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The Sorrows of Young Werther

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The Sorrows of Young Werther first edition title pageFirst edition title page
By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
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Approx. 42,000 words

The romance to end romanticism

Partway through The Sorrows of Young Werther you might wonder if this is actually a parody of romantic writing. Werther's attachment to his beloved Charlotte, Lotte for short, can come across as a ridiculously over-the-top passion. Or so it may appear to a modern reader. What Werther calls a love for all eternity we would today call as an unhealthy obsession and we'd expect the woman to take out a restraining order.

So is Goethe having fun at the expense of emotionalism, carrying the sturm und drang to absurd heights? Is it along the lines of Jane Austen's more subtle satire of the passing era of romantic expressionism in her first novels (see Sense and Sensibility)? After all, Goethe followed the success of his famous short novel with works that discarded unbridled romanticism in favour of classical and rational approaches.

But, no, as you read on in The Sorrows of Young Werther, it becomes clear the author is committed to presenting the young man's inner state sincerely. Goethe can sturm and drang with the best of them.

One sign of this sincerity is everyone's seriousness in the novel. However overheated Werther becomes with his endless rhapsodies to love, he is never really delusional. On one level he accepts that the object of his affections has chosen to marry another man, Albert, whom he recognizes as offering many fine qualities. Lotte takes Werther seriously also and advises him soberly. Even Albert respects his would-be rival's feelings; only late in the triangular relationship does he start resenting the attentions Werther pays to his wife.

And when Werther decides to take the last fatal step—the ultimate romantic expression—it is because he has determined it is the only honourable solution to the problem, respectful of the other two people.

Romantic tradition

The story is delivered mainly through letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm, who plays no role in the story. About three-quarters of the way through The Sorrows of Young Werther, an anonymous editor takes over the narration. If Werther were to be exposed as a fool, this less subjective source presents the last chance for it to happen. But the narrator also is sympathetic with the young man's emotions.

In perhaps the most boring five pages, the editor includes Werther's purported translation of songs from Ossian, Gaelic mythological epics that had become standards of the Romantic literary movement, thus placing Werther's agonies in a respected tradition of the times.

Also we should understand the boiling over romanticism of the novel was taken very seriously by contemporary readers. The Sorrows of Young Werther had an effect in its time something like that of The Catcher in the Rye in the mid-twentieth century. It was a book the young especially took to heart, idolizing and emulating the affected Werther as they would the disaffected Holden Caulfield. Atrocious behaviour was justified by aping Werther's emotional drama, even to the point of suicide.

A crucial episode in the story occurs when Werther tries to move on and seeks a relationship with another, higher-class woman, only to be humiliated by being cast out of a social gathering for not being of the nobility. This throws Werther back to the hopeless triangle with Lotte and Albert, but also underlines his feeling of not fitting into society, which is sure to feed the angst of every alienated young reader with inner ragings.

Of course, this is less affecting today. One might even question what terrible afflictions Werther suffered to drive him to his fateful end. (Some translations of the novel give the title as The Sufferings of Young Werther.)

Because life appears to be pretty good for our upper middle-class characters, their biggest concerns being how to spend their leisure time. A cynic could suggest they were willing to attribute such life-and-death importance to affairs of the heart because they didn't have to deal with the actual life-and-death issues facing most people then.

All-time bestseller

But The Sorrows of Young Werther was not just a popular book in its time but the popular book of its time. It came after a period when European writing, particularly German writing, had grown dull and the intellectual classes were somewhat jaded and world-weary. Werther shook them up as nothing had before with its passion and its excited prose.

It's been called the most successful novel ever. Some have gone so far as to claim its success helped lead to the French Revolution. This is certainly hyperbole but it does indicate that, in the social psyche of the time, this book was more than just another tragic story of unrequited love. It came to represent the height of the Romantic era that heralded the upheavals to come.

In maturity, Goethe resented the success of the The Sorrows of Young Werther, which he had written at twenty-four, overshadowing his later, greater works. But he also recognized why the book had such wide and enduring appeal:

When considered more closely, the much discussed Werther period does not actually belong to world culture, but to the life development of every individual who, with an inborn free sense of Nature, finds himself in the cramping molds of an obsolete world and must learn to live in it. Thwarted happiness, confined activity, and unsatisfied wishes are not faults of a given period, but the problems of every single person, and it would be a bad thing if once in his life, everyone did not have a period in which he felt that Werther had been written exclusively for him.

Is this still so? The heated prose probably leads many a modern reader to skim or skip their way through The Sorrows of Young Werther. You can only take so many paragraphs of Werther rhapsodizing over his beloved or despairing over the hopelessness of his love. I'm not sure readers can still feel their frustrations in life are reflected in this overblown, if tragic, story of obsession.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is usually categorized as a novel, though its forty thousand words in German (a thousand or two more in English translations) places it right on the line between novella and novel. Its single-minded devotion to a single plot line and theme would seem to make it more a novella. But literary tradition has decided it the other way, perhaps because of its seminal place in that tradition.

— Eric


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