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The Sorrows of Young Werther

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The Sorrows of Young Werther
First print 1774
AuthorJohann Wolfgang Goethe
Original titleDie Leiden des jungen Werther
GenreEpistolary novel
PublisherWeygand'sche Buchhandlung, Leipzig
Publication date
29 September 1774, revised ed. 1787[1]
Publication placeHoly Roman Empire
Published in English
LC ClassPT2027.W3
TextThe Sorrows of Young Werther at Wikisource

The Sorrows of Young Werther ([ˈveːɐ̯tɐ]; German: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), or simply Werther, is a 1774 epistolary novel by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, which appeared as a revised edition in 1787. It was one of the main novels in the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, and influenced the later Romantic movement. Goethe, aged 24 at the time, finished Werther in five and a half weeks of intensive writing in January to March 1774.[2] It instantly placed him among the foremost international literary celebrities and was among the best known of his works.[1][2] The novel is made up of biographical and auto-biographical facts in relation to two triangular relationships and one individual: Goethe, Christian Kestner, and Charlotte Buff (who married Kestner); Goethe, Peter Anton Brentano, Maximiliane von La Roche (who married Brentano), and Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, who died by suicide on the night of Oct 29 or 30, 1772. He shot himself in the head with a pistol borrowed from Kestner.[3] The novel was adapted as the opera Werther by Jules Massenet in 1892.

Plot summary[edit]

Charlotte at Werther's grave

Most of The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story about a young man's extreme response to unrequited love, is presented as a collection of letters written by Werther, a young artist of a sensitive and passionate temperament, to his friend Wilhelm. These give an intimate account of his stay in the fictional village of Wahlheim (based on Garbenheim [de; it; nl], near Wetzlar),[4] whose peasants have enchanted him with their simple ways. There he meets Charlotte, a beautiful young girl who takes care of her siblings after the death of their mother. Werther falls in love with Charlotte despite knowing beforehand that she is engaged to a man named Albert, eleven years her senior.[5]

Despite the pain it causes him, Werther spends the next few months cultivating a close friendship with them both. His sorrow eventually becomes so unbearable that he is forced to leave Wahlheim for Weimar, where he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend and unexpectedly has to face there the weekly gathering of the entire aristocratic set. He is not tolerated and asked to leave since he is not a nobleman. He then returns to Wahlheim, where he suffers still more than before, partly because Charlotte and Albert are now married. Every day becomes a torturing reminder that Charlotte will never be able to requite his love. She, out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, decides that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after he recites to her a passage of his own translation of Ossian.

Even before that incident, Werther had hinted at the idea that one member of the love triangle – Charlotte, Albert or Werther himself – had to die to resolve the situation. Unable to hurt anyone else or seriously consider murder, Werther sees no other choice but to take his own life. After composing a farewell letter to be found after his death, he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, on the pretext that he is going "on a journey". Charlotte receives the request with great emotion and sends the pistols. Werther then shoots himself in the head, but does not die until twelve hours later. He is buried between two linden trees that he had mentioned frequently in his letters. The funeral is not attended by any clergy, or by Albert or Charlotte. The book ends with an intimation that Charlotte may die of a broken heart: "I shall say nothing of...Charlotte's grief. ... Charlotte's life was despaired of."

Effect on Goethe[edit]

Goethe portrait in profile

Werther was one of Goethe's few works aligned with the aesthetic, social and philosophical ideals that pervaded the German proto-Romantic movement known as Sturm und Drang, before he and Friedrich von Schiller moved into Weimar Classicism. The novel was published anonymously, and Goethe distanced himself from it in his later years,[1] regretting the fame it had brought him and the consequent attention to his own youthful love of Charlotte Buff, then already engaged to Johann Christian Kestner. Although he wrote Werther at the age of 24, it was all for which some of his visitors in his old age knew him. Goethe had changed his views of literature radically by then, even denouncing the Romantic movement as "everything that is sick."[6]

Goethe described the powerful impact the book had on him, writing that even if Werther had been a brother of his whom he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by his vengeful ghost. Yet, Goethe substantially reworked the book for the 1787 edition[1] and acknowledged the great personal and emotional influence that The Sorrows of Young Werther could exert on forlorn young lovers who discovered it. As he commented to his secretary in 1821, "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." Even fifty years after the book's publication, Goethe wrote in a conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann about the emotional turmoil he had gone through while writing the book: "That was a creation which I, like the pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart."[7]

Colored engraving of Werther and Lotte.

Cultural impact[edit]

The Sorrows of Young Werther turned Goethe, previously an unknown author, into a literary celebrity almost overnight. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature, having written a Goethe-inspired soliloquy in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. It also started the phenomenon known as "Werther Fever," which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel.[8][9] Items of merchandising such as prints, decorated Meissen porcelain and even a perfume were produced.[10] Thomas Carlyle coined an epithet, "Wertherism",[11] to describe the self-indulgency of the age that the phenomenon represented.[12] When Goethe completed Werther, he likened his mood to one experienced “after a general confession, joyous and free and entitled to a new life”. For Goethe the Werther effect was a cathartic one, freeing himself from the despair in his life.[3]

The book reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. The men were often dressed in the same clothing "as Goethe's description of Werther and using similar pistols." Often the book was found at the scene of the suicide.[13] Rüdiger Safranski, a modern biographer of Goethe, dismisses the Werther Effect "as only a persistent rumor."[14] Nonetheless, this aspect of "Werther Fever" was watched with concern by the authorities – both the novel and the Werther clothing style were banned in Leipzig in 1775; the novel was also banned in Denmark and Italy.[10] It was also watched with fascination by fellow authors. One of these, Friedrich Nicolai, decided to create a satirical piece with a happy ending, entitled Die Freuden des jungen Werthers ("The Joys of Young Werther"), in which Albert, having realized what Werther is up to, loaded chicken's blood into the pistol, thereby foiling Werther's suicide, and happily concedes Charlotte to him. After some initial difficulties, Werther sheds his passionate youthful side and reintegrates himself into society as a respectable citizen.[15]

The Hebrew translation יסורי ורתר הצעיר was popular among youths in the Zionist communities in British Mandate of Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s and was blamed for the suicide of several young men considered to have emulated Werther.

Goethe, however, was not pleased with the "Freuden" and started a literary war with Nicolai that lasted all his life, writing a poem titled "Nicolai auf Werthers Grabe" ("Nicolai on Werther's grave"), in which Nicolai (here a passing nameless pedestrian) defecates on Werther's grave,[16] so desecrating the memory of a 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 appearances[edit]

English translations[edit]

  • The Sorrows of Werter, trans. Daniel Malthus (1779)
  • Werter and Charlotte, trans. unknown (1786)
  • The Sorrows of Werter, trans. M. Aubry (1789)
  • The Letters of Werter, trans. unknown (1799)
  • The Sorrows of Werter, trans. William Render (1801)
  • The Sorrows of Werter, trans. Frederick Gotzberg (1802)
  • The Sorrows of Werter, trans. Dr. Pratt (1809)
  • The Sorrows of Werter, trans. R. Dillon Boylan (1854)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Appelbaum, Stanley (2004-06-04), Introduction to The Sorrows of Young Werther, Courier Corporation, pp. vii–viii, ISBN 978-0486433639
  2. ^ a b Wellbery, David E; Ryan, Judith; Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich (2004), A New History of German Literature, Harvard University Press, pp. 386–387, ISBN 978-0674015036
  3. ^ a b Jack, Belinda (June 2014). "Goethe's Werther and its effects". The Lancet Psychiatry. 1 (1): 18–19. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(14)70229-9. ISSN 2215-0366. PMID 26360395.
  4. ^ Goethe, Johann Wolfgang; Applebaum, Stanley, trans. (2004). The Sorrows of Young Werther/Die Leiden des jungen Werther: A Dual-Language Book. Mineola, NY: Dover. p. N.p. ISBN 978-0486433639. Retrieved 7 February 2020.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Robertson, JG, A History of German Literature, William Blackwood & Sons, p. 268
  6. ^ Hunt, Lynn. The Makings of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins Press
  7. ^ Will Durant (1967). The Story of Civilization Volume 10: Rousseau and Revolution. Simon&Schuster. p. 563.
  8. ^ Goleman, Daniel (March 18, 1987). "Pattern Of Death: Copycat Suicides Among Youths". The New York Times.
  9. ^ A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Story of Suicide (Norton, 1990), p. 228.
  10. ^ a b Furedi, Frank (2015). "The Media's First Moral Panic". History Today. 65 (11).
  11. ^ Cumming, Mark, ed. (2004). "Wertherism". The Carlyle Encyclopedia. Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-3792-0.
  12. ^ Birch, Dinah, ed. (2009). "Wertherism". The Oxford Companion to English Literature (7th ed.). Oxford University Press.
  13. ^ Devitt, Patrick. "13 Reasons Why and Suicide Contagion". Scientific American. Retrieved 2017-12-04.
  14. ^ Ferdinand Mount (2017). "Super Goethe". The New York Review of Books. 64 (20).
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, David Luke (1964), Goethe: with plain prose translations of each poem (in German), Penguin, ISBN 978-0140420746, retrieved 1 December 2010
  17. ^ Milnes R. Werther. In: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Macmillan, London and New York, 1997.
  18. ^ Wollstonecraft (Godwin) Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (Chapter 15).
  19. ^ Shapiro, Alexander H. (2019). The Consolations of History: Themes of Progress and Potential in Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung. London: Routledge. p. N.p. ISBN 978-0367243210. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  20. ^ William Makepeace Thackeray, "Sorrows of Werther," via "Poets.org."
  21. ^ Ulrich Plensdorf, tr. Romy Fursland: The New Sorrows of Young W. (London: Pushkin Press, 2015).
  22. ^ Andrew Travers, "In Aspenite's debut novel, a Goethe hero lost at sea," The Aspen Times, October 3, 2014.
  23. ^ "The Sufferings of Young Werther: A New Translation by Stanley Corngold - Harvard Book Store". www.harvard.com. Retrieved 2023-10-26.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]