The Sorrows of Young Werther

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Werther, a man of some means, flees the complexities of life by taking refuge in the countryside. There he indulges his exuberant imagination by immersing himself in the idyllic delights of his natural surroundings. His happiness reaches new heights when he meets Lotte, a charming young girl who is, however,...

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Werther, a man of some means, flees the complexities of life by taking refuge in the countryside. There he indulges his exuberant imagination by immersing himself in the idyllic delights of his natural surroundings. His happiness reaches new heights when he meets Lotte, a charming young girl who is, however, engaged to a likable but unimaginative local official. Werther’s ecstatic love soon tortures both himself and Lotte as it begins to conflict with the norms of polite society.

When his overwrought sentiments make his stay more and more untenable, Werther accepts a position at the court of one of Germany’s small principalities. Yet bureaucratic narrow-mindedness and social snobbery soon drive him back to Lotte. Unable to compromise his desperate emotions in any way, Werther prepares himself for the unavoidable catastrophe, which is reported by the fictional editor of Werther’s letters at the end of the novel.

For decades, this comparatively short book, the first psychological novel in German literature and its first international best-seller, mesmerized young people all over Europe. It succeeded in articulating the social predicament of a whole generation that found itself cut off by an antiquated political system from channeling its high sentiments into the arena of social responsibility. As Werther’s fate exemplifies, unbridled emotions divorced from any impact on reality have to become self-destructive.

What gives this novel its continuing appeal, in contrast to so many similar books of that period, is that Goethe allows readers to view his hero from the perspective of a sympathetic but not uncritical detachment. The sufferings of young Werther are not idealized as a desirable way of life; they are displayed both as a warning to the young and a protest against their elders.

Bibliography:

Dieckmann, Liselotte. Johann Wolfgang Goethe. New York: Twayne, 1974. Discusses the versatility Goethe displayed in his poetry, drama, novels, and tales, and includes a longer discussion of his masterwork, Faust. Places the writer’s oeuvre within its historical framework, particularly with regard to the impact of the French Revolution and the influence of Goethe’s friendship with Friedrich Schiller.

Hatfield, Henry. Goethe: A Critical Introduction. New York: New Directions, 1963. Discusses Goethe’s influence on later writers. Includes focus on the epistolary novel and the sociological impact of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Reiss, Hans. Goethe’s Novels. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1969. In-depth review of Goethe’s earlier novels, with a comprehensive discussion of The Sorrows of Young Werther as being representative of Goethe’s involvement in the so-called storm-and-stress movement. Compares the novels thematically.

Schweitzer, Albert. Goethe: Four Studies. Translated by Charles R. Joy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1949. Of interest because the book reveals parallels between Goethe and Schweitzer, who admired Goethe’s simple philosophy of nature and his views on natural science and ethics.

Trevelyan, Humphrey. Goethe and the Greeks. New York: Octagon, 1972. Reveals the enormous influence of classical and neoclassical thought and mythology on the work of Goethe. Includes in particular a discussion of the importance of Homer’s work for the character of Werther.

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