Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is an iconic work of European literature for many reasons. It put German literature on the map and made an instant celebrity of its young author. It dealt with the tortured inner life of a sensitive, frustrated man with an explicitness and raw emotion in a way that perhaps no work other than Shakespeare's Hamlet had done. And though written in the 1770s, it anticipated the Romanticism of the nineteenth century and in became the model for much, if not most, literature dealing with themes of loneliness, frustration, depression, and unusual psychological states.
The content can be analyzed on one level as simply a story of unrequited love. Werther's love for Lotte, who is engaged to another man, is hopeless from the start. But a deeper analysis reveals that Werther is unable to find fulfillment of any kind in life. He is a restless idealist, not conforming to society's demands as he seeks some unattainable goal. The moment he first sees Lotte he's overwhelmed by the picture of innocence she presents while cutting slices of bread for her little brothers and sisters. He attends a party with her and others, and when he parts from her he reflects that his whole life has been transformed. He is already so obsessively in love with her that he says:
since that time the sun, moon and stars can calmly go about their business, but I don't know whether it is day or night, and the whole world has become lost to me.
His obsession continues despite—or even perhaps because of—her being engaged to another man. It's as if he revels in the hopelessness of his love and embraces the stark difference he feels exists between himself and other people. Werther is a prototype of the Other.
Goethe's linguistic style is simple and direct, but paradoxically it is also extravagant and emotional—though nearly all prose from the period, in whatever language, is florid and emotional by present-day standards. A focal point of the narrative is a scene where Werther reads to Lotte his translations of Ossian. The Ossian poems, actually written by Goethe's contemporary James Macpherson, had recently been published as purported translations of poetry by an ancient Gaelic bard. The lyrical, emotional and mysterious tone of these poems had become a sensation with the public, and Goethe's use of them in Werther is a rhetorical device to connect his story to one already known to his first readers. When Werther reads his translations to Lotte, she and he both burst into tears. In his despair he throws himself on his knees before her, but she tells him:
This is the last time! Werther! You will not see me again.
From this point, Werther sees no reason to go on living, and he eventually puts a bullet in his head.
One further thing of linguistic significance is that throughout, Lotte continues to address Werther with the formal second-person Sie, rather than du, in spite of the fact that they have become close friends. This is partly because in the eighteenth century there was in general a much greater formality with regard to the use of the second-person than there is today. At the time children addressed even their parents with the formal Sie. But it is also a constant signal, throughout the text, of how hopeless Werther's dream of intimacy with Lotte is. Altogether, the novel is a despairing portrayal of a man unable to fit into society and constantly seeking the unattainable.