The Sorrows of Young Werther

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The Sorrows of Young Werther[1]
Goethe 1774.JPG
First print 1774
Author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe[1]
Original title Die Leiden des jungen Werthers[1]
Country Germany
Language German
Genre Epistolary novel[1]
Publisher Weygand'sche Buchhandlung, Leipzig
Publication date
29 September 1774, revised ed. 1787[2]
Published in English
1779[2]

The Sorrows of Young Werther (German: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is an epistolary and loosely autobiographical novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first published in 1774; a revised edition of the novel was published in 1787. Werther was an important novel of the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, and influenced the later Romantic literary movement.

Finished in six weeks of intensive writing during January–March 1774,[1] its publication instantly made the 24-year-old Goethe one of the first international literary celebrities. Of all his works, this book was the most known to the general public.[1][2] Towards the end of Goethe's life, a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any young man's tour of Europe.

Plot summary[edit]

The majority of The Sorrows of Young Werther is presented as a collection of letters written by Werther, a young artist of highly sensitive and passionate temperament, and sent to his friend Wilhelm.

In these letters, Werther gives a very intimate account of his stay in the fictional village of Wahlheim (based on the town of Garbenheim, near Wetzlar).[citation needed] He is enchanted by the simple ways of the peasants there. He meets Lotte, a beautiful young girl who is taking care of her siblings following the death of their mother. Despite knowing beforehand that Lotte is already engaged to a man named Albert who is 11 years her senior, Werther falls in love with her.[3]

Although this causes Werther great pain, he spends the next few months cultivating a close friendship with both of them. His pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend and has to face the normal weekly gathering of the entire aristocratic set. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther's recitation of a portion of "Ossian".

Lotte at Werther's grave

Werther had realized even before this incident that one member of their love triangle — Lotte, Albert or Werther himself — had to die in order to resolve the situation. Unable to hurt anyone else or seriously consider committing murder, Werther sees no other choice but to take his own life. After composing a farewell letter to be found after his suicide, he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretence that he is going "on a journey". Lotte receives the request with great emotion and sends the pistols. Werther then shoots himself in the head, but does not expire until 12 hours after he has shot himself. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral is not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.

Effect on Goethe[edit]

Werther was one of Goethe's few works in the Sturm und Drang movement, before he, with Friedrich von Schiller, began the Weimar Classicism movement.

Goethe initially published the novel anonymously and also distanced himself from The Sorrows of Young Werther in his later years.[2] He regretted his fame and making his youthful love of Charlotte Buff public knowledge. He wrote Werther at the age of twenty-four, and yet some of his visitors in his old age knew him mainly from this work, despite his many others. He even denounced the Romantic movement by calling it "everything that is sick."[4]

Goethe described his distaste for the book, writing that even if Werther had been a brother he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by the vengeful ghost. Nevertheless, Goethe substantially reworked the book for the 1787 edition,[2] and acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther could exert on those forlorn young lovers who discovered it. In 1821, he commented to his secretary, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."

Cultural impact[edit]

See also: Werther effect

The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe's first major success, turning him from an unknown into a celebrated author practically overnight. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature. He thought so highly of it that he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. It also started the phenomenon known as the Werther-Fieber ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel.[5][6] It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide.

As a result of this tremendous effect, the "Werther Fever" was watched with concern by the authorities and fellow authors. One of the latter, Friedrich Nicolai, decided to create a satiric—and happier—ending called Die Freuden des jungen Werthers ("The Joys of Young Werther"), in which Albert, having realized what Werther is up to, had loaded chicken blood into the pistol, thereby foiling Werther's suicide, and happily concedes Lotte to him. After some initial difficulties, Werther sheds his passionate youthful side and reintegrates himself into society as a respectable citizen.[7]

Goethe, however, was not pleased with the Freuden and started a literary war with Nicolai (which lasted all his life) by writing a poem titled "Nicolai auf Werthers Grabe" in which Nicolai (here a passing nameless pedestrian) defecates on Werther's grave,[8] thus desecrating the memory of Werther from which Goethe had distanced himself in the meantime (as he had from the Sturm und Drang). This argument was continued in his collection of short and critical poems, the Xenien, and his play Faust.

Alternative versions and other appearances[edit]

Translations[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Wellbery, David E; Ryan, Judith; Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich (2004), A New History of German Literature, pp. 386–387, ISBN 9780674015036 
  2. ^ a b c d e Appelbaum, Stanley (2004-06-04), Introduction to The Sorrows of Young Werther, pp. VII–VIII, ISBN 9780486433639 
  3. ^ Robertson, JG, A History of German Literature, William Blackwoord & Sons, p. 268 
  4. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Makings of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins Press
  5. ^ Stephen Payne, Carrying the Torch (Xlibris, 2010), p. 170.
  6. ^ A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Story of Suicide (Norton, 1990), p. 228.
  7. ^ Friedrich Nicolai: Freuden des jungen Werthers. Leiden und Freuden Werthers des Mannes. Voran und zuletzt ein Gespräch. Klett, Stuttgart 1980, ISBN 3-12-353600-9
  8. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, David Luke (1964), Goethe: with plain prose translations of each poem (in German), ISBN 9780140420746, retrieved 1 December 2010 

External links[edit]