History: This book was 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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
Plot: The majority of The Sorrows of Young Werther 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). 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.
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.
Review: Eighteenth-century German literature was propelled by a revolution in romanticism, and writers such as Goethe celebrated their most cherished ideals in as ornate and eloquent a manner as possible. While the tendency of American and British writers to ignore the sublime and the romantic in favor of stark realism does have its place, that does not mean that the sublime and the romantic should be casually tossed aside.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is comprised, for the most part, of letters written by a hopelessly romantic young man named Werther to a friend named Wilhelm. These letters not only detail Werther's doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte, they also contain the most beautiful meditations on just about everything important in life: love, beauty, nature, philosophy, art, religion.
Werther’s story is a simple enough one. It’s been told many times before and in many guises. It’s a tale of unrequited love that ends, tragically, in suicide. The experience of this kind love – not just a minor crush, but an intense, passionate yearning – is virtually universal at some point in life.
Opening Line: “How happy I am that I am gone!”
Closing Line: "No priest attended."
Quotes: There would be far less suffering amongst mankind, if men -- and God knows why they are so fashioned -- did not employ their imaginations so assiduously in recalling the memory of past sorrow, instead of bearing their present lot with equanimity.