The literary impact of Johann Goethe's 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther cannot be underestimated. It was the second Gothic novel, a decade after the first: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Ortranto. The Old English Barron followed in 1778 and The Mysteries of Udolpho in 1794. in 1796 The Monk was published and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818 where the unloved monster finds a worn copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther and likens himself to the protagonist. The Sorrows of Young Werther was impactful in ushering in the romantic age of literature--though Goethe nearly killed it off before it began. The novel was the foundation on which the German Sturm und Dang (storm and urge) literary style was launched, sporting reckless characters tossed about the seas of love.
Poor, poor young Werther and his sorrows inflicted by a love interest who has a modicum of interest in him. Charlotte wants to be more friends than lovers. (Guys: Have you experienced that one before?) She is, after all, betrothed, and then married, to a plucky, self-absorbed man named Albert who can hardly be bothered with the young man named Werther who keeps hanging around the house.
In sharp contrast to his personality, Werther dresses like a bright canary (that alights on Charlotte's shoulder in the novel) in his blue suit jacket and yellow vest. He was Oscar Wilde a 100 years prior. His foppish outfit launched a fashion style during the late eighteenth century and the first rash of ancillary marketing ever experienced by a novel.
Think Eau de Werther cologne and China teapots on which portraits of the fictional Werther were hand painted as shown here, which the photo is copyright the Victoria and Albert Museum, and made in 1789. This is two years after the revised edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther was printed. The literary fever of the novel was still burning 15 years after its original publication. In Germany, where it was originally published, some 20 editions were already in print. Plays, operas, and satirical works soon followed. And copycat suicides that got the book banned in some German villages. The term "furor Wertherinus" was coined to reflect the suicidal passions of young men and woman scorned.
Parallels to Life
Most of the novel is written in epistolary form. Craftily, Goethe only lets the reader see the letters of Werther, not those of Wilhelm to whom he is writing. The Sorrows of Young Werther oozes in parallels to Goethe's own life. The novel is set in the fictional village of Walheim where "the reader need not take the trouble too look for the place...." But finding the real village was easy to do since, at the age of 19, Goethe met Charlotte Buff at a small dance in the German village of Whitsuntide in Wetzlar. (Stop it with the W names, Goethe!). He fell in love with her that evening but, just like in the novel, Charlotte was engaged to another.
The Forbidden Act
Two years prior to its publication, his friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, committed suicide after falling in love with a married woman and "[in] that moment the plan of Werther was found...."
Consider this magazine excerpt from the early nineteenth century (Eight Historical Dissertations on Suicide, pg 117, 1859):
Let us, by way of specifying only a very few well-authenticated prominent instances, think of Captain Arenswald who shot himself Sept. 19, 1781, and had been fond of reading this Novel during the latter part of his life; 1) of Miss von Lassberg, one of Goethe's friends at the court of Weimar, who was found Jan. 17, 1778 drowned in the lime, with a copy of Werther's Leiden in her pocket; 2) of Gunderode who stabbed herself at Winkel on the Rhine from an unhappy attachment to an already married Heidelberg Professor, the learned and amiable Creuzer, and who used to read Werther together with her friend, the well-known Bettina von Arnim, and speak much about suicide. 3) — Aye, Mme. de Stael was not far wrong, when she asserted that it had "caused more suicides than the most beautiful woman," 4) nor does Goethe himself (in his Autobiography) deny that this aesthetical masterpiece of his proved a daemoniac charm which wrought deadly ruin unto many. Therefore, we cannot but pronounce it, in a moral point of view, a great error; for no book can be veritably of good which proves a sort of impulse and guide for the many unto self-destruction; — and what we may justly complain of is this: that Goethe, as far as we can learn, never regretted this its influence, never penned aught to counteract it, never, if I may here employ serious language, like a man and a christian repented of it!
IIL Ugo Fosoolo's le ultime lettere di Jacopo Orjtis (1802).
It was Goethe himself who stated: "Suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew." My Life: Poetry and Truth
Rating & Recommendation
I recommend The Sorrows of Young Werner because of its high impact on literature. It was wholly cathartic for Goethe and left him feeling like he had made “a general confession, again happy and free and justified for a new life.”
I end this review with sage words of advice for our poor foppish Werther. Man-up, young Werther! Man-up. If the woman fails to reciprocate your love, forget her and move on as quickly as possible and you are sure to find your true love at another time.
Andrew Barger (AndrewBarger.com) - Author of Coffee with Poe: A Novel of Edgar Allan Poe's Life