Reviewing a classic – The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Paperback: 144 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics; 11th edition (August 1, 1989)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 014044503X
ISBN-13: 978-0140445039
genre: romance

About the author:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (born 28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German writer and polymath. Along with Schiller he is considered the supreme genius of modern German literature, especially when it comes to a movement called Weimar Classicism (late 18th and early 19th centuries). Goethe’s works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, philosophy, and science (well, he was a polymath for a reason). His Faust has been called the greatest long poem of modern European literature. Goethe’s other well-known literary works include his numerous poems, the Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe was also the author of scientific texts such as Theory of Colours and his ideas concerning plant and animal morphology were a base on which other naturalists, including Charles Darwin, built their theories and careers. He also served as the Privy Councillor of the duchy of Saxe-Weimar.

Synopsis (with some personal history of the author):

The Sorrows of Young Werther is comprised, for the most part, of letters written by a hopelessly romantic young man named Werther to a friend named Wilhelm with the addition of editorial notes (those notes try to balance the inveitable drawbacks of first-person narrative). Werther, a sensitive young man of some means, flees the complexities of life by taking refuge in the countryside. There he indulges his imagination by immersing himself in the idyllic delights of untained nature. His happiness reaches new heights when he meets Lotte, a charming sweet-natured young girl, a daughter of a local town dignitary . Soon he finds out that Lotte is engaged to a likable but unimaginative local official, Albert, currently absent. Werther’s ecstatic love soon tortures both himself and Lotte as it begins to conflict with the norms of polite society. Is Lotte too naive to understand that in Werther she has acquired an ardent admirer, not a friend? Is she aware of his easily-inflamed fascination, or the violent depths of his stifled emotions? Is she oblivious or heartless to his passionate despair once her fiance has returned? Just how long can she juggle two lovers, or even control her own dainty heart–which Goethe chastely and tantalizingly hides from us?

Werther’s pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend on the day when the entire aristocratic set normally meets there. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther’s recitationof a portion of “Ossian’. Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them — Lotte, Albert or himself — had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else Werther decides to take his own life. After composing a farewell letter, he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretext of going “on a journey”. Lotte receives the request with great emotion but sends the pistols. Werther shoots himself in the head, but dies only 12 hours after he has shot himself. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral is not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.

The whole story was based on true events. Goethe himself met a very lovely girl called Charlotte Buff, at a ball in Wetzlar, where he arrived looking for a job after finishing his studies. During the summer of 1772 a close friendship developed between Charlotte, Goethe and Christian Kestner (her fiancé). Charlotte was eventually obliged to tell Goethe plainly that he must not expect her to return his feelings. At seven o’clock on the morning of September 11th Goethe quit the town without warning. Away with friends in Koblencz, Goethe heard of the suicide of his former acquaintance at Wetzlar, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. In September 1771 Jerusalem had taken a job in Wetzlar as secretary to von Hoefler, an ambassador. He was of an artistic disposition, and had been cold-shouldered by Wetzlar’s high society. Goethe returned to the town to find out the details of Jerusalem’s death. He asked Kestner for a written account, on which he was to base the final pages of his novel. Goethe later described the writing of the work as the business of four weeks, during which time he proceeded with the unconscious certainty of a sleepwalker, and specifically spoke of it as a “confesion”.

What I liked:

This book not only details Werther’s doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte, it also contains the most beautiful meditations on just about everything important in life: love, beauty, nature, philosophy, art, religion. The opening scenes of the story with their description of landscapes exude the highest philosophical ideals of the time and offers an excellent insight into the workings of the Romantic mind.

Goethe seems to have put a lot of himself into this novel. To love and to have lost someone to death is one thing. To love and to have the beloved betray your love is quite something else. But to love and to know that you can never consummate it, to distance yourself from the very thing you draw life from is unbearable for Werther. The story itself is simple enough, but the varying degrees of Werther’s pain explore the depths of human depression. Goethe’s insights into human emotion are right on the mark, and he expresses them in haunting and moving language. He shows us the problems inherent in loving and idealizing something a bit too much.

The novel is also a sensitive exploration of the psychopathology of a gifted but ill-adjusted young man (no, emos haven’t been invented yesterday). The letter form expresses well one-sided and lonely communication, also interposing an ironic distance between the reader and Werther, which makes this book a work of exhilarating style and insight.

What I didn’t like:

The primary problems I had with the work were the repetitiveness of Werther’s self-pitying missives and a certain incredulity connected to his state of mind. In the final analysis, a persistent feeling that Werther was silly and unjustified in his fixation and self-indulgent in wallowing, dulled significantly the impact of his fate. I couldn’t sympathize with Werther falling for a woman who clearly states that she is already involved with another man. I kept waiting for him to finally shoot himself, and when he did my feeling was, “thank god, no more self-pitying”.

I think I also struggled against Goethe’s ideal of female perfection – a woman whose biggest asset is the fact that she can act like a mother to her siblings after the death of their mother, sounding all the time really average and dull. To tell you the truth this paragon of feminie virtue appears more sensual and maternal than truly sexual but those were the times and paragons (sigh).

Finally the language was a bit too flowery for modern standards.

Final verdict:

Highly recommendable. A cornerstone of Romantic literature that inspired many poets, it should be a key text for anyone studying the genre. Short and sweet – perfect for a summer read, but not to those who have recently gone through a rather painful break-up.

Goethe in Italy


There would be far less suffering amongst mankind, if men — and God knows why they are so fashioned — did not employ their imaginations so assiduously in recalling the memory of past sorrow, instead of bearing their present lot with equanimity.

All extraordinary men, who have accomplished great and astonishing actions, have ever been decried by the world as drunken or insane.

Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness.

GOETHE, The Sorrows of Young Werther
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7 Responses to Reviewing a classic – The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Your reviews are just so good! I kind of wished I didn't write my reviews in 15 min

  2. anachronist says:

    Thanks Blodeuedd you make me blush!

  3. Um… isn't this really a romance? A doomed and depressing romance, but still considered one? ;)I agree with Blodeuedd… your reviews are so good. I've always loved Goethe's quotes, but haven't really stopped to read one of his stories. This one would be too depressing for me. Especially if you are rooting for Werther to end it all. O.o

  4. Very interesting. The feminine ideal back then was ridiculous.

  5. anachronist says:

    Well, Melissa 'The Sorrows…' are usually described as an epistolary novel and/or loose autobiography, without any further specifications. After reading it I consider it to be a psychological romance cum tragedy but still mainly romance.Brooke I couldn't agree more- thanks for a visit!

  6. I have yet to read Goethe but I am not sure this novel will be the one I read if I ever do. It is so impractical involving yourself with someone who is betrothed. It is a legally binding contract; the marriage itself is little more than a formality. Considering how hard society was on women who break their troth (like Anna Karenina), it is tempting fate to involve yourself with an engaged woman. I can't say that I partilcularly like the Romantics.

  7. anachronist says:

    I agree that Werther was an oversensitive, wallowing hero, difficult to relate to. He tempted fate and got his comeuppance, especially that Lotta belonged to that sensible kind of women. It is a novel, though, which started a kind of frenzy and was an immense success in Germany and abroad. Goethe captured the malaise of "Weltschmertz" (world-weariness) influencing young people so much that some of them copied Werther and committed suicide for no reason at all.

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