Johann Wolfgang Goethe
The Sorrows of Young Werther

- A literary analysis-


 Content  |   Background  |  Reception and Effects  |  Style & Form  |  Interpretation
The main character of Goethe's novel is Werther. From his letters to his friend Wilhelm we get to know that he is in his early twenties and not yet sure what the prurpose of his life is, which profession he is to take up.
Another role holds Lotte, the 19 year old daughter of a widowed official. Since her mother's death she has been leading the household on her own and takes loving care of her many smaller sibblings. Lotte has been engaged for 4 years to the 11 year older (i.e. 30 year old) secretary Albert, who is a good-spirited and gentle man but becomes Werther's antagonist.

The reader does not get to know anything about Wilhelm, whom Werther's letters are sent to. Furthermore, one needs to guess about the content of Wilhelm's letters by the context of Werther's replies. Thus the reader himself takes the role of Wilhelm.

Werther, who is of burgeois origin, leaves his home to regulate some issues about a family estate for his mother. But soon he neglects his tasks and spends his time enjoying his life and long afternoons in the nature. He quicly aquaints with the nice people who populate his "paradise".
Invited to a dance by his new aquaintances he gets to know Lotte on the ride to the prom and instantainiously falls in love with her, though knowing that she is already engaged. During a thunderstorm, as the situation reminds the of a romantic poem, both realize that their affection is mutual. From now on, Werther visits her nearly daily and spends blissful hours close to her.

But when Albert, Lotte's fiancé returns from his journey, Werther's feelings for Lotte change from "bliss" to the "source of his inhappiness" because Albert's presence renders it clear to him that his love needs to remain unfulfilled as Lotte will never be able to return his feelings. Although Albert is well-spirited towards Werther, their relationships remains ambiguous as in addition to their rivalship over Lotte it becomes clear that they honor opposing value systems. It is in his letters that Werther realizes his strong feelings for Lotte might be his doom for the sentiment of absolute love remains one-sided; he ultimately decides to leave her in order to save him.

When a duke offers him a job as an envoy, Werther hopes to physically, psychological-ly and emotionally flee Lotte's influence. His efforts to succeed as a citizen in nobility are crushed by the circumstances of a society determined by class.

Disillusioned Werther returns back to the place his soul calls home, back to Lotte. But in the time Werther has been away, Lotte and Albert have married. Werther's state of mind gets ever more unstable by this obvious and unsurmountable barrier for his unconditional love. His reason is not able to hold back his emotions. One night Werther visits Lotte as Albert is away. He hugs and kisses her passionately and throws himself to the floor in front of her. But Lotte breaks free and locks herself in another room in order not to succumb to Werther's passions.

Desperate after this event, Werther continues a farewell-letter he had begn earlier, borrows two pistols from Albert under a pretence and shoots himself.

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To be able to give a sensible response to the question in how far Werther's story bears auto-biographical traits, we need to find out about the creation of Goethe's novel.
Soon after the publication of "Sorrows of Young Werther", Goethe is asked whether his hero is an authentic character and where the story took place. It fast becomes clear that it's Goethe himself who hides behind this mask. In 1815 Goethe states in a letter to composer Carl Friedrich Zelter: 

    "Werther hardly leaves anyone doubting that all of the symptoms of this wonder-
       ous, as natural as unnatural disease have once roamed within me, too.
       I still remember quite well what efforts it has cost me to escape the waves of 
      death back then..."

To be exact there are three different sources that had part in building "Werther".
At the end of May 1772, having concluded his law studies, Goethe gets a job at the "Reichskammergericht" (=superior court of the Holy Roman Empire) at Wetzlar. There he gets to know among others the secretary Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. Toghether they are present at a ball in Vogelshausen on June 9. That night, Goethe is introduced to 19 year-old Charlotte Buff the title of a "Werther" pocketbook and her older financé Johann Christian Kestner. He instanta-neously falls in love with Charlotte and visits her often in the following time.
The realtionship of Goethe and Kestner varies between friendship and rejection. Charlotte is clever in handling the evident feelings of Goethe and shows him that he need not hope for an affair with her. On September 11, Goethe departs without sayiny goodbye, he obviously wants to put an end to the situation. The previous day, Goethe had had -just like Werther- a talk about depar-ture, returning and life after death with Charlotte and her fiancé.
The parallels are evident. Goethe is on the prom at June 9; Werther gets to know Lotte in the time between Mai 30 and June 16. (Char)Lotte is -just like her counterpart in the novel- the daughter of a widowed official and has a lot of siblings. Goethe as well as Werther celebrate their birthday at August 28, and both leave (Char)Lotte on Septem-ber 11. These and other common features render apparent that in the first part of his novel Goethe draws on his time at Wetzlar.
However, Goethe retains a correspondence with the Kestners and thus hears about the suicide of his old friend Jerusalem. The motive for this deed, as Goethe is told, was an unhappy, unfulfilled love to the wife of the secretary H. from Palatine. For his suicide, Jerusalem borrowed pistols from the unsuspecting Kestner, as did Werther in the novel. Jerusalem, too, had been denied entry into the circle of the aristocrats and he -as well as Werther in the 2nd part of the novel- was in a dispute with another envoy. As further parallels, Jerusalem had gone on long moonlight-walks that reflect his sad mood and had passionately defended the right to suicide in discussions. Furthermore Jerusalem had been alone with the object of his affection once before is decision to kill himself. For describing Werther's suicide, Goethe frequently used parts of Kestner's letter about Jerusalem's tragic demise. Thus, his friends suicide represents the novel's second motif.
The final cause for Goethe's writing "Werther" was probably a dispute between him and the Frankfurt merchant Peter Anton Brentano. Goethe had fallen in love with Brentano's wife Maximiliane von La Roche, he had encountered on his journey back to Frankfurt from Wetzlar.
After these three personal experiences with unfulfilled love passions, Goethe with-draws and gives vent to his anger, his blocked emotions and the news that had been thrown at him in a sort of "general confession" as he writes "Werther" in only four weeks in the spring of 1774. That summer, the novel is pulished in Leipzig's "Wey-gand'sche Buchhandlung".

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Reception & Effects:

Within a short period of time, several new editions of the novel are published and "Werther" becomes a literary phenomenon, a bestseller.
Soon translations into French, English, Italian and many other European languages are published and experience a similar success on these markets. Its author, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a young man of 23 years by that time, achieves fame throughout the continent and becomes a virtual popstar of his generation.
From all parts of Germany and Europe people flockto Goethe's home in order to see the author of "Werther"; influential and noble persons are his frequent guests. Thus Goethe becomes acquainted with Duke Karl August, who later has him move to Weimar to his court.

Goethe had hit the "zeitgeist" with his novel of powerful emotions describing the genuine feelings of a youth that had been neglected so far as object of literary work. Reading "The Sorrows of Young Werther" had come to be a must in virtually all layers of society and was a favorite topic to talk about. The novel's success and its heart-moving story proofed to be solid ground for spinning-off the first highly successful and comprehensive "merchandising-campaign" in literary history.
The young generation's fashion was dominated by Werther's apparel: blue coat with tin buttons, a yellow leather waistcoat, brown boots and a round felt hat is what a fashion-conscious "Sturm&Drang"-youngster needs to wear. You can buy Werther-china-dolls, collectible cups with scenes from the novel, Werther-scents, napkins with the portrait of Werther and other must-haves.

Accusations are brought forward particularly by the book's critics that following the publication of the novel a sudden rise in suicide attempts occured. Goethe himself, despises those who "believe you need to turn poetry into reality, re-enact such a novel, and even shoot yourself."
The church, too, fought against Goethe's work, since suicide is a sinful intrusion into the creator's prerogatives and the book might well spoil weak minds. Thus, the book was taken off the shelfs and forbidden in Leipzig, Bavaria and Austria.
The importance of "Werther" can furthermore be seen at the numerous works that were published in the succession to Goethe's novel. Criticism and satire as well as a re- and new-editing of this topic. Works by Lenz, Kleist, Alexandre Dumas and Nestroy are examples for this phenomenon. Even Hitler's "loudspeaker" Goebbels abused the well-known motiv for a 1929 anti-semitic pamphlet. Nowadays it's probably Ulrich Plenzdorff's "Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.", a version of Goethe's novel that has its background in the East-German youth of the 70s, that is most widely recognized as standing in "Werther"'s tradition.

Its literary importance is in the fact that "Werther" became the spark to ignite the era of "Sturm&Drang". A new generation of young poets emerged, criticizing and being criticized by the German Enlightenment and its established representatives, like Lessing, Nicolai or Mendelsohn, who saw no space for emotional affections in a world to be dominated by the power of reason. Werther soon becomes the prototype of the passionate, emotional genius, a creator and destroyer, one of the major leitmotifs of this era. The novel and its tremendous success paves the way for other young authors such as Lenz, Bürger or Schubart who emerge in Werther's wake.

The huge, exceptional and maybe yet unsurpassed success we have already been talking about, may be due to the fact that Goethe's work is authentic; he tried to come to terms with his own experiences and feelings in writing "Werther". His mainly young readers are particularly apt to show empathy with Werther, because it's with youth in mind that Goethe said to his secretary Eckermann 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."

For a more through and emotional reading experience it is suggested to read "The Sorrows of Young Werther" at exactly this kind of time - but beware of interpreting it as a parabel of your own experiences in all its consequences!!!

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Style & Form:
Raeading the novel, one gets the impression that it is rather a biography than fiction. This impressions set in right in the preface where Goethe, the imaginary biograph, assures us:

"I have diligently collected everything I have been able to discover concerning the story of poor Werther, and here present it to you in the knowledge that you will be grateful for it."

The novel's authenticity is thus being emphasized right from the start; the reader needs to come to the conclusion that it's real events that are being told here. This impression is being reinforced when -in the second part of the novel- the author (he rather presents himself as a mere editor) interrupts the plot in order to supplement and add to the left-over letters with his own reports. At some points this obvious authenticity is being underlined by Goethe shortening character names to their initials and abridging names of places, just like modern time magazine editors do. As if it was necessary for reasons of protecting one's privacy or something like that. You even find a note à la "name abridged by the editor" at these points.

The entire novel - with the exception of the editor's interruptions close to the end - is written in the form of dated letters. Thus the reader can follow as well the timeline of Werther's increasing sorrows. The reader takes the place of Wilhelm as the addres-see of Werther's letters, everything that Werther feels and experiences is revealed to him as though to a diary.

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Since the reply to Werther's letters are to be guessed at best, the novel soon turns into a monologue. It is as though Werther was talking to his alter ego reporting about his emotions, his sorrows.
There we have a first indication for an isolation of Werther. As an emotionally sensitive Sturm&Drang "genius", there's no-one among his friends and acquaintances who could be his equal. And Wilhelm, who's no great soul either, is not able to lead his pen pal out of his "weltschmerz", Wilhelm's suggestions solely based on pure reason are not capable of doing this. There's no place for reason, no right of existence in Werther's soul matters. His solitary existence, his loneliness is self-imposed, as he otherwise sees himself cornered by the "fatal, civic circumstances".

"When I look to the limits into which the striving and inquiring powers of man are jailed... I turn back to myself and discover a world!"

With his "over-extended ideas" his opportunities as a citizen among nobility are very narrow. But it is rather early on that he turns towards a final exit from the quarrels of life: suicide.

"And then, as limited as he is, he always keeps the sweet sense of freedom in his heart and that he can leave this jail whenever he wants to."

Suicide thus becomes the incorporation of anyone's natural right to freedom, that no noblesse or ruler can take away.
It is in this context that one needs to contemplate Werther's relation to Albert. Here Goethe depicts the storm that rages between thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment and the new, youthful force of the Sturm&Drang generation. Reason, traditional values and stability are Albert's touchstones, whereas Werther precipitates himself with intense emotion and intentionally unreflectedly (sic!) into his life. This dispute mentioned above becomes most evident at the topic of suicide.

Werther rejects all of Albert's arguments and passionately defends the right to suicide, which he deems to be an expansion of natural death. A human being whose "confines of suffering" have been overstretched would perish of a "deadly disease" which - having been caused by exterior influences - Werther believes to be inevitable and without a cure.
He soon discovers symptoms of this disease with himself. In his letter of August 30th 1771, his inner conflict between "pain and pleasure" becomes particularly evident.

"... - When I have been with her for two or three hours, entranced by her ways and the divine expressiveness of her words, and my senses gradually become excited, my sight grows dim, I can hardly hear a thing, I have difficulty breathing, as if a murder had me by the throat, and then my heart beats wildly, trying to relieve my tormented senses and only making their confusion worse - Often, Wilhelm, I do not no if I exist at all! And if melan-choly is not allowed to prevail, and Lotte does not permit me the miserable solace of weeping on her hand for relief, I have to leave, and go out - and then I wander far and wide in the fields, and take pleasure in climbing a precipitous mountain, and beating a path through thick forest, hurt by the briers, torn by the thorns! Then I feel somewhat better! Somewhat! At times I am so tired and thirsty that I lie out on the ground, late at night with the full moon high above me, or I rest on a crooked tree trunk in the remote depths of the forest, to ease my sore feet a little, and in my exhaustion I slumber peacefully in the first light of day. Oh, Wilhelm! My soul is so beset that I long for the pampered ease of a hermit's isolated cell, for a hair-shirt and a barbed scourge.
Adieu! I see no end to my misery but the grave."

It's in his unconditional love - he wants no woman but her, sees her in all things and beings - that Werther's doom is founded. As his unconditional love can not hope to find fulfilment in the moral and social framework of the late 18th century and due to Lotte's refusal, the desire for death constantly grows within Werther. Thus he writes on March 16:

"Ah, I have snatched up a knife a hundred times, meaning to relieve my sorely beset heart. People tell of a noble breed of horses that instinctively bite open a vein when they are exhausted and feverish, in order to breathe more freely. I often feel the same, and am tempted to open a vein and so find eternal freedom."

Besides suicide Werther sees only two more solutions to his sheer unsolvable situation:
For one, there'd be murdering Albert, as in his thought on August 21: "What if Albert were to die?" ...then, we might continue his reflection, he might hope that after this violent dissoultion of marriage's bonds, Lotte would be free for him. This road is symbolically taken in the episode with the young servant who in his unfulfilled love for his widowed mistress kills a contestant. Werther defends this crime because he is able to empathize with the accused murderer. But he himself does not take that road.

As another alternative there remains insanity. This as well is being depicted in the novel in a side plot. A former secretary with Lotte's father had gone crazy over his hidden love for Lotte. Now he wanders in wintertim lonely over mea-dows and looks for flowers in the snow in order to pick them for his loved one and of course is unable to find them.

Werther finally chooses suicide since he considers it to be his fault that his "heart is dead". He attributes his pain to internal and stable causes as psychologists would say. Thus being rooted in his personality, suicide appears to be the sole possibility to rid him of his sorrows.

The heart just mentioned takes a central role in Goethe's novel, it is the thread that is woven into and connects all letters. As soon as the first letter, heart is being talked about five times, it is joyful, sad, suffering, feeling.
To the side of the heart steps the soul as its companion, the soul als "the mirror of the infinite god". Now a super-human power, God, is brought onto the stage. A god that materializes in nature, the third central notion in the novel. Werther does not confine himself to mere contemplation of nature and a description of what he sees, but perceives his feelings to be reflected by nature.
Before Albert enters the scene, that is when Werther's sky of love is still unclouded, his surroundings seem fresh, vitalizing, like springtime. Sunrises, walks in green valleys, resting at creeks and fountains, life blossoms. But as he gets more conscious of the hopelessness of his love for Lotte, nature seems to add to his desperation. Gloomy night strolls, where once there every place seemed full of life and love, there now appears to be "nothing but an ever devouring, ever chewing monster".

All these features harshly separate "The Sorrows of Young Werther" from the pre-ceeding works of the literature of Enlightenment. Reporting thus personally about a love that deeply violates the stiff etiquette of a society dominated by nobility was unheard of. And even more so when it ends by comitting the sin of suicide. The central role that is awarded to love and the entire palette of feelings in Goethe's novel did not only hit his generation's zeitgeist. It also made a huge impression on other young writers. A new generation had now found contents to revolt against literary establish-ment.
Instead of pure reason, Enlightenment style, the young authors aspired to draw a holistic, and more close to reality image of human nature.
The neglected world of emotion, that confronted the young generation in their own (soul) lifes demanded its due place.
The tempests of genius and emotion of the Sturm&Drang era had drawn near !

Although we might consider Goethe's old-fashioned and sighing language at first glance as far away from ourselves as can be, we notice at second thought that Goethe has created a timeless novel.
Its content - a deeply felt unfulfilled and thus endlessly painful love that sends shivers down our spine, shakes our set of emotions and leads our life to the rim of a frigh-tening abyss - is an experience that we ourselves can encounter as well nowadays as 220 years ago.

And that's what Werther is written for. Hence, once more Goethe at the end:

''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."

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Content  |   Background  |  Reception&Effect  |  Style & Form  |  Interpretation

All those whose thirst for all things "Werther" has not yet been quenched may
find the following links I assembled interessting... surf it up!

Sturm & Drang - An Introduction @ WERTHER'sWORLD
Werther to be read online @ Projekt Gutenberg (German)
Wikipedia-article about "The Sorrows of Young Werther"
Goethe's Werther -Biographicalrelations: Goethe, Charlotte Buff, K-W Jerusalem (German)
Werther in New York - Background infos and many links (German)
Thomas Scheider on the Werther stories of Goethe, Plenzdorf and Doillon
A short summary of the novel (German)

A dictionary of sensibilty - containing many parts from WERTHER (English)

Search the text: Werther !!! (German)

Goethe e le sue opere (p.e. Werther) - in Italiano

The Importance of Shepherding One's Love: Anima Possession in The Idylls of Theocritus and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther


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