Goethe was almost Werther. The novel was indeed born out of the author's own personal experience. Not long after he had finished his Doctor of Law degree, Goethe moved to Wetzlar, the town mentioned in the novel, and opened a legal practice. He actually fell in love with a woman named Charlotte, who took care of her younger brothers and sisters and was engaged to be married. Just as Werther does in the novel, Goethe became a good friend of Charlotte and her husband-to-be. Unlike Werther, however, Goethe didn’t shoot himself. When things got too tense in Wetzlar, he moved back to Frankfurt, where he had grown up, and wrote his novel. Many biographers feel Goethe used the novel as a way to get all that hopeless love out of his system so he could get on with his life. By exaggerating his own amorous feelings to the point of parody, Goethe was able to distance himself, psychologically, from his own propensity toward indulging in hopeless love, a tendency which caused him no end of trouble. (Goethe finally settled down with a woman named Christiane Vulpius when he turned 39; they lived together for eighteen years and then finally got married.)
To Goethe’s surprise, The Sorrows of Young Werther became a phenomenal bestseller and attracted a cult following. Translations sprang up in dozens of languages; poets all across Europe began writing Werther-inspired verses; young men around Europe started dressing up in the blue frock coat and yellow waistcoat described as Werther’s habitual costume in the novel, and young ladies bought bottles of eau de Werther perfume; figures of Werther and Charlotte appeared on dishes, jewelery, and other trinkets. One disturbed young man identified so strongly with Goethe’s impetuous hero he threatened to commit suicide the way Werther had. (The story goes that Goethe talked him out of it.) And when the corpse of a young woman who had drowned herself was fished from the river with a copy of the novel in her pocket, Goethe realized there was a problem. The young people who read his novel were not picking up on his cynical treatment of Werther: they were revelling in the way Werther indulged in the most extreme and unhealthy emotional life. When it came time to reprint the book, Goethe added a disclaimer to the beginning, a letter from the dead Werther to his readers in which Werther urges: “Be a man, and do not follow my example!”
Like all well-drawn fictional characters, Werther is so complicated he is impossible to pin down; people’s responses to Werther usually say much more about the people making the response than they do about Werther himself. We collected the following takes on Goethe’s troubled twenty-three year old:
Yes, hopeless SUFFERER! friendless, and forlorn——from ”Elegy to the Memory of Werther” by Mrs. Mary Robinson
Sweet victim of LOVE’S power, the silent tear
Shall oft at twilight’s close, and blushing morn,
Gem the pale primrose that adorns thy bier;
And as the balmy dew ascends to heaven,
Thy crime shall steal away, thy frailty be forgiven!
—English poet W. H. Auden
Poster for the first Paris performances of Massenet's opera, which premiered in Vienna in 1892; images here include Werther admiring Charlotte as big sister, in Act One, and Werther pleading with Charlotte in Act Three
Goethe makes Werther an idle dilletante, who sketches a bit, reads a bit, but is incapable of seriously concentrating on anything...[The novel] reads as...a masterly and devastating portrait of a complete egoist, a spoiled brat, incapable of love because he cares for nobody and nothing but himself and having his way at whatever cost to others... Werther, by staying on when it is clear that his presence is unwelcome, defies the company [at a party in the town to which he has moved], but his precious ego is hurt by their reactions, and he resigns his post, returns to Lotte and disaster for all, destroying himself and ruining the lives of Lotte and Albert. What a horrid little monster!
—Michael Hulse, Goethe translator
To complain of Werther’s self-pity or lack of will is like complaining of Hamlet’s procrastination. The weaknesses in Werther’s character are certainly there. They are there for a reason. They are there as an essential part of the portrait of a man ill-equipped to cope with his life. They are there as the fatal flaws in a character likeable, generous, creative, spontaneous, responsive, and full of vitality. And as such they must be accepted as the necessary premises in a persuasive tragedy, as necessary components in a consummate work of art.
Oh, how often have I cursed those foolish pages of mine which made my youthful sufferings public property! If Werther had been my brother and I had killed him, I could scarcely have been so persecuted by his avenging ghost.—Goethe, Second Roman Elegy (first version)
And here, for those of you who haven’t read the novel, are a few excerpted letters chronicling Werther’s disintegration. What would you write back, if you were Wilhelm? Have you ever known any Werthers in your life? What did you do, the first time you fell head over heels in hopeless, impossible love with somebody?
July 16, 1771 [One month after Werther meets Charlotte]
Oh, how my blood rushes through my veins when my fingers unintentionally brush hers or when our feet touch under the table. I shrink back as though from fire, but a secret force drives me forward again, although everything swims before my eyes. Her innocent, candid soul does not divine how tormenting such small intimacies can be. And when, while we talk, she puts her hand on mine and, animated by what we are saying, moves closer to me, so that the heavenly breath of her mouth reaches my lips, I am close to fainting, as if struck by lightning. And, Wilhelm, if I should ever dare—this heavenly confidence—you understand! No, my heart is not so depraved! Weak! Weak enough!—And is that not depravity?
She is sacred to me. Any desire is silenced in her presence. I never know what I feel when I am with her; it is as if my soul were spinning through every nerve. She plays a melody on her clavichord with the touch of an angel, so simple, so ethereal! It is her favorite tune, and I am cured of all pain, confusion, and melancholy the moment she strikes the first note.
Not one word about the magic power of music in antiquity seems to me improbable when I am under the spell of her simple melody. And how well she knows when to play it, at the moment when I feel like blowing out my brains. The confusion and darkness of my soul are then dispersed, and I can breathe more freely again.
Must it be so that whatever makes man happy must later become the source of his misery?
That generous and warm feeling for Nature which flooded my heart with such bliss, so that I saw the world around me as a Paradise, has now become an unbearable torment, a sort of demon that persecutes me wherever I go. When I formerly looked from the rock far across the river and the fertile valleys to the distant hills, and saw everything on all sides sprout and spring forth—the mountains covered with tall, thick trees from base to summit, the valleys winding between pleasant shading woods, the gently flowing river gliding among the whispering reeds and reflecting light clouds which sailed across the sky under the mild evening breeze; when I listened to the birds that bring the forest to life, while millions of midges danced in the red rays of a setting sun whose last flare roused the buzzing beetle from the grass; and all the whirring and weaving around me drew my attention to the ground underfoot where the moss, which wrests its nourishment from my hard rock, and the broom plant, which grows on the slope of the arid sand hill, revealed to me the inner, glowing, sacred life of Nature—how fervently did I take all this into my warm heart, feeling like a god in that overflowing abundance, while the beautiful forms of the infinite universe surrounded and inspired my soul. Huge mountains surrounded me, precipices opened before me, and torrents gushed downward; the rivers streamed below, and wood and mountains sang; and I saw them at their mutual work of creation in the depths of the earth, all these unfathomable forces. And above the earth and below the sky swarms the variety of creatures, multifarious and multiform. Everything, everything populated with a thousand shapes; and mankind, huddled together in the security of its little houses, nesting throughout and dominating the wide world in its own way. Poor fool who belittles everything because you are yourself so small! From the inaccessible mountains, across the wasteland untrod by human foot, to the end of the unexplored seas breathes the spirit of the eternal Creator who rejoices in every atom of dust that divines Him and lives. —Oh, the times when I longed to fly on the crane’s wings, as it passed overhead, to the shores of the illimitable ocean, in order to drink from the foaming cup of the Infinite an elating sensation of life, and to feel, if only for a moment, in the cramped forces of my being one drop of the bliss of that Being who creates everything in and through Himself.
My friend, only the memory of these hours eases my heart. Even the effort to recall and to express again in words those inexpressible sensations lifts my soul above itself, but also intensifies the anguish of my present state.
January 8, 1772 [Unable to subdue his feelings for Charlotte, Werther has left the town where she lives and taken a job elsewhere; but he has no patience for the new people in his life and disdains them as petty snobs.]
What dreadful people these are, whose minds are completely absorbed in matters of etiquette, whose thoughts and aspirations all year long turn over the single problem of how to push oneself one chair higher at table. And it is not as though they had nothing else to do. No, on the contrary, work continues to pile up because trivial annoyances hinder the dispatch of more important matters. Last week a quarrel started during a sleighing party and the whole fun was spoiled.
The fools, who do not understand that actual rank does not matter at all and that he who occupies the top very rarely plays the chief role. How often a king is ruled by a minister; how many ministers by their secretaries! And who is then the first? I believe it is the man who knows his fellow-men at a glance and has sufficient power or shrewdness to harness their forces and passions to the execution of his plans.
October 19 [Werther loses his new job and returns to the town where Charlotte lives, even though he is growing increasingly unhappy]
Oh, this void, this terrifying void I feel in my breast! I often think: if you could once, only once, press her to your heart, this void would be filled.December 6 [One of Werther’s final letters]
How her image haunts me! Awake or asleep, she fills my entire being. Here, when I close my eyes, here, in my forehead, at the focus of my inner vision, her dark eyes remain. Here! but I cannot put it into words. When I close my eyes, they are there; like an ocean, like an abyss, they lie before me, in me, taking hold of all my thoughts.
What is man, that celebrated demigod? Does he not lack powers just where he needs them most? And when he soars with joy, or sinks into suffering, is he not in both cases held back and restored to dull, cold consciousness at the very moment when he longs to lose himself in the fullness of the Infinite?
Quotations taken from the Michael Hulse translation of The Sorrows of Young Werther