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In Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther compares himself with the suitors from Homer’s Odyssey. At first his comparison seems only to be an ironic parallel. Like other instances where Werther is over-dramatic and silly in his grand metaphors, it is natural to laugh at the comparison, take little notice, and continue reading. But, in this case, the comparison has several layers of depth since Charlotte, too, has much in common with another Homerian character: Penelope. Charlotte’s character resonates with Penelope’s because they share many roles: both play the nurturing mother, the loyal wife. And, paradoxically they play these roles of the mother and wife while simultaneously acting as unconscious sirens. Because both Charlotte’s and Werther’s lives are fashioned so closely to Penelope’s and the suitors, Werther’s relationship with Charlotte also parallels the suitors’ treatment by Penelope: he is destroyed by his love for her.
Upon first reading, Werther’s comparison of himself and the suitors from The Odyssey seems to just be ironic, a device that Goethe uses to create humor. Soon after meeting Charlotte for the first time, Werther describes how gathering sugar peas and cooking them helps him vividly recall the “illustrious suitors of Penelope, killing, dressing and roasting their own oxen and swine.” The first example of irony here is that he casts opposite things as being very similar: he compares pea-gathering to slaughtering wild animals, growing one’s vegetables to stealing another man’s property and “gently stirring” peas in butter to dressing and roasting meat. Another example of irony comes when Werther comments, “Nothing fills me with a more pure and genuine happiness that those traits of patriarchal life, which, thank Heaven! I can imitate without affectation.” This is ironic because it is obvious from his discussion of picking and cooking peas that Werther is living a matriarchal life: few nineteenth century Germans would consider cooking vegetables to be manly. Also, it is ironic that Werther would even consider making the comparison between himself and Penelope’s suitors. After all, the suitors in The Odyssey are not admirable characters; they leach off the property of a lost war hero, threaten to kill his son and party in his home as his wife, Penelope, weeps for him. Yet, Werther admires these characters for their “patriarchal lifestyles”. Despite these lifestyles, it still seems strange that Werther would want to see himself as similar to the suitors since the suitors fail in their quest for Penelope’s affections. It would make more sense if Werther had seen himself as analogous to a swash-buckling Don Juan who could sweep women, even betrothed ones, off their feet. But since Werther’s daydream is of failed suitors, not successful ones, there may be more to his comparison than humorous irony.
Although the parallels between Werther’s life and the suitor’s seems only ironic, real and extensive similarities exist between the characters of Penelope and Charlotte indicating that Werther’s comparison may have more substance than just pure irony. In fact, Penelope and Charlotte have four major roles in common: they play mothers, wives, seductresses and sirens. Penelope is regarded in different lights by the male characters around her: Odysseus regards her as his wife; Telemachos, as his mother; and the suitors, as a seductress whom they court but who in fact, like a siren, is destroying them. Similarly, Charlotte simultaneously acts these roles: she acts as the loyal wife to Albert, as the nurturing mother to her brothers and sisters and as the seductress and siren to Werther.
First, in making this comparison, the maternal traits of both Penelope and Charlotte should be explained. Penelope is, at all times, a mother to Telemachos. Throughout The Odyssey, Penelope is described as a strong mother, who brings her son to his coming of age, without the help of a father. Similarly, Charlotte’s role as the mother is shown in her interaction with the children. At dinner, “She was holding a loaf of dark bread in her hand and was cutting slices for the little ones all round, in proportion to their age and appetite. She performed her task with such affection and each child awaited his turn with outstretched hands.” Here Charlotte is the paragon of motherhood feeding hungry little children with affection and care. Just as a child loves receiving care from her mother and none other, the children tell Charlotte that another sister’s care isn’t as good as Charlotte’s care: ” . . . A fair-haired girl, about six years old, said, ?Sophie isn’t you, Charlotte, and we like you best.'” Later, in the novel, Charlotte explains to Werther that her mother on her deathbed had asked Charlotte “to be a mother” for the children; her mother said, “You are a promising much, my child a mother’s love and a mother’s eye . . . show it to your brothers and sisters.” Clearly, even Charlotte’s mother recognizes the maternal aspects of Charlotte’s character.
Not only does Charlotte play the role of the mother to perfection but she also plays well, like “faithful Penelope,” in the role of the loyal wife. While dancing with Werther for the first time, Charlotte explains that she is “as good as engaged” to “a worthy man” named Albert. Later, after Charlotte and Albert are married, Charlotte frequently exhibits her faith to her husband. When he is away on business, Charlotte writes a letter that says, “My dearest love, come back as soon as you can; I await you with all my love.” Throughout the novel, Charlotte is both a loving wife and a nurturing mother just as Penelope was in the Odyssey.
Wife and mother are compatible and complementary roles so it is not surprising that both Penelope and Charlotte play these parts well. However, a loyal wife and nurturing mother should not be a seductress and siren since these roles are contradictory. The most important similarity between Penelope and Charlotte is that both play the role of the seductress and siren. The contradictions in Penelope’s behavior, one moment the loyal wife awaiting Odysseus and welcoming the beggar, the next exhibiting herself to the suitors and calling for the contest, stem from contradictions in the desires of her character. Penelope must be the loyal wife and mother to sustain her place in society, yet she simultaneously yearns for passion. Although she cannot admit it to her conscious self, she is fond of the suitors who have destroyed her home and eaten her fortunes. She explains to Odysseus, disguised as the beggar, that she has had a dream:
“‘Listen, then, to a dream that I have had . . . I have twenty geese . . . and of which I am exceedingly fond. I dreamed that a great eagle came swooping down from a mountain, and dug his curved beak into the neck of each of them till he had killed them all . . . I wept in my room till all my maids gathered round me, so piteously was I grieving because the eagle had killed my geese.’ Odysseus replied, ?This dream can admit but of one interpretation. The death of the suitors is portended, and not one single one of them will escape.'”
Only in the dream does Penelope admit that she has fondness for the geese, the metaphorical wooers. Her dream casts doubt on her professed dislike of the suitors. At the beginning of the novel, Penelope is described as clever because for three years she promises the suitors she will marry one of them as soon as she finishes weaving a shroud for Odysseus’ father. By day, she weaves and at night she unweaves; in doing so, she keeps the suitors at bay for three years before they find out about her scheme. Knowing from her dream that she harbors a secret fondness for them, it seems clear that the purpose of her cleverness is to keep the suitors wooing her for as long as possible, thereby allowing her to simultaneously maintain her loyalty to Odysseus and fulfill her desire to seduce those suitors of which she is secretly fond.
Similar contradictory behavior is found in Charlotte who seduces Werther because of an unconscious romantic fondness for him. Charlotte’s seduction is found throughout her relationship with Werther. For his birthday, Charlotte sends him a ribbon from the dress she wore the first time she danced with him. Her gift is romantic and suggestive, certainly not the sort of momento that a platonic friend would give as a gift. “[Werther] kissed the ribbon a thousand times, and in every breath inhaled the keenest joy.” Even as Werther enjoys the gift, he recognizes his fate he is powerless in Charlotte’s seduction. “Such, Wilhelm, is our fate. I do not complain; the flowers of life are but illusions.” Another instance where Charlotte plainly flirts with Werther occurs when a canary lands on her shoulder:
“‘[The bird] can kiss me too look!’ She held the bird to her mouth and he pressed her sweet lips as if he felt the bliss. ?He shall kiss you too,’ she added. His little beak moved from her mouth to mine, and the touch of his peck seemed like the foretaste of the sweetest happiness.”
Werther recognizes the “innocent” seduction and tries to keep from being taken in by her charms: “I turned away. She shouldn’t do this. She shouldn’t excite my imagination with all this heavenly bliss nor awaken my heart from the slumber to which the monotony of life sometimes lulls it.” Soon, her seduction becomes Werther’s destruction.
For Werther, the parallel between life and fiction is not without consequence: novels suggest fate for him and the misfortunes of novels’ heroes are his own . Just as the suitors of Penelope are destroyed by Odysseus for their desires, Charlotte, too, is a siren, seducing Werther into self-destruction. And Werther, internalizing the doomed fate of Homer’s suitors recognizes his own fate. Werther first recognizes the destructive consequences of his desire for Charlotte six weeks after they meet. Whenever he is within a half-hour walk of Walheim, he must see her:
“I am within the enchanted atmosphere, and suddenly find myself at her side. My grandmother used to tell us a story of a mountain of loadstone. Any ships that came near it were instantly deprived of their ironwork; the nails flew to the mountain and the unhappy crew perished amidst the debris of the planks.”
In other ways, Charlotte is like a siren; she has a “siren’s call”, her piano music. “There is a melody which she plays on the piano . . .It’s her favorite song, and when she strikes the first note all my worry and sorrow disappear in a moment. How her simple song enchants me!” As the novel progresses and Werther falls further in love, the siren’s call becomes deafening and intolerable. “Finally, I said, ?Stop it!’ She stopped playing and looked at me. She then said, with a smile? ?Werther you are ill. Your dearest food is distasteful to you.'” The scene is interesting because the similarity between the siren’s call and Charlotte’s music is so manifest; it is also disturbing because Charlotte smiles when Werther explains that the music is painful. It seems to indicate that she may unconsciously recognize she is tormenting him and perhaps enjoys it by attaining some sort of narcissistic pleasure from it. Only at the very end of the story, does Charlotte “half unconsciously” recognize that she has romantic feelings for Werther: “Amid all these reflections she felt, for the first time, deeply though half unconsciously, that it was her secret wish to keep him for herself.” Here we see that Charlotte and Penelope are both the same type of siren: the unconscious siren. As unconscious sirens, they unconsciously seduce men into falling in love with them but since they are unattainable women, men become sick in their unrequited love. There is no evidence to suggest that Charlotte premeditates or enjoys her destruction of her suitor; for this reason she is an unconscious sirens; she does not take pleasure in her seduction and destruction of men.
Werther understands that his unfulfilled love is destroying him and other men around him: “She does not see, she does not feel that she is preparing a poison which will destroy us both; and I drink deeply of the draught that is to prove my destruction.” Sirens destroy many men that grow too attached to them and so it makes sense that other men in the novel are destroyed by their love for Charlotte. Werther describes a madman who searches feebly in winter for nosegays for his sweetheart. His mother explains that the madman “was quite violent and had to be chained down in a madhouse” for a whole year. In a subsequent letter, Werther reveals that the madman had been another “suitor” of Charlotte. Just as Penelope, as siren, sends many to their insanity, so does Charlotte.
In conclusion, Werther reads the Penelope passages in Homer as stories that parallel his own life; in interpreting the fate of the suitors to be his own fate he watches himself be destroyed by his love for Charlotte. Werther’s understanding of Charlotte as being similar to Penelope stems from the fact that they have many traits in common: they act as mothers and wives while paradoxically acting as seducers and sirens. There are many issues left to be resolved in this relationship. First, is Charlotte conscious of the parallel between her character and Penelope? If so, is she self-consciously fashioning her behavior intentionally to the Penelope model? There are many clues in the text that suggest she is “reading along” with Werther: she recognizes Klopstock as Werther does in the storm and, in another instance, gives Homer to Werther as a gift along with the ribbon from her dress. Another issue, yet unresolved, is the extent to which Charlotte is conscious of her destruction of Werther. Charlotte marries Albert soon after her mother’s death partially because it is her mother’s dying wish for Charlotte to reestablish a family life for her young brothers and sisters. Is she narcissistically using Werther as a device for living the fleeting passions of young love, the passions she had to sacrifice to fulfill her mother’s wish? Questions of Charlotte’s motivations are hard to answer due to the epistolary form of the novel. At the same time, they are fascinating issues that suggest Goethe has created in Sorrows of Young Werther a novel with multiple layers of ironic complexity to perplex and amuse.
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