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Literature / The Sorrows of Young Werther

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"Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter...

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person
Went on cutting bread and butter."
William Makepeace Thackeray, Sorrows of Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is a 1774 novel (revised in 1787) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about an emotional young man named Werther who falls madly in love with an young woman named Lotte, who is engaged to someone else. Werther gradually becomes more emotional and less mentally stable...

The novel was young Goethe's way of working out his feelings over his platonic relationship with Charlotte Buff (1753-1828), who went on to marry Johann Christian Kestner, who was on good terms with Goethe and served as the model for Albert in the novel. After Kestner's death, Charlotte once visited Goethe in Weimar in 1816, an event that was freely adapted into the novel Lotte in Weimar (1939) by Thomas Mann.

The Sorrows of Young Werther was an immediate best-seller and made Goethe famous virtually overnight. The novel was one of the earliest works of literature to generate a recognizable fandom, creating a dress fashion. It was also one of the first to be blamed, not without cause, to have a negative effect on some of its readers; psychologists therefore continue to debate about the "Werther effect", meaning a work of art encouraging consumers to commit suicide. The "wave of suicides" following the novel was somewhat exaggerated, more recent studies indicate that there may only be about a dozen verifiable cases where the novel played a part. However, one of them was a friend of Goethe's, which probably was the reason why he published the revised edition of 1787. It also was one of the reasons why the novel was condemned not just by the usual moral guardians affiliated with traditional religion, but also by proponents of The Enlightenment. For instance the scientist and aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg acidly quipped: "The best part in Werther is when he shoots the coward."

The success soon extended beyond Germany, it was first published in French in 1776 and in English in 1779. At his meeting with Goethe, Emperor Napoleon mentioned that he had read the book seven times. Werther was later adapted into a popular opera (written 1887, first performed 1892) by the French composer Jules Massenet. The East German writer Ulrich Plenzdorf transferred the action into the contemporary GDR in the successful play Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. ("The New Sorrows of Young W.", 1972).

Note that some of these tropes seem like they should be in YMMV, but even Goethe straight-out said that most of them applied; he was horrified, for example, that people were killing themselves in imitation of Werther.

This work provides examples of:

  • And That's Terrible: Werther's criticism on Albert's shocked reaction at his pointing a (not loaded) gun at his head can be seen as an aversion of this trope.
    "But why should any one,” said I, “in speaking of an action, venture to pronounce it mad or wise, or good or bad? What is the meaning of all this? Have you carefully studied the secret motives of our actions? Do you understand — can you explain the causes which occasion them, and make them inevitable?"
  • Boom, Headshot!: The manner in which Werther chooses to go. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens in real life, he lingers for several hours after the deed.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Apparently Werther is a great artist, but once describes himself as greater than he could ever be when not painting and just observing.
  • Chekhov's Gun: With a literal gun.
  • Death of a Child: Hans.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Werther crosses it after the crime of passion.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Sorry, Werther, no Lotte for you.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Invoked. Goethe intended for this work to discourage people from killing themselves over matters of love. It backfired spectacularly.
  • Downer Ending: Due to the protagonist killing himself because of Unrequited Love.
  • Empathic Environment: The weather tends to be in tune with Werther's feelings. When he feels turmoil, a storm starts. When he's beyond despair in the second book, there's a flood in Walheim.
  • Epistolary Novel: Takes the form of letters by Werther to his friend Wilhelm.
  • Faint in Shock: Charlotte, upon hearing of Werther's suicide, sinks into a faint so deep that others begin to fear for her life.
  • Forbidden Fruit: Late in the book, Charlotte suggests that this is why Werther wants her.
    "Why must you love me, me only, who belong to another? I fear, I much fear, that it is only the impossibility of possessing me which makes your desire for me so strong."
  • Hanlon's Razor: Discussed. Even before Hanlon himself codified the modern formulation of this trope, Goethe had some words to say on the matter:
    Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness. At all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence.
  • Hot-Blooded: Werther, that hopeless romantic.
  • Hypocrite: There's nothing Werther hates more than ill humour. Yet his letters are filled with suicidal despair and bemoaning of the ways of the world.
    • He's also accepting of the class system, but rants about it when it works against him (the party at the Count's house).
  • If I Can't Have You…: The servant who was in love with his mistress gets fired and ends up murdering his replacement.
    "No one will now marry her, and she will marry no one."
  • It's All About Me: Werther's letters are all about how the events in the story make him feel, and he doesn't really seem interested in understanding things from Charlotte's or anyone else's point of view. He also never asks how Wilhelm is going.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Heinrich, a character from late in the book who once worked for Charlotte's father, fell in love with her, and was driven mad by it to the point of having to be placed in an asylum.
  • Love Triangle: Lotte is aware of Werther's love for her, but her own love for Albert prevents her from thinking of Werther as more than a friend.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Charlotte has 8 siblings. This was normal at the time though. (Lotte's model Charlotte Buff actually was one of 16 siblings).
  • Mood-Swinger: If Werther starts off a letter rhapsodizing how happy he is and how enchanting is the world around him, duck.
  • Moral Guardians: Authorities were concerned over the "Werther effect" in which people started committing suicides based on the novel.
  • Multiple Endings: Friedrich Nicolai, an author, publisher and critic, wrote an alternate ending to the novel called The Joys of Young Werther in which Werther's suicide is foiled, Lotte chooses him over Albert, and Werther eventually becomes a productive member of society. Goethe was not happy (it did not help that Goethe hated literary parody in principle).
  • Promotion to Parent: Charlotte became the mother figure to her siblings after their mother passed away.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The exceedingly passionate Werther is red to his rival in love Albert, who's very rational. Werther also contrasts with his correspondent Wilhelm; while we never see him, he tries to appease Werther's enthusiasm towards Charlotte.
  • Romanticism: Literature historians generally see Werther as a work belonging to the Sturm und Drang period, the immediate predecessor of Romanticism.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Lotte's fiancé Albert has typical Enlightenment attitudes. Werther is very Romantic, although the Romantic movement barely existed yet when the book was written.
    • On the meta level, Friedrich Nicolai, the author of The Joys of Young Werther, was a great crusader for the Enlightenment who polemically fought tooth and nail against Sturm und Drang and Romanticism, as he saw them as anti-rational, reactionary movements of dubious literary taste.
  • Scrapbook Story: Mostly, it's letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm , but near the end, as Werther's mental state starts to deteriorate, an 'editor' steps in to clarify a few points.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Werther frequently mentions in his letters of reading Homer's work.
    • The dying Werther is found with an opened copy of the tragedy Emilia Galotti by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Lessing was taken aback and criticized the narration of the suicide scene in several respects.
    • The final scene between Werther and Charlotte have them reading Ossian, James Macpherson's "rediscovered" Scottish epic. The Lays of Ossian were a cult favorite among philosophers and artists but were eventually exposed as being mostly Macpherson's own creation, rather than a translation of a 1,500-years-old epic. Like most readers of his time, Goethe did believe it was an example of an immortal folk tradition.
  • Spurned into Suicide: Werther kills himself because he cannot stand that Charlotte can never return his love.
  • Together in Death: Werther kills himself to achieve this with Charlotte, or so he claims.
  • Unbuilt Trope: The nascent Romantic movement in literature arguably received its greatest impetus out of the aforementioned Misaimed Fandom...unless you think this book had a Romantic inclination when it was wrote, before Goethe would later decry the movement.
  • Yandere: The servant in love with his mistress at first seems to be a very sweet, undemanding, honourable character. Later he tries to rape her and later yet, he murders the servant who replaced him in his position.