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The Sorrows of Young Werther (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – February 8, 2005
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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
From the Inside Flap
A major work of German romanticism in a translation that is acknowledged as the definitive English language version. The Vintage Classics edition also includes NOVELLA, Goethe's poetic vision of an idyllic pastoral society.
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Top Customer Reviews
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
The plot is simple. Werther is a young German artist and poet who lives in a small town. He is attracted to Charlotte the eldest daughter of an estate agent who has befriended the shy young man. Charlotte is engaged and later marries Albert. Young Werther is so lovesick he blows his brains out at midnight with the pistols he has borrowed from Albert. End of tale. And yet.....! The book is rich with poetry and passionate longing. Werther is at one with nature wondering about the nature of the afterlife. In this he bears a resemblance to Lord Hamlet who muses about that "bourne from which no traveler has yet returned." Werther sees nature as an open grave longing for death when he realizes his beloved Lotte is unattainable in this life. The novel is a depiction of the sensitive artist dealing with middle class society. Werther is too idealistic and too much a dreamy lover to live in this world. This short story is like a punch to the stomach in the impact and memories it will leave in your soul. The work has been much copied most notably by the late nineteenth century lush romantic opera produced by the pen of Jules Massenet. A classic work by a genius.
A short, accessible read on the emotions of a young man whose love decides to be with another man. I was going to give this book 3 stars, but as I'm writing this review, there are so many things to discuss! ...I'll give it another star! ...This is my second book by Goethe, and I continue to be amazed at the respect literature scholars give him (the German Shakespeare?!) and the accessibility of his writing...nothing near the difficulty of Shakespeare!
I picked it up because Thoreau and Emerson drew heavily from the idea of "Bildungsroman" (self culture/self development/coming of age/discovering who you are) of which Goethe was apparently initially the most prominent author.
Thomas Carlyle (who appears to be the summarizer of the literature of his day) said it introduces Goethe's genius work released 31 years later: "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship" He said, 'Werther' introduced the problems, but gave no answer, 'Wilhelm Meister' gave the perspective and remedy to 'Werther's' problem. I'm excited to read Wilhelm Meister!
Goethe wrote this when he was 24 and it launched him into worldwide fame (as his "Italian Journey" reveals--he was known there by his "Werther"). Napoleon actually met Goethe and told him he had read this book 7 times and carried it in his shirt pocket on a few of his campaigns. This part is highly intriguing to me, I wonder what part of this story was so compelling to Napoleon.
The book is primarily about Werther's love for Lotte (or Charlotta, depending on your translation) and how even though it seems perfect to him, it is not meant to be. He often returns to agonizing over this impossibility and his mind tries to figure out ways the relationship could work out. Lotte has, of course, married another man, Albert.
I wouldn't be surprised if this is where Chris Corraba from Dashboard Confessional gets his inspiration. Some reviewers I read said if you had any lingering sentiment of a missed love connection this book would amplify it...as a single guy, it (mostly) did the opposite for me. I thought it might be a good one to recommend to anyone in that state, to see how absurd Werther's sorrows were over that one woman. I did have some of the missed connection sympathy with him, but I wanted to tell him the whole time, "you're bigger than that!" also "there was never a chance anyways! She was engaged!"
I imagine what attracted most to this book was it's honesty in dealing with emotions. Perhaps before this time period people ignored their emotions and pushed on with what was practical. Goethe opened up the "Sturm and Drang" movement and gave his characters' emotions validity.
I think this is perhaps the big question of my generation...how much validity do you give to your emotions? Certainly some, but is it all about how we feel? We know when prodded it isn't "all about" that, but what drives our actions? A cold self-determination? That doesn't seem right. I hope Thomas Carlyle is right in that Wilhelm Meister gives a good response to Werther's pain.
There is a bit more to the book than Werther's unavailable love...he shares beautifully on Nature, in one chapter the incredible meaning and beauty inherent in it, and then in another, the cold disregard for itself. I loved the parts where he talks about the nature in children.
Thoreau I'm sure loved his notes on life's true joys. Goethe has the same theme of why work all day at something you don't enjoy so that you can do it again the next day and the next...what is real joy? What do you actually need and want?
I will discuss the ending below, but beware, SPOILER ALERT!
I think this is the first book I have read that imagines suicide. The suicide of Werther is interesting. I wondered if that was how it would end. I wonder if Napoleon was interested in this part of the book or not. Apparently it inspired some acts of suicide in Goethe's day. I think it would have been controversial to not demonize it and Goethe does not. There's a lot to be considered between the acceptance of suicide in this novel and Goethe's Christianity, and between the Christianity many of us know in our day. I wonder why Goethe didn't let the character die immediately, but let him live almost another 24 hours. . . . the lingering questions work well with the subject. It seems nature doesn't often allow the bow to be tied on at the end of a life.
Again, excited for Wilhelm Meister. Thomas Carlyle, I hope you're right.