Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
The Sorrows of Young Werther
(Die Leiden des jungen Werthers)
Brief summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1997

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using the Penguin 1989 edition translated Michael Hulse 1989.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of its commentary.   

Overall Impression: A well-told prototypically romantic tale of unrequited love, obsession, despair, and suicide, the inspiration for a fine opera by Massenet.

Notes per Penguin edition: Written when Goethe was 24 based on his unsuccessful love interest in Charlotte Buff (they met in spring and summer 1772 in Wetzlar, near Frankfurt; she married Christian Kestner April 1773), a subsequent unsuccessful love-interest in Maximiliane von La Roche, and also based partly on the suicide of Wilhelm Jerusalem in October 1772 (who despaired of unsuccessful love with Elisabeth Herd, and borrowed Kestner's pistols to accomplish the deed.) It incorporates the "proto-Romantic" cult of the genius exempt from the customary rules and judgements characteristic of the Sturm und Drang period, coupled with sentimental melancholy sensitivity known as Empfindsamkeit.


The novel is in the form of a series of letters from Werther to his brother Wilhelm detailing his love for Lotte (Charlotte S.) despite her bethrothal and subsequent marriage to Albert. She has eight brothers and sisters and promised her deceased mother to marry Albert. He is a sensitive artist, poet, and lover of nature and Homer. He exhibits increasing obsession over this unrequited love and with thoughts of death and suicide, and is emotionally ill-equipped to get on with his life. When employed by an ambassador, he is rejected by the noble guests at a gathering as not of their class. His standard wear is a blue frock-coat and buff waistcoat and breeches [as Jerusalem wore at the time of his suicide]. As his obsession (and madness) deepens, he prefers the fictitious Gaelic poet Ossian over Homer, and prepares a translation. Lotte believes he is ill and begs him to leave her alone. Albert is uneasy with Werther and wishes he would visit less. Lotte finally asks that he not visit before Christmas Eve, but he comes anyway. She asks him to read to her his translation of the songs of Ossian. He reads out loud, she is moved to tears, he is overcome with passion and covers her lips with kisses-- she is horrified and banishes him from her presence forever. Werther later sends a servant with a note to Albert to borrow his pistols for a journey-- Albert instructs Lotte to give them to the servant. Later that night, Werther shoots himself.