Ruotolo Report

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther

I. Textual History

Michael Hulse's introduction to the Penguin edition of _Werther_ contains a brief but thorough discussion of the "partly autobiographical, partly biographical" nature of the text. Goethe wrote _Werther_ in 1774 at the tender age of 24. Book One dramatizes the three-way relationship that developed in Wetzlar between Goethe, his friend Christian Kestner, and Kestner's fiancee Charlotte Buff in the summer of 1772. Goethe fell in love with Buff, and the tensions of this relationship soon forced the despondent Goethe to abruptly leave town. In Book Two, Werther's story begins to more closely resemble the biography of Karl Wilhelm Jersualem, who fatally shot himself on 29 October 1772. A long-time acquaintance of Goethe, Jerusalem was reportedly desperate over his unrequited passion for a married woman (Elisabeth Herd). The account of the suicide in the final pages of the novel was provided for Goethe by Kestner, who sent him a detailed letter about the Jerusalem incident. These "true life" aspects of the novel were common knowledge; Hulse notes that in a letter to a friend, "Kestner noted plainly that in the first part of the novel Werther was Goethe, and in the second Jerusalem".

The first edition of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers was published in 1774 by Weygand. (In most subsequent printings, the title appears without the final genitive -s -- German speakers, please explain.) The novel was an instant success, precipitating numerous reprints and pirated editions. In 1775, Weygand produced a second printing, identical to the first except for poems appended to the beginning of each book of the novel; the verse that precedes Book Two ends with the oft-quoted cautionary line: "Be a man and do not follow after me". (Although most critics accept that Goethe himself wrote these lines, Martin Swales implies that they were concocted by the publisher; whatever the case, Goethe deleted them from his revision of the text in 1787.) Himburg published three editions of J.W. Goethe's Works in 1775, 1777, and 1779, which contained increasingly altered and error-plagued versions of _Werther_. Oddly enough, when Goethe began his revision of the text in 1782, he used the much-altered 1779 Himburg edition (with its "normalized", less colloquial language) as his starting point. This one and only revision of the text, which finally appeared in 1787, differs in many places from the first edition. However, it's all but impossible for non-German readers to evaluate the differences between the two, as only the 1787 edition is currently available in English translation. Several critics have tried to distinguish between the two editions. For instance, Swales argues that the second edition places greater distance between the "editor" and Werther, resulting in a more dispassionate attitude toward his sufferings and his suicide. He also points to the addition of the servant who murders his rival near the end of Book Two as a scene that resists easy moral resolution and contributes to "the scrupulously controlled balance of sympathies" in the final edition.

Because Werther had such close ties to the sentimental literature that was so popular in England and France, the novel surfaced in these countries almost immediately. The first French translation appeared in 1775. The first English translation, The Sorrows of Werter: A German Story, was derived from the French translation and appeared in 1779; the first English edition translated directly from the German was entitled _Werter and Charlotte: A German Story__ and appeared in 1786. (It was 1854 before the English produced a version with the title character's name spelled correctly.) The first American edition appeared in 1784. Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Russian editions were all produced by the turn of the century.

II. Reception History


The world-wide response to Werther can only be described as sensational. Perhaps because of Werther's acknowledged status as quasi-autobiographical or "confessional" literature, the earliest readers of the novel seemed to be preoccupied with its veracity, as Goethe himself noted years later in his autobiography: "Instead of saying something nice about the book just as it was, all of them wanted to know how much of it was true! This made me very angry and my reply was invariably extremely rude...On second thought, I couldn't really blame these people. Jerusalem's fate had created a sensation." Memorial processions and ceremonies took place all over Europe; earnest readers pilgrimaged to Wetzlar in search of Werther's grave. These contemporary readers seemed unwilling or unable to separate fact from fiction, and this situation was dramatized by the rumors of Liebestod, or love-suicide, that swept across Europe. Although only a few real cases of suicide were circumstantially linked to Werther, Goethe was sadly aware that the book was, for some readers, dangerously real: "Just as I felt relieved and lighthearted because I had succeeded in transforming reality into poetry, my friends were confusing themselves by believing that they had to turn poetry into reality, enact the novel and shoot themselves!" The older Goethe had a rather cynical view of the youthful angst that contributed to Werthermania:

"For just as only a small firing charge is needed to detonate a powerful mine, the explosion _Werther_ caused was so far-reaching because the young people of that era had already undermined themselves; and the shock was so great because everyone could now burst forth with his own exaggerated demands, unsatisfied passions, and imaginary sufferings".

All over Europe, readers displayed an insatiable appetite for all things Wertherian; writers, artists and merchants rushed in to fill the demand. "Novelists, playwrights, poets, composers, choreographers, and iconographers ranging from reputable painters and illustrators to anonymous waxworkers...quickly appropriated [Werther's] themes to their peculiar talents. In addition, the cult of Werther was exploited by the trade: eau de Werther was sold, and Charlotte and Werther, figures long as familiar and ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck today, appeared on fans and gloves, on bread-boxes and jewelry, on delicate Messen porcelain and enterprisingly commissioned china..." (Atkins, 2) Men began to imitate Werther's dress--blue frock coat, buff leather waistcoat and breeches (ironically, Goethe noted that Jerusalem adopted this attire in imitation of the English).

Original Werther-inspired poetry and drama has been produced in 14 languages, including Hebrew, Czech, and Chinese (again, the Penguin introduction provides a good sampling of these Werther-inspired works). Yet by far, the greatest literary response to the novel came from England. Atkins cites over 200 Werther-related poems in English, more than in any other language--including German. Atkins, like the overwhelming majority of critics, acknowledges the importance of these poems in their day while quickly dismissing their literary value: "English Werther poetry was produced by writers now almost completely forgotten, yet these mediocrities constituted "English literature" in their day" (16). There are perhaps two explanations for the low critical opinion of these Werther spin-offs: they tend to emphasize the emotional aspects of the text over the psychological, social, and moral threads that tend to interest modern critics; and they were produced largely by unknown "hack" writers -- many of them women. Thus, the critical dismissal of these poems largely mirrors the critical dismissal of sentimentality itself (see Section III below).


Werther has always been regarded as a controversial book, and its immediate critical reception was mixed. In Germany, most of the young Sturm und Drang authors loved _Werther_, while the older "Enlightenment" writers like Lessing were troubled by the text's "irrationalism". As the book's popularity surged, it was increasingly viewed as threatening and anti-societal. The work was roundly criticized on moral grounds, for romanticizing "forbidden love", emphasizing anti-social behavior, and--above all--for condoning suicide. In Leipzig, the city council "made it an offence (punishable by fine) to sell copies of the novel -- and also to wear the 'Werther costume'" of blue frockcoat/buff waistcoat and breeches -- a ban which lasted from 1775 to 1825 (Swales, 97). Over time, critical interest in the moral and psychological aspects of the novel was supplanted by study of the social aspects; in the 1930s, Marxist critics like Lukacs came to see Werther as a rebel against the confines of bourgeois society. Some more recent critical approaches will be discussed in the next section.

III. Werther and Sentimentality

In his autobiography, Goethe notes that Werther was influenced by the "profound melancholy" of English poetry, from Hamlet to Ossian to Gray's "Elegy". It is also clear that he was influenced by English novels as well; his correspondence reveals that he had read and felt indebted to the works of Richardson and Sterne. So Goethe, like many Germans at the time, was thoroughly steeped in the English sentimental tradition. No wonder, then, that when Goethe incorporated these sentimental elements into Werther, English readers quickly embraced it as part of that tradition. R.F. Brissenden writes: "[By 1818] Werther was so well known and so popular in England that it could practically be regarded as part of English literature. Moreover, it gave the appearance of belonging to a well-established tradition of sentimental fiction"--easily lumped alongside such contemporary novels as The Vicar of Wakefield or The Man of Feeling (243). Atkins further specifies its appeal for English readers: "As a middle-class novel of sentiment, Werther suited those readers who enjoyed Pamela, Clarissa, La Nouvelle Heloise_, and imitations of them in which a sense of virtue comparable to Charlotte's had an important place, while its epistolary form was in principle the same as that of countless sentimental novels in vogue at the time of its English debut." (12)

It's hard to discuss Werther in the context of sensibility/sentimentality when we don't even have a working definition of the term yet, so I will throw out one possible definition here: "The arousal of pathos through conventional situations, stock familial characters and rhetorical devices is the mark of sentimental literature. Such literature buttonholes the reader and demands an emotional, even physical response" (Todd, 2). It's pretty easy to match Werther up to this definition. Werther is almost a formulaic sentimental hero--a deep-feeling and gifted man who is nevertheless estranged from society, sexually defeated, and doomed to early death. To see how Werther manipulates the reader's emotions, we need only read the forward: "You cannot deny your admiration and love for his spirit and character, nor your tears at his fate". But although it seems to fit this genre so well, many critics insist on distancing Werther from its sentimental relatives. Brissenden claims that Werther is distinguished from the chaff by its "economy, dramatic intensity, and psychological realism"; Caroline Wellerby argues that "Goethe's portrait of his too radical to conform to the traditional harmonizing model of sentimentalism and its conciliatory values"; Atkins states: "What most obviously distinguishes _Werther_ from the mass of sentimental literature is its intensity. Werther's intensity of feeling is expressed in his language as well as in his actions..." While it's impossible for the class to evaluate such distinctions on Day One, we should keep them in mind as the semester progresses and we develop a clearer of picture of what sensibility is--and isn't.

IV. Bibliography

V. Topics for Discussion

1. Think again about Janet Todd's definition of sentimental literature as that which demands an emotional response from the reader. Think also of the astonishing public reaction to Werther, which we will later be able to compare to the public fascination with _Clarissa_ and the other texts we will read. To what extent is sensibility/sentimentality a reader-defined phenomenon? Is a work dubbed "sentimental" based on how hard it tries to emotionally manipulate its readers--or on strongly the readers respond to these manipulations?

2. A related issue. Modern critics tend to complain that the extreme emotional response to _Werther_ by its early readers has in some sense "ruined" the text for modern audiences. Brissenden claims that early _Werther_ readers "vulgarized and sentimentalized it, made it over into their own image". Hulse claims that "a species of wilful damage has been done" by overly-sentimental readings, and that "Goethe's novel has emerged maimed and battered" as a result. Atkins speaks of liberating _Werther_ from the baggage of its kitchy merchandising and B-grade imitators. All of these critics imply that the popular reception history of _Werther_ can not be separated from the text itself, but continues to dictate how we respond to the novel today. Do we buy this? Have we found it to be true in our own reading experience? (I, for one, knew nothing about the text or its reception history before this summer; yet I did read the Introduction before the text proper). Why do some critics feel the need to "rescue" _Werther_ from its reception history? They claim to want to rekindle appreciation for an essential work of world literature; yet they clearly have a certain kind of appreciation in mind--they're not courting _Bridges of Madison County_ aficionados. So what's the motivation--anti-sentimentalism? Elitism? To what extent can a re-definition of _Werther_ as High Art be successful?

3. I hope we can use the class to close-read some passages from the text--perhaps the famous May 10 letter contrasted with a passage near the end (like the interminable Ossian episode). Can we identify some stylistic characteristics (the intensely personal narrative voice, the rapturous prose) that lend the book such emotional power, and tend to invite sentimental readings? We can also look to broader characteristics like the epistolary structure, the intrusions of the editor, and the pathos-riddled plot itself.