity during her lifetime, her access to her father’s large library, and the following mention of it in Love and Friendship, a piece of her juvenalia:

“…but as we were convinced he had no soul, that he had never read the sorrows of Werter [sic]…we were certain that Janetta could feel no affection for him, or at least that she ought to feel none” (Austen).

Here, Austen, in her typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, describes the negative reactions of a young girl’s female friends toward one of her potential suitors. In the girls’ eyes, a man is certainly not an eligible bachelor unless he has read The Sorrows of Young Werther and thus absorbed some of its main character’s undying sentimentality. Earlier in this same letter–Love and Friendship is also written in the epistolary style–two female characters dramatically faint into “each other’s arms” at the news of a sudden departure (Austen). Already, the young Austen is unabashedly poking fun at the romantic and sensational notions that she continues to disavow in her later, more prominent works, such as Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility, though not the first novel written by Austen, was her first to be published, in 1811, under the pseudonym, “A Lady.” In earlier drafts it was an epistolary novel, like The Sorrows of Young Werther. The novel revolves around the lives of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two young women who, along with their mother, must relocate to a small country home due to their father’s death and an unfair allotment of his inheritance. Elinor represents the “Sense” half of the title through her extreme rationality, while Marianne embodies “Sensibility” with her heightened sensitivity and romanticism. The two girls each experience rather complicated romantic relationships, but, by the end of the novel, they are both happily married to the men of their choosing–as tends to be the case in Austen novesl, all of which tend to rely heavily upon the conventions of the marriage plot.

The character of Marianne parallels with that of Werther in a multitude of ways, from her capacity for intense emotions, to her overpowering love for nature, to her tumultuous relationship with John Willoughby, which, in some ways, mirrors that of Werther and Lotte. Even the name “Marianne” is also present in The Sorrows of Young Werther; one of Lotte’s younger sisters is named Marianne. However, Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne does not share the same dismal fate as Werther, although she comes dangerously close due to her neglect of her own health. These similarities should not be seen as merely coincidental. Austen had clearly become familiar with The Sorrows of Young Werther and is known for the bold critiques of other literature that are present in her own works–Northanger Abbey, one of her two posthumously published novels, has often been read as a parody of the Gothic novel. By making Marianne so strikingly similar to Werther, but causing her to change her ways and live rather than killing herself, Austen provides a subtle yet distinct commentary on the ideas of sentimentality in Goethe’s novel. Throughout the novel, Marianne displays characteristics that strongly resemble Werther’s. But, it is only when she changes her ways that she finds happiness and true love. Thus, Austen is able to effectively point out Werther’s flaws.

Perhaps the most easily discernible similarity between Marianne and Werther is their deep appreciation for and devotion to nature. At the beginning of Sense and Sensibility and The Sorrows of Young Werther, both characters have settled in new towns, and each character immediately resolves to experience the new environment firsthand. Werther, while not overly pleased with “the town itself,” finds that the nature that surrounds it has “an inexpressible beauty” (Goethe 5). In his following letter, dated May 10, he continues to describe his deeply personal experiences with the outdoors, mentioning the sense of “wonderful serenity” that being alone in nature brings him (Goethe 5). Werther is truly overpowered by nature, so much so that when he is outdoors “everything grows dim before [his] eyes” and he begins to feel “the presence of the Almighty” (Goethe 6). Notably, Werther is also quite impressed with the late Count M.’s garden for its simplicity; he believes it was designed by a “sensitive heart” like himself (Goethe 5). This garden appears to be in the expansive, free-flowing English style rather than in the structured, symmetrical, and sometimes formulaic French style that was also common at the time. One can assume that Marianne would prefer the English style to the French as well, due to her “sensitive heart.”

Marianne’s first venture into the landscape surrounding her home also leads to much admiration for nature on her part. She and her younger sister, Margaret, decide to go for a walk despite the chance of poor weather because they are no longer able “to bear the confinement which the settled rain of the two preceding days had occasioned” (Austen 26). The fair weather is “not tempting enough” to entice either her mother or elder sister out of doors, a situation which shows that Marianne’s passion for nature is far greater than theirs (Austen 27). One can also deduce that Marianne may have persuaded Margaret to accompany her on this promenade. Marianne can certainly be quite convincing, what with her spirited personality, not to mention the power an older sibling often holds over a younger counterpart.

Once finally outdoors, Marianne experiences “delightful sensations” such as a “glimpse of blue sky” and “animating gales of an high southwesterly wind” (Austen 27). Overjoyed by these surroundings, she remarks to her sister “‘Is there a felicity in the world…superior to this?’” (Austen 27). If Werther were not alone on his aforementioned excursion, he would have certainly made a similar remark to whomever was accompanying him. However, Marianne’s joy is broken when rain begins to fall and, in the subsequent rush to return home, she missteps and falls “to the ground,” twisting her ankle in the process (Austen 27). Thus, Marianne, like Werther, is overpowered by nature, although in a much more literal sense–perhaps, here, Austen is deliberately poking fun at the character of Werther. Indeed, his reaction to nature can come across as a bit hyperbolic, and is therefore tempting to satirize. Either way, both Werther and Marianne are shown to be so engrossed in the natural world that being in it is overwhelming and even incapacitating for them.

Towards the conclusion of Sense and Sensibility, a broken-hearted Marianne will seriously jeopardize her own health by taking long, cold walks in the rain. And, while not exactly in a life or death situation, Werther ultimately fails as an artist at representing the natural world because its profound beauty is simply “more than he can bear” to put on paper (Werther 6). The resemblance between Werther’s and Marianne’s respective romantic relationships is apparent from the first times they each meet their beloveds. In their initial conversations, both couples eagerly discuss their favorite works of literature. Both Werther and Marianne are enamored with not only a new beloved, but also his or her taste in literature–if only for the sole reason that it directly corresponds with their own. Marianne and Willoughby, to their mutual delight, come to find that not only do they share the same favorite novels, but also that they even “idolize” “the same passages” from these novels (Austen 31). Werther, is “amazed” and “struck” by Lotte’s words, much as Marianne is with Willoughby’s, and eventually loses “all [his] reserve” after Lotte mentions Irish author Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. This novel tells the story of a wealthy Vicar with a large family who faces many hardships but ultimately becomes successful, wealthy, and happy (Goethe 24-25). This novel, with its highly sentimental qualities, would likely appeal to Marianne and Willoughby just as much as it seems to please Werther and Lotte–perhaps it is even one of the books the two discuss.

Aside from their shared interests, the two couples are also able to engage with each other in a highly unrestrained and friendly manner, despite having only just met one another. Marianne and Willoughby are said to “converse with the familiarity of a long established acquaintance,” while Werther, as mentioned above, loses “all [his] reserve” almost immediately upon speaking with Lotte (Austen 31, Goethe 25). While these connections may seem meaningful at first, it is important for the reader to realize the sense of superficiality that pervades them both. In an extremely contradictory statement, Werther notes that he “was so deeply lost in the excellence of [Lotte’s] conversation that [he] often did not catch the very words by which she expressed her meaning” (Goethe 25). While this statement initially seems to merely communicate the enjoyment Werther experiences while talking to Lotte, the fact that he cannot understand her “often” reveals how shallow their connection really is (Werther 25). How can he be so enchanted by her intelligence if he can barely discern what she is saying? Additionally, the two women with whom the pair is sitting in the coach seem wholly uninterested by their conversation, sitting “with wide-open eyes, as if they [are] not there at all” (Werther 25). While the women could truly be un-intrigued by the subject matter, there is also a chance that the conversation is simply not as enthralling as Werther depicts it to be. Or, Werther could be being impolite by choosing not to include them in the discussion. Either way, the reality of the situation is not nearly as ideal as the picture Werther paints in his letter to Wilhelm.

Marianne and Willoughby’s initial interaction also has its flaws. Marianne is left with the impression that Willoughby truly loves all of the literature that she adores, but the reader gets the feeling that he is perhaps only agreeing with her in order to please or impress her. The narrator states that “any young man of five and twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of such works” after the young, beautiful Marianne enthusiastically exhorts their value (Austen 31). Willoughby, therefore, “acquiesce[s] in all her decisions,” whether he sincerely believes them or not (Austen 31). As his true character is revealed in the latter part of the novel, a discerning reader is more likely to suspect that he does not. Like Werther, he is perhaps not listening to most of the syllables that exit Marianne’s mouth; rather, he is admiring her outer beauty. Finally, and once more calling to mind Werther and Lotte’s situation, Marianne and Willoughby are not alone during their talk, since her mother and sister, Elinor, are both present, yet seem to be un-included, due to either their own lack of interest or to rudeness on the part of the lovers. Right from the start, Werther and Marianne’s romantic experiences parallel each other with their seemingly strong connections underlied by a sense of falsehood and over-idealization.

Another effective way to see the inherent similarities between Werther and Marianne is through a comparison of the following quotes, the former from Werther in a brief letter to Wilhelm, dated July 10, the latter from a discussion between Marianne and Elinor about Elinor’s feelings toward her beloved, Edward Ferrars:“…if they ask me how I like her–like! I hate the word like poison. What sort of a person is he who likes Lotte, whose heart and mind is not completely possessed by her! Like! The other day someone asked me if I ‘liked’ Ossian!” (Goethe 44).“‘I do not attempt to deny,’ said [Elinor], ‘that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him.’ Marianne here burst forth with indignation– ‘Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment.’” (Austen 13). Here, both Marianne and Werther have almost comically negative reactions toward the verb “like.” Neither of the two believe in doing anything by halves; they both put their entire beings into loving someone. While this notion may initially seem highly romantic and harmless, it eventually leads to much distress for both Werther and Marianne, as well as for those who care for them.

As each novel continues, more and more similarities crop up between Werther and Marianne. Willoughby turns out to be engaged, thus making him just as unattainable to Marianne as Lotte is to Werther. Marianne writes deeply expressive letters to Willoughby, just as Werther does to Lotte, but they are intercepted and read by his fiancee. Though we are never entirely certain, it seems that Werther’s letters to Lotte are read by her fiance, Albert, as well. Additionally, Marianne rejects societal conventions in a Werther-like fashion, either ignoring or disrespecting her elders, like Mrs. Jennings, a woman by whom she is treated with nothing but “unceasing kindness” (Austen 237). Marianne even admits to her behavior later, saying she had been “insolent and unjust” to “every common acquaintance” (Austen 237). In a manner that parallels Werther’s initial refusal to find work and obey his mother’s wishes, Marianne leaves many of her “dut[ies] neglected” (Austen 237). Both Werther and Marianne are so blinded by their doomed passions that they neglect other important aspects of their lives.

Like Werther, Marianne falls into a deep depression when she realizes that her love for Willoughby will never be requited. She begins to take long, solitary walks in the evenings, despite cold weather and rain. While this act alone could be detrimental to her health, Marianne also indulges in the “greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings” for hours after her walks (Austen 209). While not as extreme as putting a bullet in her head, this endangerment of her health is comparable to Werther’s decision to take his own life. Once she is recovered, Marianne even acknowledges this, saying to Elinor, “[m]y illness…had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health…[h]ad I died, –it would have been self-destruction” (Austen 236). Ergo, Marianne and Werther come extremely close to sharing the exact same tragic fate–an untimely death that brings misery to all of those who care about them. After first learning of Werther’s suicide, Lotte is so disturbed that she “faint[s]” and falls “to the ground” at her husband’s feet (Goethe 166). By the time the funeral occurs, she and Albert are unable to attend because her life is said to be “in danger” due to her grief (Goethe 167). Marianne, in a discussion with Elinor, notes that had she died, she would have left a “peculiar misery” to both Elinor and her mother, not to mention her extended circle of family and friends (Austen 237).

Why, then, does Marianne escape with her life, when she seems in almost every other way to be Werther’s double? During her illness, she is faithfully tended to by Elinor, who stays by her bedside almost constantly. As an exemplar of rational thought, perhaps Elinor somehow infuses some of her “sense” into Marianne, allowing her to recover from the sickness brought about by her excessive sensibility. Werther, on the other hand, had no such presence in his life, preferring to spend his time alone. Although he did manage to make friends, such as Count C and Fraulein von B, he eventually loses them though his own misconduct. Perhaps if he had had an Elinor in his life, he would not have had such a fateful demise.

After her near-fatal illness, Marianne has an epiphany of sorts and undergoes a remarkable transformation into a more rational form of her previous self. She swears that, from now on, her “feelings shall be governed and [her] temper improved” (Austen 237). Elinor, in all of her remarkable prudence, serves as a shining example of the kind of person that Marianne desires to become. In this light, Marianne can be seen as not a double but a reincarnation of Werther–one that is capable of evolving, as he is decidedly not. It is also possible that Austen, who is often seen as a proto-feminist for her portrayals of witty, intelligent, and nuanced women, could be making a point about the strength and adaptability of women. Either way, Marianne goes on to live a happy life by marrying Colonel Brandon, a man who truly loves her, and she him. While their romance is not as initially passionate or striking as her and Willoughby’s or Werther and Lotte’s, it outlasts both of those relationships, proving that “liking” someone before you love them is not as cold-hearted as Werther seems to think. A dose of rationality can often triumph over fiery passion.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Love and Freindship. Project Gutenberg, 24 Aug. 2008. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. New York: Dover Publications, 1996. Print.Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von, Elizabeth Mayer, Louise Bogan, and W. H. Auden. The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Novella. New York: Random House, 1971. Print.Long, Orie W.. “English Translations of Goethe’s Werther.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 14.2 (1915): 169–203. Web. 23 Apr. 2016

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