Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was only 24 years of age when he wrote and published the autobiographical and highly emotive work, The Sorrows of Young Werther . He wrote the work in just 6 weeks and its instant success made him an international celebrity.
The novel recounts the love of sentimental young Werther who dresses in a characteristic blue coat with a yellow vest. He loves nature and is enchanted by the peasants of a rural township in Germany where he falls in love with Charlotte [Lotte]. She is a beautiful young woman who must look after her younger siblings after her parents death.
Werther’s love is thwarted however, for Lotte is betrothed to a much older man Albert. The Sorrows of Young Werther are recounted in a series of letters to his friend Wilhelm and the melancholy depths the young man reaches, affected Goethe’s readership profoundly.
So significant was the novel that it stimulated a flood of Werther merchandise including a perfume called “Eau-de-Werther”, a craze for yellow waist-coats, and at least one copy-cat suicide.
Characteristic of the Sturm und Drang movement of the late 1700s, it gained popularity for being a direct reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Roughly translated as “Storm and Stress” the movement was characterised by emotional turbulence, individuality and sentimentality.
Goethe had experienced terrible pain in love with a young woman Charlotte Buff two years earlier, who was engaged to a friend Albert Kestner. The writing of this novel was therapeutic because he admitted years later that he,
shot his hero to save himself..
…a reference to his own near-suicidal obsession over Charlotte. Moreover, an acquaintance of Goethe’s named Jerusalem who was similarly infatuated with a married woman, shot himself.
Goethe combined Jerusalum’s sufferings to his own experiences, and wrote the novel, Werther.
Goethe treated the writing of the short novel as a cathartic exercise, hoping to exorcise some of his intense feeling.
Rather than releasing him, however Goethe’s novel was to have an significant impact disproportionate to its size. It not only helped to create Romanticism, but also articulated adolescent turmoil in a manner which has continued in popular format, to this day.
There would be no Catcher in the Rye and no Rebel Without a Cause without Werther.
Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. The work influenced the later Romantic period particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster finds the book in a leather portmanteau, along with two greats — Plutarch and Milton. Shelley equated Werther’s case to the monster, of one rejected by those he loved.
Goethe described the powerful impact the success of the book had on him, writing that even if Werther had been a brother of his whom he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by his vengeful ghost.
Yet he also acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther exerted on forlorn young lovers who discovered it. As he commented to his secretary in 1821,
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.
What was he hoped, closure for him, opened a wound in Europe’s collective consciousness and effectively haunted him the rest of his days.