| Background | Reception
and Effects | Style & Form
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".
to the top
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
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-
To be exact there
are three different sources that had part in building "Werther".
to the top
|Reception & Effects:|
Within a short period
of time, several new editions of the novel are published and "Werther"
becomes a literary phenomenon, a bestseller.
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.
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!!!
to the top
|Style & Form:|
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:
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.
to the top
|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".
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.
Suicide thus becomes
the incorporation of anyone's natural right to freedom, that no noblesse
or ruler can take away.
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:
Besides suicide Werther
sees only two more solutions to his sheer unsolvable situation:
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.
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,
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.
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.
to the top
| 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!
& 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
If you make
use of any of the material presented on this page or at this
site, please indicate your source including the page's URL! And please
give me short notice that you could use what I put toghether!
Should any questions have remained unanswered or if you would like to
pour praise or critique on me, don't hesitate, sit down and write an
E-mail or tell it to my Guestbook !
Schau Dich doch noch weiter um, bei