(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The first great popular success of Goethe’s career was The Sorrows of Young Werther. It is a sentimental and psychological novel in letter form, influenced by Samuel Richardson, an eighteenth century English novelist famous for his epistolary novels. The letter-writing style is a natural genre for Goethe, whose writings are filled with biographical and autobiographical elements.

The character, Lotte, to whom the protagonist, Werther, is irrevocably drawn was inspired by Goethe’s unhappy infatuation with Charlotte (“Lotte”) Buff, the fiancé of his friend G. C. Kestner. Goethe met Lotte during his summer stay in Wetzlar in 1772. The end of the novel, with Werther pulling the trigger of the gun pointed at his head, was most probably prompted by the tragic fate of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, secretary of the Brunswick ambassador, who committed suicide in October, 1772, after a public reprimand and the subsequent ostracism from aristocratic circles for his infatuation with the wife of a colleague.

In the letters to his friend, Goethe’s character, Werther, describes the joy and agony of his love for Lotte. She also feels the attraction but is betrothed to Albert, whom she subsequently marries. Werther befriends Lotte’s husband but is convinced that Albert’s love for Lotte is not as deep as his own. After a passionate embrace with his beloved, the chaos and excruciating turmoil in his heart become unbearable for Werther. He asks...

(The entire section is 425 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Young Werther, leaving home, writes to his friend Wilhelm to describe the secluded region where he went to forget the unhappiness of his earlier years. He discovered a pleasant cottage surrounded by a lovely garden, and he felt that in this peaceful retreat he could live in happy solitude forever. A few days later, he reports that his soul recovered in his rustic surroundings. He does not want books or the companionship of his old friends, for he is transported into a new world of kinship with nature. He mentions a nearby hamlet, Walheim, and the village inn where he can drink good coffee, sit in solitude, and read the works of Homer. Several letters to Wilhelm continue describing Werther’s simple life among scenes of natural beauty.

Suddenly there is a break in his letters, followed by the announcement that he met an angel. At a ball, he was introduced to Charlotte S., the daughter of a judge who retired to a hunting lodge not far from Walheim. Charlotte is a beautiful and charming girl, and despite her being betrothed to another young man, who was not present at the ball, Werther fell deeply in love with her at first sight.

Perhaps his passion became all the deeper because he was warned not to fall in love with her. At the dance, Werther demanded much of her attention, and he began to ask her about Albert, her fiancé, when a storm suddenly interrupted the dance. The host led the guests into a room protected by curtains and shutters. There they played a game called counting. Once Werther kissed Charlotte’s hands. When the party broke up at sunrise, he took her to her home through a dazzling world of raindrops and morning sun. From that time on, he called every day on Lotte, as he refers to her in his letters. He grieved over their separation when she went to attend a sick woman. One day, he went with her to visit an old pastor; he noted that her youthful presence seemed to bring new life to the old man.

Because he could not bear to have her out of his sight, Werther began to object to the time Lotte gave to sick friends and other acquaintances. A glimpse of her as she rode away on some errand was enough to set his head spinning and his heart beating wildly. If her finger accidentally touched his, the blood pounded through his veins. He confesses to his friend that he did little of the painting he had intended; all of his time is consumed with his love for Charlotte.

After he receives Wilhelm’s advice either to press his suit with Lotte or to relinquish his hopeless...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)