The Sorrows of Young Werther

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)