The Sorrows of the Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Author Biography

550.jpgJohann Wolfgang Goethe was born August 28, 1749 in Frankfurt am Main, which is present day Germany. His mother was Catharina Elisabeth Textor and his father was Johann Caspar Goethe. Goethe had only one sister who survived, Cornelia Friderike Christiana. Goethe was taught by his father and numerous other teachers in various subjects, especially languages. He also had lessons in dancing, riding and fencing. He was strongly opposed to the church, calling it “a hotchpotch of mistakes and violence.” His interests included drawing, literature, theater, and puppet shows. [2]

From 1765- 1768, Goethe studied law in Leipzig. He was not too fond of this and instead preferred poetry. While in Leipzig, Goethe fell in love with a woman named Käthchen Schönkopf, and wrote poems about her. [2]

In 1768, Goethe moved to Frankfurt, where he became deathly ill. During his illness, his relationship with his father deteriorated. His mother and sister helped to restore his health.[2]

In 1770, after he regained his health, Goethe traveled to Strasbourg to finish his studies. There he met his friend Johann Gottfried Herder, who proved to play a strong role in Goethe’s development (he initiated Goethe’s interest in Shakespeare, Ossian and folk poetry). Later, Goethe fell in love with Friederike Brion, but soon after ended the relationship. Goethe’s legal thesis was published and he was offered a job in the French government, which he rejected. [2]

In August of 1771, Goethe was certified as a licensee in Frankfurt. However, after a few months, his law career ended. During this time, Goethe delved into literature. He created a piece called Götz von Berlichingen. [2]

In 1772, Goethe began to practice law again, this time at Wetzlar. In 1775, Carl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach invited Goethe to live in Weimar, where he held numerous political offices and became the Duke's chief adviser. [2]

Johann-Wolfgang-von-Goethe.jpgGoethe was ennobled in 1782, where his name was changed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. From 1786-1788, he traveled to the Italian peninsula, which influenced his philosophical development. In 1792, Goethe took part in the battle of Valmy, where he fought against revolutionary France. In 1806, he married Christiane Vulpius. After the year 1793, Goethe devoted his life to literature. He died March 22, 1832, in Weimar. [2]

Goethe is the author of a number of works, including The Sorrows of the Young Werther, first published in 1774, which was an influence in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. His works range from poetry, to literature, to theology and even to painting. Some of Goethe's notable works are Faust, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Egmont, Torquato Tasso and Reineke Fuchs. [1]

Plot Summary

The Sorrows of the Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is a fictionalized account of an unrequited romance of Goethe's youth. The novel is mostly in the form of letters, sent from Werther to his friend Wilhelm during Werther’s visit to Wahlheim, a fictional village created by Goethe [4]. It focuses on romantic themes such as sensibility, alienization, and solitude. The novel is split up into two books, the first of which describes the development of his relationship with Lotte and the second of which details his descent into maddening depression and includes an excerpt entitles "The Editor to the Reader," a posthumous documentation of the Werther.

The first book comprises the Werther’s initial stay in Walheim, a fictional German village in the countryside, where he meets Lotte, a young, virginal, and virtuous maiden who cares for her orphaned brothers and sisters as well as the sick and dying persons in the surrounding villages. Upon arrival, the Werther is warned not to fall in love with her because she is taken, but he is heedless. The Werther remains content with the solitude of the countryside and the constant company of Lotte as he assists her with her charity, until Lotte’s fiancé, Albert, returns. Albert’s return marks stark changes in the Werther’s behavior for he realizes that not only is Lotte out of his reach, she is devoted to Albert. His jealousy and dependency on Lotte’s approval and attention for happiness drive him into a state of misery. He contemplates suicide several times, first recounting a story of a girl jilted by her lover who drowned herself in a river and next pretending to shoot himself with Albert’s guns. His unhealthy state of mind coupled with guidance from his correspondent, Wilheim, lead him to leave Walheim to distance himself from Lotte.

The second book begins with the Werther’s work under an envoy for the Courts, but it does not last for long as he resigns after embarrassing himself by attempting to associate with social classes higher than his own. After his resignation, he returns to Walheim, seeking Lotte’s presence. The line, “I only want to be closer to Lotte once more; that is all. And I mock at my heart and do what it commands” (Goethe 99)[6], demonstrates the Werther’s lack of sensibility and rational thought, as well as his devotion to Lotte. Once in Walheim, he constantly ruminates over how he would have served Lotte better as a husband and is driven into depression by his obsession with the unattainable. Because of his state and at Albert’s request, Lotte asks the Werther not to visit as often and in a subsequent conversation she clearly states that he needs to find a worthy, viable subject of his affections. Werther comes to the conclusion that one of the three must die, and since he is the most miserable, it should be him. In his final visit to Lotte, the Werther reads the Ossian, a poem which Goethe was translating at the time, and kisses Lotte, convinced that their platonic relationship was a cruel fate. Finally, the Werther announces he is going on a journey and asks to borrow two guns from Albert before he leaves. In private he shoots himself in the head, but Lotte, her siblings, and Albert join him at his deathbed. Though he isburied where he requested, it is without Christian rites.

Goethe & Werther

Striking parallels exist between Goethe and Werther to such a degree that many refer to this novel as being somewhat autobiographical. However, it is more appropriate to make the claim that it is a conglomeration of Goethe’s own experiences and those of his close friend Jerusalem. [2]

In the summer of 1772, Goethe met a 19-year-old Charlotte Buff and her older fiancé Johann Christian Kestner. He instantly fell in love with Charlotte, and regardless of her engagement, pursued her into a friendship mixed with rejection. Charlotte did indeed marry Kestner, and Goethe left without saying goodbye. [2]

Much of Werther’s tale mirrors Goethe’s experience with Charlotte and Kestner, and in addition there are more minor details that also happen to match. Goethe gave Werther his same birthday, August 28, and they both left their loves, Charlotte and Lotte, respectively, on September 10. Furthermore, Charlotte and her counterpart Lotte both had many siblings they were responsible for after the death of one of their parents. [2]

The second person whose life influenced Goethe in writing this novel was his friend Jerusalem. Jerusalem, like Goethe and Werther, felt unrequited love for a married woman. His love was so strong that he committed suicide, which was Werther’s solution to his frustration. When Werther kills himself, he uses borrowed pistols, just as Jerusalem had. [2]

Allusions in Frankenstein

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley makes direct references to the novel The Sorrows of the Young Werther. This is done when Victor's creature finds the novel and reads it to pass the time and practice his language skills. The creature learns a lot from reading this novel, especially about emotions and feelings. This is seen when he states, "As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition" (Shelley 114). [3] When Victor first created this creature, it had no knowledge of how to speak, think, and act like other humans. The monster is extremely disappointed that he cannot interact with other humans or communicate with them becuase he is so different. However, throughout the novel he self-educates himself to learn how to communicate. Another human trait that the monster had to learn to be more humanlike, was feeling emotions and being able to relate to others, which was what reading the work The Sorrows of the Young Werther helped him do.

"Often... I was tempted to plunge into the silent lake" (Shelley 81). The Sorrows of the Young Werther introduces the concept of suicide to the creature in its adolescent period, and specifically drowning onself relates to the story in Young Werther about a girl who drowns herself in the river when her lover abandons her.When the monster kills Henry Clerval, he frames the scene so that is appears as though he washed up from the water, having attempted suicide. Werther constant focus on death and his decision that he had to be the one to die to relieve Albert and Lotte is similar to and influenced Frankenstein’s creature in that he believes in the misery, only death can bring happiness. In addition, all of the deaths in The Sorrows of the Young Werther occur due to loss of companionship, which drills into the creature's mind that a suitable, loving companion contributes monumentally to one's happiness and likely contributes to the reasoning behind the creature's request for a companion. Therefore the inclusion of The Sorrows of the Young Werther contributes to the overarching theme in Frankenstein of the need for love and nurturing for survival and ultimate happiness.

"In the Sorrows of Werter, besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed, and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects, that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment. The gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings, which had for their object something out of self, accorded well with my experience among my protectors, and with the wants that were forever alive in my bosom" (Shelley 114). [3] This quote from Frankenstein once again reflects how the Creature was affected by reading The Sorrows of the Young Werther. The Creature is clearly fascinated by the life that Werther lived and leads him to questoin his own life and the lives of those around him. His questioning manner about human society in general is once again seen because of his reactions to the characters in the book he has read. The Creatures states blatantly that events in Werther's life, as well as Werther's feelings an emotions can easily be related to those in his own life. This shows how the Creature was able to connect and learn from The Sorrows of the Young Werther. Because the Creature was able to relate to Werther so greatly, he altered his life greatly to mirror that of Werther's. This quote from Frankenstein clearly represents how the Creature compares himself to Werther and another way Shelley incorporated this novel into her own.

Frankenstein_book_295pix.gif“But I thought Werter himself a more divine being than I had ever beheld or imagined; his character contained no pretension but it sunk deep. The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder. I did not pretend to enter into the merits of the case, yet I inclined towards the opinions of the hero, whose extinction I wept, without precisely understanding it” (Shelley 114-115). After Creature read The Sorrows of the Young Werther, he immediately felt close to Werther. To him, Werther was the greatest human he ever knew. When Creature read The Sorrows of the Young Werther, he was simulating a real human relationship. In Creature's mind, he and Werther were friends; he was able relate to Werther. Although he did not fully understand the concept of death, Creature mourned Werther’s death as he would a friend’s. He felt an implicit bond with Werther. The two shared various related traits. They both preferred the natural environment to the urban (village) life, and they were both greatly unhappy with their situation. While reading this novel, Creature gained the knowledge of what death was, and though he didn’t fully appreciate what it meant, he knew that it was a terrible thing. Moreover, reading the novel allowed Creature to connect with and express emotions as he had never known how to do before. It taught him about love and death, which were invaluable lessons for him.

Excerpts from The Sorrows of the Young Werther

"What beings are men, whose whole thoughts are occupied with form and ceremony, who for years together devote their mental and physical exertions to the task of advancing themselves but one step, and endeavouring to occupy a higher place at the table" (Goethe 48). [5] Werther questions the merits of men, doubting that they are any good at all. According to Werther, the only things that men are concerned with is doing what is considered proper and climbing the social ladder. Werther’s disdain for men and their selfish ideals mirrors that of Creature. Creature, who at one point wanted to be part of society but was rejected, began to hate mankind for being so closed-minded. As Werther said, men do what is considered socially acceptable, which means that they don’t accept anything different, such as Creature. Moreover, men are focused on advancing socially, which Creature attempts to do. Creature realizes that he is at the bottom of the social hierarchy, he is an outcast, and he attempts to break away from these social restraints by becoming friends with the DeLachey’s. After Creature is rejected, he turns his back on society altogether, and instead attempts to torture humankind as opposed to living in harmony with it.

Victor’s creature in Frankenstein incorporates many of the ideas he learned through reading into his life and behavior. This is true for The Sorrows of the Young Werther, one of the novels the creature has read. In this particular novel, Werther makes the following statement upon realizing his love for Lotte will never be returned since she has married another man: “I suffer much, for I have lost the only charm of life: that active, sacred power which created worlds around me, - it is no more” (Goethe 66) [5]. This teaches the creature that by losing those one loves, he/she will suffer greater than by any other agent of pain and his/her world will fall apart. This is perhaps the basis on which the creature decides that his vengeance would be realized to a greater, harsher extent by killing Victor’s family and loved ones rather than simply murdering Victor and putting him out of the misery he wants him to endure.

Nature is expressed greatly in both The Sorrows of the Young Werther and Frankenstein. This is seen in Goethe's work in the following excerpt: "The town itself is unpleasant, but round about it an inexpressible natural beauty. This moved the late Count von M . . . to lay out his garden on one of the hills that intersect with the most appealing variety and form the loveliest valleys. The garden is simple, and you feel the moment you enter that its plan was not drawn up by some calculating gardener but by a feeling heart that sought its own enjoyment here" (Goethe) [5]. In this passage, there is a clear distinction between nature and the village. The village is portrayed as evil and unpleasant, but the world's natural beauty is, on the other hand, described as inexpressible and joyful. Werther clearly feels more comfortable and happy in a natural enviornment, rather than one corrupted by humankind. This destruction of the world by humans is also seen when Werther states that the garden's beauty is not because of the human that planted it. Goethe, through Werther's character, gives humans little credit, but sees great enjoyment and beauty in the world's natural features. The creature in Frankenstein is the same way. His clear hatred towards humans is seen after he causes great pandemonium in various villages. "...I longed to join them, but I dared not. I remembered too well the treatment I had suffered the night before from the barbarious villagers..." (Shelley 91) [3]. It is clear that the creature's reaction to humans is unpleasant, for he refers to them as barbarious. The creature has little respect for humans, not to mention he fears them. This is illustrated in the novel because the creature only goes out at night to get his food, and because it takes him so long to enter the DeLacey's cottage. Contrastly, the creature's love for nature is seen in Shelley's novel as well. "...the day, which was the first of spring, cheered even me by the loveliness of the sunshine and the balminess of the air. I felt emotions of gentleness and pleasure..." (Shelley 120) [3]. The creature's changed emotions with the change in weather and seasons represents how nature is seen in Frankenstein. For the most part, the creature's mood becomes more positive with nicer weather. Even when he is at his lowest low, after the DeLaceys leave, he is still temporarily joyed by a change in season. In addition, Goethe and Shelley both reference mountains and valleys in ways that emphasize the solitude of their surroundings but also with cage-like imagery. Shelley used phrases such as "hills to barricade the valley" (Shelley 92) and "the icey wall of the glacier" (92) [3] when describing Victor's travels to imply that even in nature, he is trapped. Similarly, Goethe references "interlocked hills" (Goethe 33) and " unbearable torment, a sort of demon that persecutes me wherever I go" (64) filled with "fertile valleys...distant hills...everything on all sides" (64). [6] Shelley makes many parallels between changes in weather and the characters' moods in the novel, and nature is clearly illustrated in Frankenstein and The Sorrows of the Young Werther.

Werther, from the novel The Sorrows of the Young Werther, said "The hermit's cell, his sackcloth, and girdle of thorns would be luxury and indulgence compared with what I suffer" (Goethe 41). [5] Werther envied those who were alone in the world, and said that their loneliness would seem wonderful to him, compared to how he suffered as a part of society. Werther would have loved to be alone in the world but was too connected to it to be able to escape from his fellow man. Werther’s wish was the exact opposite of the feelings that Creature, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, had. Creature lived the life that Werther dreamed of; he was isolated from all of humankind due to his extreme ugliness and size. His only desire in life was to be accepted. Creature longed for the feelings of belonging and human contact that Werther desperately wanted to get away from. These opposing sentiments are somewhat ironic. Creature saw much of himself in Werther, as he so stated after reading The Sorrows of the Young Werther. “The gentle and domestic manners it described, combined with lofty sentiments and feelings…accorded well with my experience…” (Shelley 114). [3] However, despite their similarities, each wanted the social position that the other had. Creature would live a happy and productive life, instead of a life of pain, if he was accepted by mankind. Werther, on the other hand, suffered supremely because he was forced to live a life surrounded by people.


1."Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." Pegasos. 2003. 29 Nov 2007 <>.
2. "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2007. 29 Nov 2007 <>.
3. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Barnes & Noble Classics. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2003.
4. "The Sorrows of the Young Werther." Google Books. 2006. 29 Nov 2007 <>.
5. von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang . The Sorrows of Young Werther . New York and Berlin: Mondial, 2006.
6. von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang . The Sorrows of Young Werther . New York: Random House, 1990.