Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in the space of a few weeks in 1774, in a burst of creative energy that charged the whole work with a rare intensity. He drew upon his own experiences, and much of the work is autobiographical. Perhaps because of...
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- Critical Essays
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in the space of a few weeks in 1774, in a burst of creative energy that charged the whole work with a rare intensity. He drew upon his own experiences, and much of the work is autobiographical. Perhaps because of this, it captured a mood of the times and was greeted with great admiration and enthusiasm by the public. It was the one work that can be said to have made Goethe’s reputation; to the end of his life, he was for many readers primarily “the author of Werther.” At the same time, it was a turning point in his career, for it marked the end of his “storm and stress” period. The outburst of all-consuming emotion was followed by a quieter period, which led to his classical style of the 1780’s. Goethe himself later regarded The Sorrows of Young Werther as a kind of therapeutic expression of a dangerous side of his own personality, one that he overcame and controlled. He was appalled to find that Werther became regarded as a model of behavior, influencing men’s fashion (blue coat with yellow vest and trousers; long, unpowdered hair) and inspiring a rash of suicides all over Europe.
The immediacy of the work is, in large part, the result of its epistolary form. After a brief foreword by the fictional editor, the reader plunges straight into the world of Werther’s mind, and the style of his letters, full of exclamations, broken sentences, and impassioned flights of imagination, expresses his personality better than could any description. Throughout the novel, Werther moves from peak to peak of emotion, and the letters pick out the high points of his life. When he finally becomes too incoherent to write, the editor enters, which creates a chilling effect. The editor observes events from a distance, and his observing Werther with a sympathetic but dispassionate eye retards the headlong rush of the story. The novel possessed a further immediacy for its first readers in that it was set in their own contemporary world. The first letter is dated May 4, 1771, and from there Goethe leads the reader through that year’s summer, fall, and winter into the next year with its new hope in the spring and the final tragedy at the end of the year in midwinter. Werther shares the interests of his generation: He reads Homer, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, and Ossian; loves nature and the simple folk in the fashion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and chafes against the conventions and the fashions of aristocratic eighteenth century society.
Aside from some secondary plot elements that mirror Werther’s own predicament, especially the story of the peasant who commits murder out of frustrated love, the work is developed entirely around three characters: Werther, Lotte, and Albert. Lotte is in many ways the pivotal character, since she is placed between the two men, who are almost opposites. She is attracted to both, perhaps more to Werther than to Albert, since Werther appeals to her romantic side and she shares with him a capacity for passionate emotion that Albert lacks. When Goethe first introduces her into the narrative, she is caring for her younger brothers and sisters, the very image of responsibility and self-sacrifice. Her mother is dead, and she has taken over her duties in the family. At the party in the storm, she takes over and organizes games to quiet the fears of her companions. However poetic she may be, she has a calm head and understands that Werther is hopelessly impractical in his emotion-centered life. Albert is a good husband and father, a bit dry perhaps and overly rational, but dependable, devoted, and clearheaded. Lotte, a complex character, would like to have both men in her life. While Werther is certainly the most directly autobiographical of the characters, Lotte is perhaps closer to Goethe’s own personality, combining the practical, responsible traits that would find expression in his official activities in Weimar with the poetic imagination that constantly drew him back into the world of literature. This union of opposites is a common feature of Goethe’s work, from Faust: Eine Tragödie (1808; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823)—“two souls dwell, alas, within my breast”—to Wilhelm, who wants to be an actor but becomes a doctor instead.
From the very beginning, Goethe distinguished his own character from that of Werther. Indeed, The Sorrows of Young Werther is more a judgment on the dangers of emotion than an incitement to emulation. The novel is, in fact, a tragedy of character, for the unhappy romance is not the cause of Werther’s tragedy. From the very beginning, as Werther exclaims “what a thing is the heart of man,” his situation is clear. Werther is important as one of the first modern tragic figures for whom his own personality, not events, is the tragedy. The conflict rests within him, and the world merely provides the occasion for his inner conflict to express itself. He embodies a life-spirit that strives for the absolute and the unconditional, which is carried forward by a stream of emotion that seizes on life and constantly transforms it into an inner experience of great intensity. His life is centered on his own emotions and drawn inward as in a whirlpool. There is no compensating outward flow in the form of activity or other-directedness, no objective pole that can counter the all-transforming subjectivity. It is the spirit of Faust, or of Goethe’s tragic poet-figure Torquato Tasso. It is the spirit that he sees as the inevitable consequence of the emotion-centered Sturm und Drang, or “storm and stress,” writers, not a few of whom ended in madness or in suicide. In Werther, Goethe created perhaps the most memorable representative of this tragic type, the embodiment of one extreme of the human personality. In his subsequent work, Goethe continued to keep this aspect of himself alive, to provide the motive force for a series of masterpieces. The Sorrows of Young Werther itself became the inspiration for a host of Romantic writers in Germany, England, and France, and thus represents a landmark in European literature.