Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

by Johann Goethe

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Short Fiction Analysis

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did not invent the novella, or short fiction, genre in German literature, though he is rightfully given credit as its first master. Before Goethe, no German writer had given serious thought to composing a crafted fictional work. Initially, Goethe borrowed his materials. It is in his adaptations, however, that these sources became transformed. In short fiction, Goethe’s method usually followed the example of Giovanni Boccaccio, with his frame method of telling a series of stories within a social context. This appealed to Goethe’s sense of formal integrity, or effecting of unity. Even in his novels, Goethe often interpolates short stories into his narratives, where they function largely to amplify the central theme.

It can be said that in Goethe’s short fiction no two stories are ever quite alike, some of them being parabolic; others, psychological or sociological; a few, fables; still others, allegories. At times, Goethe is highly symbolic; at others, not so at all. His stories are often dilemma-centered and, consequently, demanding of resolution. If any overarching similarity exists in these stories, it may rest in the theme of love. In one story or another, love in one of its guises is surely present, whether of man for man, of man and woman for each other, or of human love for nature’s world.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther represents Goethe’s entry into the realm of short fiction, here in the form of the novella. The plot is essentially uneventful; the protagonist, Werther, is engaged in writing after-the-fact letters to his friend Wilhelm, describing the waning fortunes of his enamoredness for the engaged, and later married, Lotte, daughter of a town official. Werther, realizing that his passion is an impossible one, seeks egress through diplomatic service elsewhere. Things do not go well even with a move, however, and he finds himself snubbed for his middle-class origins. He returns to his town, only to find that Lotte has married Albert. Distraught, Werther contemplates suicide. On a final visit to Lotte during Albert’s absence, they read together from Macpherson’s Ossian, and, overcome with the plight of the poem’s anguished lovers, Werther kisses Lotte, who becomes alarmed and refuses to see him again. Werther leaves. Lotte’s intimation of impending tragedy is confirmed later that evening when Werther takes his life.

Goethe was only twenty-four when he wrote this work, which would find its way into every European salon. Like nearly everything he wrote, the story has autobiographical roots; Goethe and Werther share even the same birthday. Goethe had been in love with Charlotte Buff, the fiancé of another man, named Kestner. Like Werther, Goethe left the community to escape his passion. He had also contemplated suicide, and he made that part of the story upon learning of the suicide of an acquaintance, an attaché named Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. Jerusalem had fallen in love with a married woman and had undergone social snubbing.

Despite their parallel experiences, however, it is important to distinguish Goethe from his protagonist. Goethe intends a psychological portraiture of a mind in distress, moving inexorably toward self-destruction. Goethe, who in many ways possessed the “two souls” of rationality and intuition, is admonishing readers to avoid excesses of passion, which can render beautiful feelings into ugliness when no limits are imposed. Although there is much in this novella that is characteristic of the lyrical Goethe—the rhapsodizing of spring, for example—Goethe’s emphasis is clear: Feelings have potential for producing good, but because the line between good and evil is not always a clear one, danger abounds. The Sorrows of Young Werther begins...

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as a story of love; it ends as a story of death.

Historically, the importance of this early work lies in its departure from eighteenth century norms of rationality, with their proscriptions of objective criteria, particularly as to language. The Sorrows of Young Werther is powerfully told through imagery, not abstraction. While there were other epistolary novels in the century, this work gave readers an unparalleled look at an individual character, thus anticipating the modern novel, with its interior, or psychological, rendering.

Though he was very young at the time that he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe also shows himself in command of form: The novella divides into two parts having an ironic relationship. The first part deals with Werther’s arrival up to his departure from the town and anticipates the tragedy of the second part. Both parts involve escape, one by going away, the other by self-inflicted gunshot. Neither escape proves to be a proper resolution. The telling irony of this novella is that Werther wants his suicide to represent the ultimate altruism of self-sacrifice. On the contrary, it represents the ultimate egotism. A sterile act, it changes nothing. Genuine love sacrifices by yielding, not by abrogating. Readers may be sorry for Werther, but they cannot absolve him.

Each part is also orchestrated in terms of the seasons. In the first part, it is spring and summer; in the second, autumn and winter. The seasons reflect the cycles of maturation and decline, birth and death. Hence they amplify the course of the novella’s action.

“The Fairy Tale”

“Das Märchen” (“The Fairy Tale”) reflects Goethe’s fondness for the German folklore tradition. This tale, or Erzählung, originally appeared in Conversations of German Emigrants, comprising stories that Goethe wrote as imaginative pieces requiring the suspension of disbelief for their enjoyment. In this type of story, anything can happen and usually does. If the reader will be patient with the story, theme always emerges, for the archetypal elements are never lacking.

In “The Fairy Tale,” a river divides two realms. A ferryman transports passengers from the east bank to the west bank. A giant’s shadow returns visitors to the east bank. Those traveling westward visit Lily, whose realm suggests death. A Serpent, in this tale a heroic creature, sacrifices itself to make a bridge for the wayfarers from the east bank, or the realm of life. The story is replete with polarities, not only between East and West but also between light and darkness, the living and the dead, vegetables and minerals. Paradoxes extend to characters. The same Lily whose touch can kill can also restore life. The Man-with-the-Lamp, who comes from the East, appears to represent truth, which is that superlative goals can be reached only through collective effort, or self-abnegation. The Lily, however beautiful, cannot function meaningfully until the Prince (another character) dies willingly in her embrace, or as an act of love. Without love, life is sterility; existence, death. With the Serpent’s act of self-sacrifice, a bridge is built. Separation ceases between the realms. Pilgrims move freely. The journey is life. Life (the East) and Death (the West) are reconciled in the context of existence lived in love (the bridge). Meanings abound in a story as symbolic as this: Each is necessary to the other (the sociological); love is the one true regenerative power (the moral); Nature is paradoxically both destroyer and procreator (the mythic).


Along with “The Fairy Tale,” Novelle is the most renowned of Goethe’s short fictions. Here, a princess takes an excursion into the countryside to see the ruins of a family castle destined to be restored. She is accompanied by the squire, Honorio, while her husband is away on a hunt. Proceeding initially through the town marketplace, they notice a caged tiger and lion surrounded by attention-getting placards focused on their ferocity, though the animals appear docile enough to the casual observer. As the day unfolds, a fire breaks out in the town, and the Princess turns back, only to encounter the tiger, who has escaped (along with the lion) in the aftermath of the fire. The tiger, which follows her, is killed by Honorio. At this point, a woman and her flute-playing son appear, protesting the killing of the “tamed” tiger. (She and her husband own the tiger and lion.) Soon, the Prince and his party, attracted by the fire, meet the Princess and spy the dead tiger. Just then, the woman’s husband appears and begs the Prince to spare the life of the lion, who is nearby. The Prince agrees to this if it can be done safely. Playing his flute and singing his song, the child meets the escaped lion and woos him to his lap, before removing a thorn from one of its paws. The story ends with the child continuing his song with its admonition to employ love and melody to tame the wild.

This story, simple in format, is complex when it comes to interpretation. Like much of what Goethe wrote in his last years, the story is highly symbolic. It is certain that the story, on one level, involves the mutual animosity of humans and nature. Ironically, however, it is human beings who prove to be the aggressors, hence the appropriateness of the story’s opening with the hunting expedition. In this connection, the motif of appearance and reality functions pervasively. That the tiger and lion prove docile and the humans aggressive suggests that humans have not yet come to terms with their own repressed animality. In short, the story may be seen to have sociological implications: societies and nations preying upon each other. Through the child’s song, Goethe hints at the source of man’s healing of the internal “thorn”: the transforming power of love, which can render antagonist into friend. Goethe is on the side of the peasantry in this tale, and herein lies an ecological theme as well. The owners of the tiger and lion succeed over nature, not through the power of a gun, but through the dynamic of empathy. Their simple, harmonious lives provide a model for humans’ proper relation to the natural world.


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