In the spring of 1771 Werther (no first name), a young man of good education and comfortable means, arrives in the small German town of Wahlheim. He is there to attend to family business (an inheritance) but also to escape an unhappy love affair. To his friend Wilhelm back home he writes long letters telling of the joys of living close to nature as well as of his meeting with a local belle, Charlotte (Lotte), who shares his tastes in literature.
Unfortunately for Werther, Lotte is betrothed to Albert, an up-and-coming young bureaucrat. Albert and Lotte treat Werther with the utmost friendliness, but he finds the frustration of his undeclared love for Lotte increasingly hard to bear. He quits Wahlheim to take up a diplomatic post in a principality some distance away. Here he suffers a humiliating snub when, as a person of middle-class origin, he is asked to leave a reception for the diplomatic corps. He resigns, and for months drifts around before fatalistically returning to Wahlheim.
Lotte and Albert are now married; there is no hope for Werther. His letters to Wilhelm break off, and an unnamed editor appears on the scene, undertaking to put together a record of Werther’s last days from his diaries and private papers. For, it emerges, having decided that there is no way out, Werther has borrowed Albert’s dueling pistols and, after a last, stormy meeting with Lotte, shot himself.
The Sufferings of Young Werther (otherwise known as The Sorrows of Young Werther) appeared in 1774. Goethe sent a synopsis to a friend:
I present a young person gifted with deep, pure feeling and true penetration, who loses himself in rapturous dreams, buries himself in speculation, until at last, ruined by unhappy passions that supervene, in particular an unfulfilled love, puts a bullet in his head.
This synopsis is notable for the distance Goethe seems to be putting between himself and a hero whose story was in important respects his own. He too had gloomily asked himself whether a self-defeating compulsion did not underlie his practice of falling in love with unattainable women; he too had contemplated suicide, though he had lacked the courage to do the deed. The crucial difference between himself and Werther was that he could call on his art to diagnose and expel the malaise that afflicted him, whereas Werther could only suffer it. As Thomas Mann put it, Werther is “the young Goethe himself, minus the creative gift.”
Two energies go into the making of Werther: the confessional, which gives the book its tragic emotional force, and the political. Passionate…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.