The Sorrows of Young Werther


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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The Sorrows of Young Werther Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the son of a wealthy jurist and civil servant who educated his child to follow in his footsteps. Towards this end, Goethe began studies at Leipzig University when he was only sixteen, but soon found that he preferred both drawing and poetry to law. He left college without earning a degree and returned to his hometown of Frankfurt, where he published several poems and his first play, Götz von Berlichingen, which won him his first small fame. The desires of his father remained strong, however, and Goethe eventually returned to academia, earning a law degree at the age of twenty-three. Seeking to set up practice, he moved to the town of Wetzlar in 1772. The experiences he had there, coupled with the concurrent suicide of a friend, formed the semi-biographical basis of The Sorrows of Young Werther, the book that vaulted Goethe into international stardom. Shortly after its publication, a high ranking nobleman became Goethe’s patron and friend, and Goethe soon found himself in a variety of jobs within the government of Weimar. In time, he would be granted nobility himself, and add to his fame with further prose publications, including Wilhelm Meister, Elective Affinities, and Faust. His poetry motivated an entire German movement known as introversion. In his later years, Goethe supplemented his fictional works with well-respected scientific tracts in such diverse fields as botany and meteorology. His wide variety of interests and skills can be seen in the range of people he influenced: philosophers such as Nietzsche and Hegel; composers such as Beethoven and Mozart; and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson.
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Historical Context of The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Enlightenment, with its belief that anything could be understood through empirical observation and rational thought, triggered a new movement in the arts—called Romanticism—towards the end of the eighteenth century. Romanticism was a backlash against the Enlightenment’s rationality, and it embraced, among other things, emotion and nature. The Sorrows of Young Werther is an early and fervent example of Romantic literature. In addition, when The Sorrows of Young Werther was written, the Age of Revolution was dawning, which was a period marked by revolutionary movements in multiple countries that sought equality for all. Coming on the heels of the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolution reacted as violently against the wisdom of the previous age, which is also what happens to Werther, a young man discontented with the confines of his own time.

Other Books Related to The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a great deal of what would today be called fan-fiction: writing that makes use of existing characters and stories in new, inventive ways. Examples of this include poems such as “Lotte by Werther’s Grave” by Karl von Reitzenstein, so popular in Goethe’s day that crowds would gather to hear it read. Other examples persist even into the nineteenth century, when The Sorrows of Young Werther fell under the satirizing pen of William Thackeray in his poem “Sorrows of Werther.” Nor was the phenomenon limited to poetry. Sir Herbert Croft, using the same epistolary style as Goethe, wrote his Love and Madness in reaction to real-life events allegedly inspired by The Sorrows of Young Werther. Wilhelm Haring did the same in his The English Werther. Goethe himself took up the subject of love again in his third novel, Elective Affinities. Love proved a common theme for many of Goethe’s contemporaries as well, who were developing a tradition that came to be called German Romanticism, of which The Sorrows of Young Werther is arguably the first example. Goethe’s glorification of unbridled emotion was shared by his contemporaries Johann Gottfried von Herder and Friedrich Schiller, as well as by the next generation of German Romantic authors, such as Heinrich Heine and G.W. Hegel.
Key Facts about The Sorrows of Young Werther
  • Full Title: The Sorrows of Young Werther
  • When Written: 1774
  • Where Written: Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany
  • When Published: 1774
  • Literary Period: Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress)
  • Genre: Epistolary Novel, Confessional Literature, Autobiographical Novel, Bildungsroman
  • Setting: Wahlheim (a fictional town based on Wetzlar, Germany), and its surrounding countryside.
  • Climax: Upon realizing that he and Lotte will never see one another again, Werther returns to his home and shoots himself.
  • Antagonist: While the novel has no traditional antagonist, Werther struggles against the expectation that he behave rationally instead of emotionally, ultimately succumbing to it.
  • Point of View: The bulk of the novel is told through letters (which are written in the first-person), though a third-person narrator tells the story at the end.

Extra Credit for The Sorrows of Young Werther

Cottage industries. The Sorrows of Young Werther was one of the first books to become so celebrated that it inspired tourism. An innkeeper in the town that inspired the book created a dramatic gravesite and passed it off as Werther’s, while a contemporary guidebook also directed sightseers to the tree under which Werner and Lotte once sat. Visitors would often wear the same iconic clothes attributed to Werther. In that way, the book was like the Harry Potter of its age!

Plague of Suicides. A rumor persists that The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a spate of suicides and suicide attempts in the name of young love. While there seems to be little evidence of this, the thought that the novel recommended suicide was enough for it to be banned in Leipzig, the town that initially published it.