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...
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