The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Study Guide

One of the most famous - and infamous - works in the history of literature, The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe's first work of narrative art, published in 1774. The novel was perfectly timed, capturing the European imagination with its portrayal of a dangerously sensitive youth driven to suicide. It was an immediate success and launched an entire literary genre, Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), as well as the career of the modern West's first literary celebrity, Goethe. The novel was a sensation in its time - there was even a Werther perfume for a while, Eau de Werther - and has continued to inspire such works as Massanet's opera, Werther, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein (in which the Monster learns to be human by reading Werther), and Ulrich Plenzdorf's 1973 novel, The New Sufferings of Young W. It not only helped to create Romanticism, but also provided a vocabulary for adolescent turmoil that has stayed with us to this day. There would be no Catcher in the Rye and no Rebel Without a Cause without Werther.

Famously, the novel is somewhat autobiographical. In 1772, when Goethe was an obscure young legal apprentice living in Wetzlar (in which, presumably, Werther is set), he developed an impossible passion for Charlotte Buff, who was engaged to a friend of his, Kestner. The ensuing triangle proved almost impossibly painful for him, and Goethe himself explored the possibility of suicide before moving past his infatuation with Charlotte. Meanwhile, an acquaintance of Goethe's named Jeruselum, while in a similar situation of infatuation with a married woman, shot himself. Jeruselum's story fascinated Goethe, and he married his acquaintance's imagined sufferings to his own experiences, coming up with Werther. Goethe treated the writing of the short novel as a cathartic exercise, later writing that he felt refreshed, as though he had just given a "full confession" and was entitled to "new life" upon its completion. However, Goethe's novel was to have an impact disproportionate to its size. What was closure for him opened a wound in Europe's collective consciousness.

Werther's infamy stems directly from the public response to the novel. Not only was the book a bestseller, but it inspired a rash of imitative suicides. Goethe himself, in his later years, spoke of the effect of his book, comparing it to a small spark that exploded a mine full of gunpowder. He writes in his autobiography, My Life: Poetry and Truth: "The explosion Werther caused was so far-reaching because the young people of that era had already undermined themselves; and the shock was so great because everyone could now burst forth with his own exaggerated demands, unsatisfied passions, and imaginary sufferings." Goethe's era, the late eighteenth century, was primed for his "little book": the energies of youth at that time were bored by a span of relative peace, stifled by the meticulous ideals of neo-classicism, and excited by the new philosophical language of subjectivity and the morbid poetry of English literature. The genre, Sturm und Drang, single-mindedly pursues the miseries following from subjectivity, relishing the language of feeling and passion even while it explores the limits of such language, and Werther is one of the first and most famous examples of this kind of literature.

Goethe managed to capture the misery and misanthropy of his time in Werther, and as a result, life imitated his art. It is a matter of controversy exactly how many youths, dressed in Werther's blue frock coat and yellow waistcoat, were found dead by their own hands with copies of Werther in their pockets, but a few undeniably were, and their deaths furthered the stir that the novel had already engendered. Despairing romanticism found its vocabulary in Goethe's first novel, and its legendary mass-suicidal influence made Goethe a celebrity until his death, the first of his kind. Goethe himself came to despise the legions of young men who would pay him a visit only to ask the same questions, "But did Werther really live? Did it all really happen like that? Which town has the right to boast of the lovely Lotte as its citizen?" He writes in his "Second Roman Elegy": "Oh how often have I cursed those foolish pages of mine which made my youthful sufferings public property!"

Werther remains Goethe's most popular work - more popular, even, than Faust - though today's readers are likely to view the work with cooler heads than those of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The book stands (ironically, for a work obsessed with feeling and spontaneity) as a near-perfectly crafted narrative, carefully observed and expertly executed with many paradoxical details included. Not only is the work a time capsule of sorts, allowing us a glimpse into an age of unrivaled passion and morbidity, but it also transcends its time as a meditation on the extremities of youthful sorrows.