Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 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...

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