Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 23, 2012

The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by R.D. Boylan

Hmm, Kindles.  They have their uses but they have their downside too.  And if you buy a contemporary Russian novel on a Kindle but then forget its name, you are reduced to scrolling through 400-odd titles to try to find it.  I’d scrolled through about 100 of them, opening a couple here and there in hope and frustration when I stumbled across Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther.  I was in the throes of Sturm and Drang myself by then and I’d been meaning to read this German classic for ages so…

Goethe (Wikipedia Commons)

The Sturm and Drang movement arose in literature and music as a counter to the ideals of the Enlightenment because the full range of human experience cannot be adequately expressed through rationalism and empiricism.  Logic and science is all very well, but when you feel like hurling your Kindle across the room it is passion that needs to be expressed, right? Sturm and Drang is about expressing  violent emotions and individual subjective reality.    My individual subjective reality was that none of the books on the bedside table appealed and I had just got comfy in bed and didn’t want to get up to find something else to read in my library.  So I started reading Goethe.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is about a young man who falls passionately in love with a young lady engaged to somebody else.  Written mostly as a series of letters to his friend Wilhelm, the story begins calmly enough but when Charlotte enters his life, the letters show that he is besotted.  And because he is besotted he pays scant attention to the fact that she is already spoken for – until Charlotte is reminded about her fiancé by a wagging finger at a dance.  This remonstrance prompts Werther to ask who ‘Albert’ is – and lo! a massive storm rolls in with fearsome thunder and lightning as it sinks in that his love for Charlotte is hopeless.

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Sorrows of Young Werther captures adolescent angst to perfection.  It elevates young love to grand romantic passion and it presents its young protagonist spurred to violent action – not in pursuit of a noble ideal but in anger.  He doesn’t actually say ‘You’ll be sorry when I’m gone’ …

‘Woe unto those’, I said, ‘who use their power over a human heart to destroy the simple pleasures it would naturally enjoy!’

but that’s what he means when at the end he takes his own life, too much in love to live when Charlotte (and her very patient husband) say that enough is enough, people are talking, and no, he’s not to come round any more.

(Mind you, Charlotte’s got a bit to answer for.  She knows how he feels but she lets him kiss her hand and she gives him presents.  Why? Well, this novel was written well before Freud but I think she sees her husband as a father-figure rather a lover.  He’s is a good bit older than she is and she’s enjoying the company of a young man.  He’s like a brother, she says (not very convincingly) to herself, and (even less convincingly) that she’d like to marry him off to one of her friends.  I think she likes the drama of it all as well.)

First published in 1774 when Goethe was only 24 and still smarting over a love affair with someone called – you guessed it – Charlotte, The Sorrows of Young Werther would be a different work if written by someone older and wiser about the vicissitudes of life.  It’s one of those books that appeals to readers of different ages in different ways.  Young people experiencing their first grand passion only to suffer their first broken heart will identify with young Werther while the Aged Sage will smile knowingly at the younger self.

Were it not for its  tragic resolution which has over time provoked copycat suicides, the story could in places be characterised as droll.   As he cooks himself some sort of peas pudding in his rooms, Werther dreams of Charlotte, comparing himself to the illustrious suitors of Penelope preparing their meals of oxen and swine.  (He’s very fond of reading Homer, and later on, the even more romantic Ossian).  He fancies himself as in touch with his own natural feelings and congratulates himself on his capacity to feel the ‘same simple and innocent pleasure as the peasant whose table is covered with food of his own rearing’.  It’s easy to mock his self-aggrandizing perspective when he complains that his heart suffers more from Charlotte’s absence than does ‘a poor creature lingering on a bed of sickness’  (i.e. he suffers more than the dying woman Charlotte has gone to visit).

In the light of subsequent events there is dark irony in the way that he inveighs against Herr Schmidt’s jealousy (provoked by Werther himself chatting too long with the Schmidt’s girlfriend, the lovely Frederica).  He pontificates about the folly of men tormenting each other and wasting the ‘few short days of sunshine in quarrels and disputes’ and lectures the table about not letting emotion get the better of you.  He’s an advocate for restraint and reason (i.e. ideals of the Enlightenment) but ironically it’s the vicar’s wife who reminds him that ‘we cannot always command our tempers’. No indeed…and especially not if we are deluded into thinking that the world is the way that we want it to be, as Werther is when he convinces himself that Charlotte (despite other evidence to the contrary) loves him.

I felt considerably more sturm and drang when my Kindle announced that it was shutting down due to low battery (despite being connected to a power source) because I then had to switch to Kindle-for-PC and read the rest of this absorbing story with my laptop on my knee.

I wasn’t keen on the latter part of the book where ‘the editor’ takes over the narration, and the very long passages from Ossian were a tad tedious.  Apparently Goethe was a bit embarrassed that his fame rested on this youthful work, and would rather he were well-known for his more mature efforts.  But still, this is an important milestone in the development of the novel and it’s also a remarkably perceptive study of obsession considering its author was so young when he wrote it.

Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Title: The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published 1774
translated from the German by R.D. Boylan
Publisher: Project Gutenberg 2527

Availability: You can do what I did and get it as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg, or if you prefer the reliability of a book, I’d suggest the Penguin edition because their introductions are usually very good.


  1. A Kindle comment! I now tend to buy the classics, rather than go to Project Gutenberg, partly because I had a free one fail on me once, but mainly because I can get any introductions, annotations etc that way. And they are usually quite cheap.

    Also, do you classify your Kindle books into collections? I do that to make it easy to find them. (And I don’t have 400 yet!). Then, you could have German Classics or even Unread German Classics or Unread European Classics (depending on the quantities you are managing) to help you locate things.

    My main Kindle challenge is flicking through them quickly to find things when I’m in a discussion group.

    As for this book … it’s probably not high on my priority list to read though to round myself out I probably should!


    • Hi Sue, yes, I have figured out the Kindle collections function, I just forgot to do it with this book. It was one of those late night impulse things after I read a review of it on someone’s blog. I’m sure I’ll find it eventually!
      It’s probably time to upgrade to the next version where some of these bugs have probably been ironed out by now…


      • Oh, fair enough, I assumed really you would have.

        I have just received, this week, my new Kindle Touch, having decided to upgrade primarily because it will be quieter for reading – and note-making – in bed. I’m not sure the book/reading functionality is much different, except for the touch operation, but I haven’t really put it through its paces. I do like it though.


  2. Dramatic sturming and dranging on every page, a wonderfully-camp OTT work. This was my first Goethe, and I definitely wasn’t expecting this ;)


    • What Goethe should i read next, Tony?


      • ‘Wilhelm Meister’ is a bit long and dry in places, but I enjoyed ‘Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten’ (‘Entertainments of German Emigrés’ – not sure if it’s been translated). I’ve heard that ‘Die Wahlverwandschaften’ (‘Elective Affinities’) is supposed to be good, and I’d also like to try ‘Hermann und Dorothea’ :)


        • That’s amazing, that there might still be some of his works untranslated after all this time! So there might yet be a job for you as a translator of Goethe, eh?


  3. I ve only read faust by him I ve a copy of this somewhere I hope to read it for german lit month one year ,this does sound like maybe the first trouble youth novel ,all the best stu


    • Hi Stu, lovely to hear from you when I’m far away from home:)


  4. I read this one a few months back for a literature class (the first and only such class I have ever taken!), and it’s really interesting to see how your response is both similar and not-similar to mine. I always felt that Charlotte wasn’t being particularly fair by quietly encouraging Werther… it certainly didn’t seem to me like she viewed him as a “brother”!

    As for the edition, I read the Penguin edition and can certainly recommend it. The introduction is spoiler-filled (seriously, I know it’s a classic, but still!), but the footnotes offer some interesting information, and the introduction is enlightening when read as an afterword.


    • Butting in cos I can’t resist (Sorry Lisa)! I never read Introductions first Biblio … I know they’re called Introductions but I like to read them at the end so that I’ve read the book fresh first before I read someone else’s commentary.


      • In German, it really is an ‘Afterword’ (Nachwort), an idea English would do well to adopt ;)


      • Feel free to butt in, Sue, especially at the moment, becaue I’m not quite keeping up with conversation here LOL.
        For me, it depends. With plot driven books, yes, I read the intro afterwards. But with modernist and challenging books, I quite often start the book, become mystified, and then find myself reading the intro to help me make sense of it.


        • Thanks Lisa.

          You make sense, but I still prefer not … I feel a book should be able to stand on its own to some degree, that I should be able to make sense of it. I’m sure though that there have been occasions where I’ve peeked at the intro during reading but I’d avoid reading it thoroughly!


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