The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated by Michael Hulse)

I’ll start with an excerpt of the story to easier explain the rest of the plot:

-‘You will be getting to know a beautiful young woman,’ my companion informed me as we drove through the vast wooded park to the hunting lodge.-‘Be on your guard,’ put in the aunt, ‘and take care not to fall in love!-‘Why?’ I asked.-

Of course as you’d expect Werther the young man in question sees the beautiful young woman and is instantly besotted by her. The young woman however is engaged to someone else who Werther also meets and actually likes, so it’s not as if he can convince her to leave him because he’s (to put it crassly) a bit of a knob.

We read about Werther’s love and his frustrations and sorrows to the point that it causes great heartbreak and tragedy to Werther.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe

I could go on about how Goethe was inspired to write this book as it is somewhat semi autobiographical but I’d rather concentrate on the book itself because if I go on about the remarkable man that is Goethe he would take over the whole post.

The book is presented as an edited collection of letters to Werther’s friend Wilhelm. I found it amusing that Werther responds to Wilhelm’s letters but we don’t know what was said in them as they are not in the collection of letters. Werther is an educated middle class man who refers to the locals of the village he visits as peasants as you would expect in the time it was written but we also see how Werther meets some aristocrats and doesn’t care much for them and vice versa. The Sorrows of Young Werther was first published in 1774. Although written in the time of the Enlightenment era before the French Revolution well and truly kicked in, it has more in common with work from the later Romantic period. Werther is writes a lot about his emotions and there are descriptions of nature and the countryside around the village he visits. This book was part of the Strum und Drang movement in German literature at the time which promoted a stress on emotions as a response to rationalism that was seen in Enlightenment works.

The further we go into the story the more Werther’s emotions take over. He even says at one point preferring the work of Ossian over Homer. All I know about Ossian is that it was a very emotive written piece of work and made up to appear much older, there was nothing ancient about it , it was a modern (relative to 1774 at the least) piece of work posing as something to be much older. Werther from the beginning of the story is not the same as what who appears towards the end and this is reflected in him preferring Ossian over Homer.

The Sorrows of Young Werther we can relate to point with his sufferings, a lot of us have met someone we have fallen in love with and yet know we can’t have. The alternatives we don’t see or care to notice. Unfortunately for Werther he does not have Wilhelm or someone near him to clap him out of it, to say she’s not worth what he wants to do. Werther appears to let his emotions to get the better of him and dare I suggest there may be underlying symptoms of mental health problems there. Merely a suggestion of course Goethe probably never intended that.

This book was criticised at the time for promoting suicide. It had to take Goethe to point out that it was based on his life he wrote this at 24 and did not die until he was 82 having written many more works after that. This probably the easiest to read of Goethe’s work and although arguably not on the scale of his later works like Faust, this is a good start if you want an introduction of Goethe’s works.