The Sorrows of Young Werther

Cultural impact

The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe's first major success, turning him from an unknown into a celebrated author practically overnight. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature. He thought so highly of it that he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. It also started the phenomenon known as the Werther-Fieber ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel.[5][6] It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide.

As a result of this tremendous effect, the "Werther Fever" was watched with concern by the authorities and fellow authors. One of the latter, Friedrich Nicolai, decided to create a satiric—and happier—ending called Die Freuden des jungen Werthers ("The Joys of Young Werther"), in which Albert, having realized what Werther is up to, had loaded chicken blood into the pistol, thereby foiling Werther's suicide, and happily concedes Lotte to him. After some initial difficulties, Werther sheds his passionate youthful side and reintegrates himself into society as a respectable citizen.[7]

Goethe, however, was not pleased with the Freuden and started a literary war with Nicolai (which lasted all his life) by writing a poem titled "Nicolai auf Werthers Grabe" in which Nicolai (here a passing nameless pedestrian) defecates on Werther's grave,[8] thus desecrating the memory of 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.


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