The Sorrows of Young Werther

Aristocratic and Bourgeois Ideology in The Sorrows of Young Werther College

Literary critics such as Karl Grun and Johannes Scherr have propped up Johann Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther as revolutionary social criticism that paved the way for many of the rebellions in 1848 – Grun even arguing that the novel prepared the grounds for the French Revolution. But as one of the most prominent figures of sentimentality in Western literature, Werther is difficult to construe as a social critic without acknowledging the barrier his affect presents in taking on such a role. Friedrich Engels even accused Grun of “confusing genuine social criticism with Werther’s lamentations about the discrepancy between bourgeois reality and his equally bourgeois illusion. Werther, says Engels, is a ‘schwarmerischer Tranensack’ (dreamy lachrymal sack)” (Duncan 76).

Can we, then, denounce the criticism Werther voices as not genuine because of his bourgeois identification and his self-serving vision of social order? Can we understand the grumbling of a “dreamy lachrymal sack” as social commentary? Although Engel raises legitimate concerns surrounding a critical reading of The Sorrows of Young Werther, we dilute the significance of a series of letters Werther dedicates to deriding his aristocratic company in the second half...

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