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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Sorrows of Young Werther, The

< The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)

SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER, The (‘Die Leiden des jungen Werthers’). ‘Werther's Leiden,’ Goethe's first novel, was written in Frankfort in 1774, during the so-called storm and stress period. It is divided into two books each consisting of a series of letters by Werther, with some reports by the supposed editor of these letters inserted in the latter half of the second book. The principal character of this novel is a refined, sensitive youth of artistic temperament, who makes imperative demands upon life from a subjective point of view and when disappointed becomes absorbed in himself. This tendency to brood which is dangerous in itself proves fatal in Werther's case on account of his hopeless love. For his endeavor to overcome the latter by leaving Lotte and starting out on a life of activity fails. He falls a victim to his unalterable disposition and the unconquerable power of his passion. Such a “leitmotif” characterizes ‘Werther's Leiden’ as a genuine product of the storm and stress movement. But this movement was confined to Germany, and the sweeping success of the novel, which called forth translations, imitations and also parodies in all literary languages must be accounted for by other reasons. It appeared in an age of sentimentalism and met the demand for sentimental elements to a considerable degree. Besides, great general problems dealing with man and nature, art and religion are presented in a vigorous style, and the portraits of the persons, especially those of Werther and Lotte, are distinguished by a convincing realism. The most noteworthy of the admirers of Goethe's ‘Werther’ was Napoleon I.

‘Werther's Leiden’ is closely connected with the life of its author. During Goethe's stay at Wetzlar, 1772, where the young lawyer was to get practical experience at the Supreme Court of the empire, he met and admired Charlotte Buff who was engaged to a young man, Albert Kestner. There is, however, this fundamental difference between Goethe's life and Werther's: Goethe did not return to Lotte after he had once left her, and while Werther complains about the vanishing of his artistic faculty, it was his very talent that enabled Goethe to overcome his feelings for Charlotte Buff by giving them artistic form. Thus only the first book is really based on Goethe's own experience while the second is based on the tragic fate of his colleague, Jerusalem, who for reasons similar to those of Werther committed suicide. Consult edition of Goethe's works in ‘Deutsche National-Literatur’ (Vol. XVIII 13, pp. 1-134, 1882-98); Kestner, A., ‘Goethe und Werther, Cotta'sche Handbibliothek’; Glöel, Heinrich, ‘Goethe's Wetzlarer Zeit’ (1911); Long, O. W., ‘English and American Imitations of Goethe's Werter’ (Modern Philology, Vol. XIV, No. 4, August 1916.)