Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, a year that also marked the beginning of the Age of Revolution, when many people across the globe fought wars for the sake of equality. His native Germany avoided the armed conflicts of France and America in part by enacting legislative reforms that sought to improve living conditions for the lower class. Serfdom, for example, was abolished in 1770, and for the first time, peasants were able to own land and travel. Nevertheless, stark social divides still existed between the upper and lower classes, and Goethe uses Werther’s unique position in the middle class to examine the nature and effects of this divide. Goethe’s position on social class is relatively conservative—he is deeply skeptical of the ability of revolution to provide equality, and he also seems to devalue the very idea of equality as a worthy goal.
Goethe begins by showing how happy the lower classes are to be in nature and how miserable they would be if they had to live any other way. Werther writes to Wilhelm repeatedly about farm workers, openly lamenting his inability to live like they do by working with his hands in nature, and never acknowledging the peasants’ hard work or their lack of options to better their lives. He sees the workers’ lives as idyllic and carefree and he infantilizes them, speaking of them just as speaks of the children in Lotte’s family. By comparison, lower class people who are forced to work away from nature, such as Werther’s servants, seem unhappy and quiet throughout the novel. These people live their lives in much closer proximity to the upper class, even living in the same nice homes and eating the same fancy foods. If the goal of revolution (bringing the upper and lower classes into equilibrium) were truly to be desired, Goethe suggests, one would expect the household servant to be happier than the peasant farmer. Werther’s observations suggest that this isn’t the case.
One reason Werther posits for the relative happiness of farmworkers is that the upper class live among societal standards so complex that the lower class can’t understand them. While Werther learns to appreciate the rustic, childlike games of the lower class, everything is different around upper-class people. When he finds himself in the midst of an upper-class party, he so badly misreads those around him that his mere presence grinds the party to a halt. Even falling in love is a complex matter for the aristocracy. A prime example of this, Werther’s flirtation with Miss von B., ends with a humiliated Werther resigning from his job and moving away. If Werther, a well-cultured member of the middle class, is unable to navigate the social complexity of having fun or falling in love with upper class people, then Goethe implies that members of the lower class would be utterly unable to handle mingling with high society.
Not surprisingly, Werther rejects the vague, seemingly unknowable rules of the upper class in favor of what he sees as the childlike freedom of the lower. Evidence of his preference comes in the descriptive language Werther uses to refer to both nature and lower class people, which simultaneously expresses affection for rustic life and condescends to the lower classes by conflating them with the natural world. Just as Werther uses certain trees and rocks as points of reference for treasured memories, he tends to remember lower class individuals associated with nature more fondly and thoroughly than he remembers anyone else. If all this weren’t enough, Werther also quickly forgets his more high-minded pursuits when placed in the lower class world. He abandons drawing and (for the most part) reading, both of which are pursuits of higher classes. Instead, he prefers to be in nature, speaking with farmhands and observing trees. His choice is authoritative: no other character has his social mobility, so Werther’s observations on class carry weight. And since Werther, with all this authority, chooses the lower class, Goethe implies that the lower class would be fool-hardy to abandon its idyllic life through revolution. Instead, Goethe seems to believe, peasants should seek to appreciate what they have rather than coveting something beyond their understanding.
Unlike his youthful call for the value of emotion, Goethe never came to reject his position on class. Nearly twenty years after writing The Sorrows of Young Werther, he wrote a play called The Citizen General that directly satirized the French Revolution. In that play, Goethe further examined the class-based themes he first took up with Werther: namely, his conviction that class hierarchy is an appropriate social structure, and revolution can never understand or respect its complexity. As a member of the nobility himself, it should perhaps not be surprising that Goethe took this position. Indeed, the argument he provides in this book, speaking to the simple beauty of peasant life, feels traditional and conservative, and echoes many such calls for moderation that came during the Age of Revolution, especially those of Edmund Burke.
Upper Class and Lower Class ThemeTracker
Upper Class and Lower Class Quotes in The Sorrows of Young Werther
I well know we are not equal, nor can be; but…he who supposes he must keep his distance from what they call the rabble, to preserve the respect due to him, is as much to blame as a coward who hides from his enemy for fear of being beaten.
You ask why the torrent of genius so rarely pours forth, so rarely floods and thunders and overwhelms your astonished soul?—Because, dear friends, on either bank dwell the cool, respectable gentlemen…
It is good that my heart can feel the simple and innocent pleasure a man knows when the cabbage he eats at table is one he grew himself; the pleasure he takes not only in eating the cabbage but in remembering all those good days, the fine morning he planted it, the mellow evenings he watered it and the delight he felt in its daily growth.
We don't know who planted that one. Some say it was one vicar and some say another. But the younger one over there is as old as my wife, fifty years old come October. Her father planted it in the morning and that same evening she was born.
And this glittering misery, the tedium of these awful people cooped up together here! and their greed for rank, and the way they are forever watchful and alert for gain or precedence: the most wretched and abominable of passions, quite nakedly displayed.