Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”

By: Anyi Li

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1774. The storyline is represented by a collection of letters that seems to be written by Werther, a young person from a rich middle-class German family, to his friend Wilhelm. In his letters, he talks about his experiences of leaving his own family and moving to another town where he thinks his achievement in art can thrive because of the pristine environment. There he meets a girl named Charlotte (“Lotte” as Werther talks about her in the letter), and he deeply falls in love with her. However, Lotte already had a fiance, which makes Werther in great pain for he cannot always stay on Lotte’s side and own all her love. In order to be free from such pain, he decides to leave and leaves Lotte and her fiance alone. He goes to another city where he finds a job. However, he is not able to get along with others where he works because of his unique ideas in literature. He then leaves again to another town where one of his friends is willing to live with him for a while. 

Nevertheless, the love toward Lotte still wanders in his mind and traps him in unbearable lovesickness. Finally, he decides to go back to the town where Lotte and her husband live together in happiness. Since Lotte has already become someone else’s wife, Werther can neither hug her nor kiss her, which is torture for him. Besides the pain of not being able to stay with his beloved, there is another episode in his life that adds up to his despair: a very kind and honest farmer he knows is fired because of his love toward his mistress. The farmer grows crazy about this pain and commits murder. Failing to help someone who has a “forbidden love” similar to him, after being rejected by Lotte once more for “not disturbing their lives”, Werther finally kills himself at one midnight before Christmas. 

This book was published in the late 18th century when the wave of the enlightenment movement still played the main role in art and literature. Literature and art at this time placed an emphasis on humanity, freedom, equity, and love. It was also one of the main works in the Sturm und Drang period, which is a proto-Romantic movement in German art and literary history that most works are themed on the extreme expression of emotions. After its publication, the book suddenly became extremely popular, especially among young people. It was soon translated into more than 20 different languages, and it was said that Napoleon Bonaparte read the French translation more than 7 times because of his enthusiasm for this masterpiece. Young people in Western and Northern Europe became extremely attracted to Werther’s romantic tragedy and many of them even start wearing Werther’s clothes described in the novel, which is called “Werther Fever”.  

The reason for this book to become such a success is mainly because of its themes of extreme emotions, romance, and the challenge against feudal society. In this book, Werther felt miserable about how the upper class treated the farmers and workers poorly, and as a rich middle-class young man, this empathy toward the lower class was a huge challenge for the stratum. Another important theme is self-expression: the whole novel was expressed by Werther’s letters, in which he expresses his uncontrollable love for Lotte as well as his intense hatred toward the society where he cannot gain agreement and cannot express himself freely.

Because of those radical themes and the powerful way of expressing them, the book was challenged in many Western and Northern European countries. What’s more, after this book became extremely popular, there are some young people commicted copycat suicide after Werther. This raise in the suicide rate directly caused this book to be banned in many countries.

About the Author

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Germany in 1749. He is a poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, and critic. He is considered to be the greatest German literary figure of the modern era. His most famous works include Faust(1772),The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1776), and Elective Affinities (1809)

Further Reading

The Media’s First Moral Panic

13 Reasons Why and Suicide Contagion