Suicide is not a rational answer to man’s suffering. Von Goethe himself exhorts his reader “to be a man and not follow Werther (13).” It is hard to give Werther’s character sympathy for a self-destructive tendency. Even Lotte can perceive his ruinous path: “Do you not sense that you are deceiving yourself and willing your own destruction? (115).” Rather than being a man and admitting his culpability, he acts like a child.
Werther’s disposition supports his decision for taking his own life. It is not uncommon for an artist with “. . . a soft heart and a fiery imagination (13)” to take their own life. Werther sees suicide as strength rather than weakness. In his argument with Albert over this question he states “. . . in my opinion it would be as misconceived to call a man cowardly for taking his own life as it would be to say a man who dies of a malignant fever was a coward (62).”
Werther identifies with children and esteems himself for his charitable donations. He boasts to his friend that “[t]he common people of the town already know and love me, the children in particular (28).” He is a daydreamer and, like a child, often over-dramatizes his troubles. In his March 16th letter he complains: “Everything is conspiring against me (82).” He stretches the truth and exaggerates reality. Months later he acknowledges that he does not suffer alone. “At times I say to myself: your fate is unique; consider other mortals as happy?none has ever been as tormented as you.?Then I read the work of an ancient poet and it is as if I were contemplating my own heart. I have so much to endure! Ah, have ever men before me been so miserable? (101).” Werther is aware of his self-absorption, but he cannot control his turbulent heart. He admits to “. . .treating my poor heart like an ailing child; every whim is granted (28).” Werther states in his first letter, “How happy I am to be away! My friend, what a thing is the heart of man! (25).” He is like a child, driven by his emotions rather than his intellect. He berates himself for his addiction to lamentation. He states again, “I promise I shall improve, and will not keep on chewing over some morsel of misfortune doled out by fate, as I always have done (25).”
Werther childishly desires the unattainable (Lotte). In his letter to Wilhelm of October 30th, he justifies this unreasonable pursuit. “Do not children reach out for everything that attracts them??The why should not I? (98).” The object of his desire is aware of this and points it out to him: “I fear, I very much fear that what makes the desire to possess me so attractive is its very impossibility (115).” Werther preaches what he doesn’t practice. He abhors ill-humour, but is possessed by it himself when he cannot triumph. In admiration he says of Albert, “He seems to be almost free of ill-humour, which as you know is the human evil I loathe above all others (57).” He argues vehemently: “Is not ill-humour in fact our own inner displeasure at our own unworthiness, a feeling of discontent with ourselves, which is always related to envy, which in turn is stirred up by foolish vanity? (49).” He calls ill-humour “. . .a kind of indolence (48)”, yet he himself succumbs to what he disdains. After his attempt to save a murderer fails he “. . . sank all the more deeply into a state of inactivity and pain (110).” In ruminating about his life he feel that his misery is a “. . . vindication of inactivity (111).” Falling deeper into depression, he becomes what he hates, an ill-humoured man.
Werther is obsessed by his infatuation for Lotte. He expresses this complete fixation in his letter of December 6th:
How her figure haunts me! Waking or dreaming, she fills my entire soul! Here in my head, in my mind’s eye, I see her dark eyes the moment I close my own. Here!?I do not know how to put it. The second I close my eyes I see hers before me, deep as an ocean or an abyss, and they are within me, filling the senses of my mind (105).
His preoccupation with suicide surfaces in his letter to Wilhelm on March 16th: “Ah, I have snatched up a knife a hundred times, meaning to relieve my sorely beset heart. . . and am tempted to open a vein and so find eternal freedom (83).” It re-surfaces in October: “Oh, my friend! I wish that I might draw my sword, like some noble warrior, and deliver my prince from the painful torments of a long drawn-out death, and send my soul to go with the demi-god I had set free (96).”
All men have disappointments and must decide how to deal with them. Werther admits this: “I am not the only unfortunate. All men are disappointed in their hopes and cheated out of their expectations (89).” Why then does he see suicide as his only option? He seems to believe that he has crossed the threshold of pain that he can tolerate. He describes this threshold in his argument with Albert over the righteousness of suicide: “Human nature has its limits, and can take joys, sorrows and pain up to a certain point, but is annihilated once the threshold is crossed. The question, therefore, is not whether a man is weak or strong, but whether he can endure the full extent of his sufferings, be they of a moral or physical nature (62).”
Childishness implies a certain type of immaturity. If a child doesn’t get what he wants, he often responds by throwing what is called a “temper tantrum.” In Werther’s case, his decision to commit suicide is the ultimate temper tantrum. There were other options he could have used to remove himself from Lotte’s life, but, like a child, his goal was to justify himself for his behavior. His justification relies on his perception of what is the noble thing to do. He believes that he is doing the noble thing so that Lotte can be free of the impossible situation. He decries sensibility in his argument with Albert:
‘Ah, you sensible people!’ I cried, with a smile. ‘Passions! Intoxication! Insanity! You are so calm and collected, so indifferent, you respectable people, tut-tutting about drunkenness and holding unreasonable behaviour in contempt, passing by like the priest and tanking God like the Pharisee that you are not as other men. I have been intoxicated more than once, my passions have never been far off insanity, and I have no regrets: because I have come to realize, in my own way, that people have always felt a need to decry the extraordinary men who accomplish great things, things that seemed impossible, as intoxicated and insane. How intolerable it is in everyday life, too, to hear them say, the moment anyone does something remotely free of noble or out of the ordinary, “The fellow’s drunk, he’s off his head!” You should be ashamed of yourselves, you sensible people, you sages!’ (61).
The type of insanity that drives Werther to the ultimate tantrum is an addiction to sorrow. It is a child’s way of gaining victory. His unreasonable behavior does nothing to redeem him. His act is not noble, but pathetic.