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Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

The Sorrows Of Young Werther and The Rise of Parody

Here’s a story for the ages: emo kid falls in love with hot girl with a boyfriend. He confronts her and she loses it. Maybe she’s his? But she can’t let family and friends down, so she tells emo kid the score. Since he can’t have her, he blows his brains out. Everyone regrets not digging what a winner emo kid was.

This plot could sell the hell out of a crappy movie today, which is probably why in the late 1700s, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther defined European pop culture. Helped by a heartstring-pulling story and a brevity rarely seen in novels at the time (many of which made The Lord of the Rings look like Goosebumps), Werther became the first true international, multimedia blockbuster.

That’s important for later: the simplicity and brevity of Werther is what made it ripe for mass consumption, which also made it ripe for parody. People could read it fast, and it could be printed fast.

Unofficial –- since there wasn’t such a thing as “official” –- Werther merchandise filled the cultural landscape. Tailors sold outfits that let men look like Werther, the Edward Cullen of the story. Guys began carrying around Werther pistols. Napoleon wrote fan-fiction. At least one woman committed suicide with a copy of it in her pocket.

This international obsession was referred to as “Werther-Fieber,” (Werther Fever), which is too close to “Bieber Fever” for anyone’s comfort. And many people still use the phrase “Werther effect” for copycat suicides by fans of popular movies or books.

Why am I telling you this?

Because it’s ridiculous. It was the Twilight of its day. And cynical people back then knew it. While women and men wrote weepy fan-poems in which Lotte -– the Bella in this story –- apologized over the grave of Werther. And while politicians and clergy men used the popular work to convince parents to lock up their children (sound familiar?), comedy writers were parodying the work to show that this dramatic treatise on the contents of the human heart was actually a piece of melodramatic crap.

Why were people killing themselves when Werther was kind of a puss and Lotte was kind of a cold fish? Who would even want to be those people?

Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, a German bookseller who knew the opportunity to earn an extra buck off a fad when he knew one, wrote the most famous parody: The Joys of Young Werther.

The entire book is almost the same, except for the ending. Lotte’s boyfriend realizes that Werther is going to kill himself, so he replaces the bullets with chicken’s blood. When Werther tries to kill himself, he fails. Everyone laughs at him. Then Lotte’s boyfriend breaks up with her and offers her to Werther, who joyfully marries her –- only to find himself getting fat and living the boring life of an everyday citizen. The end.

Okay. So that’s not hilarious by our standards.

But think of it in the context of late 18th century literature: the romantic ideal is entirely turned on its head. What happens when Romeo & Juliet live? They become boring. After love conquers all, it gets a four-door sedan in the suburbs. That’s a really funny viewpoint to convey in a time in which the entirety of young culture was focused on being a tragic lover.

Did I mention that it was sold with the book? Much in the way that “Weird Al” songs are intrinsically linked with their subject (I can’t listen to “Gangsta’s Paradise” without thinking about harvesting my grain), readers were eager to read the two version of the Werther story side-by-side.

And because Werther was such a short, simple novel, it was super cheap to print many copies of Nicolai’s -– not to mention others’ –- parody. And because the book was so short and so simple and so cheap, fans who wanted more Werther rushed to buy it. Unlike the old people on the pulpit, Nicolai’s parody hit the actual fan base.

And they got themselves a poet with a face of chicken blood and a life of boredom.

This parody kind of struck close to home. Goethe, who based the story on his real life experiences in which he didn’t kill himself, was so angry that he wrote a humorous follow-up poem called “Nicolai on Werther’s Grave.”

If I could provide a sample from the lovely poem:

He sat down, as it wouldn’t keep,
On the grave, and left his little heap;
Benignly his muck he contemplated,
Went his ways much alleviated,
And musing to himself did say:
“Poor fellow! A life spent amiss!
I’m sorry he had passed away.
If only he’d learned to shit like this,
He’d be alive today!”

Essentially, “You win, Nicolai: If only Werther knew how to hate life and not feel anything but cynical rage, he might have lived, sure.”

Still, the humor of the poem conveys a middle ground between the two writers. Gone is the voice of the Werther which saw the world in sad, serious grey and black. In is the voice of a dude who’s okay with making a poop joke.

And Goethe, for all the wealth and fame and success that Werther brought him, began to distance himself from the work. He wrote letters to friends and relatives about his embarrassment with the work, often mocking the fans who didn’t appreciate his newer poems and plays.

He even made fun of Werther himself. He wrote a comical play called The Triumph of Sensibility which is so desperately trying to prove that he is in on the joke that he tried to cast Mel Gibson as a tattoo artist. Not one of his better plays –- meaning not Faust — the kindest way to describe it is a sort of Airplane! version of emotional literature.

Still, the begrudging self-parody was a sign. Like a much-mocked politician appearing on Saturday Night Live, one of the most beloved and prominent writers of his or any era gave in to the backlash by gritting his teeth, waving at the crowd, and taking a pratfall.

Parody, and comedy, had won. And the modern model for pop-culture mockery had been created.

Mike Drucker is a lovely man with many positive characteristics. He has written for Saturday Night Live, The Onion, McSweeney's, and Nintendo. He's also a stand-up or something, I guess.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    So good! I often worry that I'm consuming a parody of a thing too often before its antecedent, which completely ruins the original for me.

    Not a new phenomenon, I see!

    And The Sorrows of Young Werther sounds like (500) Days of Summer if it had had the proper ending. Maudlin, emotionally underdeveloped teenagers are always offing themselves in literature. "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather is basically Catch Me If You Can on a very small scale – except the Frank Abagnale Jr. character gets found out by his dad, and instead of facing his punishment and going back to his unremarkably insipid life, throws himself on the tracks in front of an oncoming train.

    It gets better, fictional characters I hate!

  • 2Dskillz

    Great story. It does my heart well to know that when I heckle Twilight I am following a historic tradition.

  • Galben03

    For people who do not read or read very little, your story may be funny. I don’t deny that Twilight is a cheap multi-volume collection of bad literature, which is gobbled up by ignorant teenagers. But I don’t see how Werther is necessarily bad. Werther is a typical romantic little novel. I wish all high-school students would read Werther before they read Twilight. You are showing the banal cynicism, shared by people, without much analysis. I heard this already for twenty years; people bashing Balzac for writing easy novels for money. Unfortunately you do not offer anything better when you thrash Werther. OK, Romeo and Juliet is a melodrama. But it is still worth reading and seeing on stage. If after that you don’t like it, go and see Henry V. Parody is a healthy way to respond to sickly stories, but young people should still read first the novels, then read the parodies. Your article invites a cheap shortcut that is much worse than the initial melodrama.

  • Jonathan Asheigh

    Recently, “The Sorrows of Young Mike” published and it is a wonderful
    modern retelling of Werther. It is a marvelously done parody and took on
    similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books
    reflect on each other.