The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther
The Sorrows of Young Werther  
Goethe 1774.JPG
First print 1774
Author(s) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Original title Die Leiden des jungen Werthers
Country Germany
Language German
Genre(s) Epistolary novel
Publisher Weygand'sche Buchhandlung, Leipzig
Publication date 1774, 2nd ed. 1787

The Sorrows of Young Werther (German: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is an epistolary and loosely autobiographical novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first published in 1774; a revised edition of the novel was published in 1787. Werther was an important novel of the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, and influenced the later Romantic literary movement.

The book made Goethe one of the first international literary celebrities. Towards the end of his life, a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any young man's tour of Europe.


Plot summary

The majority of The Sorrows of Young Werther, where a more accurate translation should substitute 'Sufferings' for 'Sorrows', is presented as a collection of letters written by Werther, a young artist of highly sensitive and passionate temperament, and sent to his friend Wilhelm.

In these letters, Werther gives a very intimate account of his stay in the fictional village of Wahlheim (based on the town of Garbenheim, near Wetzlar).[1] He is enchanted by the simple ways of the peasants there. He meets Charlotte, a beautiful young girl who is taking care of her siblings following the death of their mother. In spite of knowing beforehand that Charlotte is already engaged to a man named Albert, who is in fact 11 years her senior, Werther falls in love with her.[2]

Despite the pain this causes Werther, he spends the next few months cultivating a close friendship with both of them. His 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 recitation of a portion of "Ossian".

Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them — Lotte, Albert or Werther himself — had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else or seriously consider committing murder, Werther sees no other choice but to take his own life. After composing a farewell letter (to be found after he commits suicide), he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretence that he is going "on a journey". Lotte receives the request with great emotion and sends the pistols. Werther then shoots himself in the head, but does not expire until 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.

Effect on Goethe

Werther was one of Goethe's few works in the Sturm und Drang movement, before he, with Friedrich von Schiller, began the Weimar Classicism movement.

Goethe distanced himself from The Sorrows of Young Werther in his later years. He regretted his fame and making his youthful love of Charlotte Buff public knowledge. He wrote Werther at the age of twenty-four, and yet most of his visitors in his old age had read only this book of his and knew him mainly only from this work, despite his many others. He even denounced the Romantic movement by calling it "everything that is sick."[3]

Goethe described his distaste for the book, writing that even if Werther had been a brother he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by the vengeful ghost. Nevertheless, Goethe acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther could exert on those forlorn young lovers who discovered it. In 1821, he commented to his secretary, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."

Cultural impact

The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe's first major success, turning him from an unknown into a celebrated author practically overnight. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature. He thought so highly of it that he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. It also started the phenomenon known as the "Werther-Fieber" ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel.[citation needed]

It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. The "Werther Fever" was watched with concern by the authorities and fellow authors. One of the latter, Friedrich Nicolai, decided to create a satiric—and happier—ending called Die Freuden des jungen Werthers ("The Joys of Young Werther"), in which Albert, having realized what Werther is up to, had loaded chicken blood into the pistol, thereby foiling Werther's suicide, and happily concedes Lotte to him. And after some initial difficulties, Werther sheds his passionate youthful side and reintegrates himself into society as a respectable citizen.[citation needed]

Goethe, however, was not pleased with this version and started a literary war with Nicolai (which lasted all his life) by writing a poem titled "Nicolai auf Werthers Grabe" in which Nicolai (here a passing nameless pedestrian) defecates on Werther's grave,[4] thus desecrating the memory of Werther from which Goethe had distanced himself in the meantime (as he had from the Sturm und Drang). This argument was continued in his collection of short and critical poems, the Xenien, and his play Faust.


A major scene in the novel prominently features Goethe's own German translation of a portion of James Macpherson's Ossian cycle of poems, which were originally presented as translations of ancient works, and were later found to have been written by Macpherson.

Alternative versions and other appearances


  • The Sorrows of Young Werther, & Novelle, Classics Edition, transl. Elizabeth Mayer, Louise Bogan; poems transl. & foreword W. H. Auden, Vintage Books, June 1990 [1971], ISBN 0-679-72951-8 ; originally publ. by Random House.
  • The Sufferings of Young Werther, transl. Harry Steinhauer, New York: WW Norton & Co, 1970, ISBN 0-393-09880-X .
  • The Hebrew translation יסורי ורתר הצעיר  was extremely popular among youths in the Zionist pioneer communities in British Mandate of Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s and was blamed for the suicide of several young men who were considered to have emulated Werther.

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal


  1. ^ Garbenheim
  2. ^ Robertson, JG. A History of German Literature. William Blackwoord & Sons. p. 268. 
  3. ^ Hunt, Lynn. "The Makings of the West: Peoples and Cultures". Bedford/St. Martins Press
  4. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, David Luke (in German). Goethe: with plain prose translations of each poem.,M1. Retrieved 1 December 2010. 

External links

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