The Sorrows of Young Werther (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


The literary sensation The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) launched its twenty-five year old author on the world stage overnight. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel gave voice to young bourgeois intellectuals who despaired of finding fulfillment and authenticity in a hierarchical, convention-bound society.

In the novel, Werther, a social rebel with artistic leanings, falls in love with Lotte, a young woman who is already engaged to Werther's ...
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The Sorrows of Young Werther (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


The literary sensation The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) launched its twenty-five year old author on the world stage overnight. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel gave voice to young bourgeois intellectuals who despaired of finding fulfillment and authenticity in a hierarchical, convention-bound society.

In the novel, Werther, a social rebel with artistic leanings, falls in love with Lotte, a young woman who is already engaged to Werther's friend, the stolid Albert. In a spiral of extravagantly self-destructive behavior and torment, Werther pays the ultimate price for his illicit passion.
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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a towering figure in European culture, a living monument to whom countless other writers and intellectuals made pilgrimages. Author of literary masterpieces such as the drama Faust (1803 and 1832), the Roman Elegies (1795), and the novels Elective Affinities (1809) and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795), Goethe was also a scientist who produced an influential color theory in response to Newton and did important work in the fields of geology, botany, and anatomy; an able statesman and administrator at the court of Weimar; and a theorist and collector of art.
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Introduction

A literary sensation that launched its twenty-five year old author on the world stage overnight, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) gave voice to a crisis in subjectivity that was shared by Goethe and other young bourgeois intellectuals of his generation who despaired of finding fulfillment and authenticity in a hierarchical, convention-bound society. That generation saw itself mirrored in a book. Werther, a social rebel with artistic leanings, falls in love with Lotte, a young woman who is already engaged to Werther's friend, the stolid Albert. In a spiral of extravagantly self-destructive behavior and torment, Werther pays the ultimate price for his illicit passion, and dramatically stages his own suicide down to the last detail, shooting himself on Christmas Eve with Albert's pistols. Werther dies after twelve hours of agonizing suffering. His absolute alienation from society is registered by the stark final words of the novel, which reduce a character who is all sensibility and feeling to a lifeless unnamed thing: "The body was carried by laborers. No priest attended."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) went on to become a towering figure in European culture, a living monument to whom countless other writers and intellectuals made pilgrimages. Author of literary masterpieces such as the drama Faust (1803 and 1832), the Roman Elegies (1795), and the novels Elective Affinities (1809) and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795), Goethe was also a scientist who produced an influential color theory in response to Newton and did important work in the fields of geology, botany, and anatomy; an able statesman and administrator at the court of Weimar; and a theorist and collector of art. Despite the lifetime of intense productivity and achievement that followed the publication of Werther, the psychologically unhinged young man he had created forever haunted Goethe. From the moment of the book's publication, readers scrutinized his personal life for parallels to Werther's, enraging Goethe, though indeed he also confessed that he had nourished the novel "like a pelican, with his own blood." One of the most famous testimonies to the novel's success is Napoleon's admission to Goethe, when the two men met in Erfurt in 1808, that he had read Werther no fewer than seven times, and had even taken it with him on his Egyptian campaign.

The shocking plot that unfolds in The Sorrows of Young Werther is based on real events in Goethe's circle. An acquaintance of Goethe's, the young civil servant Karl W. Jerusalem (1747-1772), committed suicide over his unrequited love for the wife of a friend. The event deeply distressed Goethe, who himself, a young lawyer in the same small town, Wetzlar, and in the same year, 1772, had developed an attachment to an engaged woman, his older friend Johann Christian Kestner's fiancée, Charlotte Buff (1753-1828). Kestner, whose pistol Jerusalem had used in the suicide, composed an account of the circumstances surrounding Jerusalem's death and shared it with his circle of friends. Goethe used many details from this report for his own literary reckoning with suicidal love. Unlike both Jerusalem and Werther, however, Goethe purged himself of the dangerous passion through the cathartic act of writing the novel. In conversation with Eckermann, in 1824, Goethe claimed that he had only read the novel once since its publication-a striking remark from an author who generally enjoyed revisiting his own works. A second edition of the novel, which Goethe completed when he was established in Weimar in 1786, having put the emotional turmoil of his relationship with Lotte Buff and Jerusalem's suicide firmly in the past, more explicitly pathologizes Werther's behavior while portraying Albert in a more positive light. A new subplot, which involves a farm boy who falls in love with his married employer and murders his rival, is also added.

The Sorrows of Young Werther, which Goethe completed in three months, became an instant bestseller with cult dimensions. The novel's reception was as sensational as its plot, triggering what became known as Wertherfieber or Wertherwahn (Werther fever and Werther madness). Goethe himself characterized it as an incendiary work. By 1800, the book had been translated into most European languages. It inspired passionate reactions-from enthusiastic emulation, to satire, to moral outrage and fanatical rejection. Goethe biographer Nicholas Boyle notes that Werther is even the favorite reading material of Mary Shelley's monster in Frankenstein. Werther emulators made midnight pilgrimages to the grave of Karl Jerusalem in Wetzlar, continuing the ritual well into the nineteenth century when the grave was no longer marked. Literary responses known as Wertheriaden circulated widely, among them a 1775 parody entitled The Joys of Young Werther, in which Albert substitutes the bullets with chicken blood and Werther and Lotte marry and have a child, by the Enlightenment philosopher Christoph Friedrich Nicolai. Orthodox theologians condemned The Sorrows of Young Werther for its alleged celebration of suicide, which in this period was criminalized and considered by Christians a grave offense, and called for the novel to be censored. In 1775, with the authorities fearing a suicide epidemic, the novel was banned from sale in the city of Leipzig. Indeed, it appears that the novel did have a lethal outcome, producing sufficient numbers of "copy-cat" suicides that Goethe prefaced a second edition of the novel with the warning: "Be a man, and do not follow my actions!" Even Werther's eccentric clothing-his blue coat worn over a yellow vest and yellow trousers, which he is also wearing when he commits suicide-became an oppositional fashion trend that was instantly recognizable and widely worn by young people who, like their hero, wanted to register their discontent with the status quo. Goethe himself wore the outfit when he made his début at the Weimar court in 1775. These clothes, which broke with the norms of court dress, had much the same connotations as the blue jeans and t-shirts of mid-twentieth century America. Ironically, however-like so many provocative counter-culture fashions-the costume itself became a style accessory that permeated upper-class European society. Werther merchandise soon flooded the marketplace: Scenes from the novel decorated porcelain, fans, and even buttons; silhouettes of "Lotte" circulated; a perfume was named after Goethe's hero (eau de Werther); and the Werthertracht (Werther costume) could be seen in the pages of fashion magazines. Probably Goethe's most popular work, The Sorrows of Young Werther continued to have a wide resonance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The tragic story of Werther and Lotte was adapted into opera, puppet theater, and even a firework show. Jules Massenet composed his opera Werther in 1892. Thomas Mann based his ironic novel Lotte in Weimar (1939), on a visit that the elderly Charlotte Kestner (née Buff) made to Goethe in 1816 (her reception by the great man was decidedly frosty). In the German Democratic Republic, Ulrich Plenzdorf recorded the discontent of a generation in a new version of Goethe's novel, The New Sorrows of Young W. (1972).

Goethe's novel, as we have seen, inspired an unprecedented, passionate kind of involvement by its audience. The experience of reading is central to Goethe's novel, both on the part of its protagonist and of its readership. Not only is Werther himself dangerously addicted to books, but the reader of the novel is also drawn into the complete identification with the protagonist, thus paralleling Werther's reception of literature. The novel is structured as a series of letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm. A popular form in the eighteenth century, the epistolary novel promises direct access to letter-writers' inner life and emotions, an intimate confession to the recipient of the letters. It is also a dialogical form, based on the give and take of letters between correspondents. The epistolary form of Goethe's novel, however, contains a brilliant twist: The responder's voice is missing. With the pragmatic Wilhelm absent from the exchange, the reader is placed in the position of stand-in. For an eighteenth-century audience accustomed to the clear moral evaluation of novels' plots by commenting narrators, this is a radical new experience: The reader is placed in the position of having to "read" into the unmediated subjectivity of Werther and of making his or her own judgments concerning the narrator's monologizing voice and his actions. Having identified so completely with Werther, readers are confronted with interpreting the profoundly disturbing suicide. This first-person narrative form also brilliantly expresses the intense subjectivity of the literary movement known as Empfindsamkeit (Sentimentality) as well as the emotional aspects of the Pietist religious movement. As Werther loses touch with the world, his narrative becomes increasingly overwrought and incoherent. The intrusion by the editor at the end decisively breaks with the tone of novel and jolts the reader back into the position of "society" confronted with the irrational behavior of Werther.

The novel thus highlights the reader's experience as a reader. Secondly, Werther himself is addicted to books. This passion, arguably, dominates even the "natural" passion that he feels for Lotte. Powerless in the face of aristocratic social structures, the young bourgeois Werther ostensibly values the "natural" over the "artificial," celebrating nature, intimate friendship, and feeling over artificial court life, and rejecting as well the complacent bourgeois world, with its emphasis on conformity. Two letters on nature, however, indicate Werther's increasing alienation even from that realm. Early in the novel, on May 10, Werther rhapsodizes about his peaceable "oneness" within the womb of nature and describes himself as a kind of refractive device in which nature mirrors itself: "When the lovely valley teems with vapor around me, and the meridian sun strikes the upper surface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees. . .then I throw myself down in the tall grass by the trickling stream and as I lie close to the earth a thousand unknown plants discover themselves to me." By his letter of August 18, nature has become a torturer: "Nature has formed nothing that does not consume itself and every object near it; so that, surrounded by earth and air and all the active powers, I wander on my way with an aching heart, and the universe is to me a fearful monster, forever devouring its own offspring." Though he yearns for intimacy with nature and with other human beings, Werther exhibits a self-absorbed passion with distinctly sadistic overtones: In the last sentences of the novel, as Benjamin Bennett has pointed out, even Werther's dead body continues an assault upon Lotte: "Charlotte's life was despaired of."

Werther's claim of originality is itself--like that of the sensitive young men who imitated Werther's "authentic" clothing and language in droves--deeply contradictory. Constantly proclaiming that intense emotion is the gateway to artistic expression--the word that dominates the novel is "heart"--Werther remains a dilettantish copyist, for the only art he creates are sketches and silhouettes. Moreover, those emotions themselves are always mediated by his reading. The "natural" Werther is largely a persona constructed from and through his reading, and shows the influence of other important eighteenth-century sentimental authors such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Richardson, and Oliver Goldsmith. In his alienation and embracing of human anguish, Werther repeatedly quotes from Christ's words (for example, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"), and the suffering alluded to in the novel's title is a clear and self-aggrandizing reference to Christ's passion (in German, Leiden). Werther's first vision of idyllic bliss, when he glimpses Lotte going about her quiet daily routines, is mediated by his readings of Homer--whom he narcissistically appropriates, as he does other authors, as "my Homer." For Werther, Homer is a kind of primitive bard, though the simple life symbolized in the image of Lotte slicing bread for her younger siblings (letter of June 16) also resembles the idyllic parsonage life of Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield. When Werther's passion for Lotte has intensified and darkened, a long passage in the novel is devoted to direct quotation from the poet Ossian, an ancient Gaelic bard whom the Scottish author James Macpherson (1736-1796) claimed to have rediscovered. (Ironically, Macpherson had perpetrated one of the great literary forgeries-a fact that was established in 1805, but not before Ossian's brooding, elegiac sensibility and overwrought rhetoric had been enthusiastically adopted by much of the European literary scene. Significantly, Werther and Lotte read Ossian before they part for the last time.) Even Werther's affinity with the natural world is revealed as literary. When he and Lotte experience the sublime grandeur of a thunderstorm at the end of a spring ball, Lotte responds with the single word "Klopstock!" It is that word, not the thunderstorm, that reduces them to tears and that encourages Werther to kiss Lotte for the first time (June 16). (The German poet Friedrich Gottlob Klopstock [1724-1803] was famous for his rhapsodic hymns, including "Frühlingsfeier," a poem in celebration of spring.) Finally, Werther reads Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1772 play Emilia Galotti the night before he commits suicide, and the book is found open on his writing-desk: The passionate young heroine of that play takes her own life in order to preserve her family honor. A novel about reading that forces its audience to face the potentially catastrophic consequences of reading, The Sorrows of Young Werther paradoxically allows us into its protagonist's psyche in order to let us avoid his fate.

Catriona MacLeod is Associate Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. The author of Embodying Ambiguity: Androgyny and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Keller, she focuses in her current scholarship on visual culture in nineteenth-century Germany.
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