Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Historical | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Chapter 15

A commanding library with which to begin one's education. Any number of Romantic works exhibit the influence of the three. 

John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), the epic-length poem on the Fall and Expulsion whose first lines are, "Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree...," tells in surpassingly noble verse the story of two Falls, the literal fall of Lucifer and the one-third of the angel host who rebelled against God,into Hell and the Fall of Adam and Eve. The monster's often formal, antique language has its roots in his reading, and it is sometimes Milton we hear. 

Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (approximately 100 C.E.) narrates twenty-three pairs of lives, each composed of a Greek and a Roman, and follows each pair with a brief essay comparing the two (there are also four individual lives; the whole is no longer intact).

While called "lives," the work is a study of the figures' temperaments and characters and shows how these shape their destinies. Among the most famous are those of Alexander the Great and Caesar. The edition the monster finds is almost certainly John Dryden's translation. Arthur Hugh Clough, a Victorian who revised Dryden's translation, gives an idea of how the Lives affected the monster:

He [Plutarch] is a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to actions; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity,fair-dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world.

The third title is missing the adjective and the name is misspelled. The correct title is The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Goethe wrote the novel when he was twenty-four, and the work made him famous throughout Europe and England. In later years he regretted having written it but at the time, despairing to the point of contemplating suicide because of his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff, his writing it appears to have saved him from killing himself. By the time of the portrait below, done some thirteen years after writing the novel, Goethe has recovered from the sturm und drang (works in poetry and prose that describe deep, tumultuous emotions) that overtook him and therefore Werther and now has arrived at a meditative repose. He is reclining thoughtfully among the noble ruins of the classical world that Werther eventually rejected as emotionally anemic.

The Sorrows tracks the hero's descent into a maelstrom of emotion and mental instability owing to the triangle in which he finds himself (he loves a young, engaged woman). He arrives on the scene a young man of impeccable classical education who carries a copy of Homer about with him. Changes in his reading mark his descent into despair. By the end the work that absorbs him is Macpherson's Ossian (Search). 

The Sorrows became so popular that young men imitated the sensitive Werther by dressing in the blues and golds he did and some by committing suicide. Goethe fifty years later wrote how awful it must be if everyone has a time in his life when he believes The Sorrows was written for him. The monster himself becomes a captive of the Werther sensibility, Werther to him "a more divine being," he says in the next paragraph, "than I had ever beheld."

Like Hamlet and later The Catcher in the Rye and The Stranger, works that also ask in one way or another as the monster does "Who Am I?" Werther seems to have made its readers, many of whom were young, ask something like that question. The novel tapped into a cultural state of mind or, even more extraordinary, may have created it. Thomas Mann, arguably Goethe's intellectual successor, wrote Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns (1939), which tells of the much older Charlotte Buff visiting the Sage, Goethe, at his home, which has become a cultural shrine, for Goethe is by then renowned throughout the Western world. 


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