Sorrows of Werter

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Sorrows of Werter

Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of the Young Werter) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was originally published anonymously in Leipzig in 1774. Almost instantly it became a best seller, catapulting its young and unknown author into fame and a major literary career that would span more than half a century. By the end of the decade the novel had been translated into the other European languages, attaining a pan-European success that continued well into the nineteenth century: as late as 1892 it afforded Jules Massenet one of his greatest musical triumphs at the Paris Opera.

The first French translation was published in 1777 as the work of C. Aubry, a pseudonym for Friedrich Wilhelm Karl, Graf von Schmettau (1742-1806), and it was frequently reprinted in that language. The first English version, by Daniel Malthus, was published in 1779 as The Sorrows of Werter, using the French text, rather than Goethe's original, as its base.

The novel coincided with what has come to be known as the Age of Sensibility, whose flames it helped to fan. It is an epistolary novel, told in Werther's voice and from his perspective, and there is little in the way of plot. Charlotte, the oldest of six children, is left an orphan by the sudden death of her mother, and she marries the sensible, if somewhat plodding, Albert as a means of holding the family together. Onto the scene comes the young student Werther who is befriended by the couple but then falls passionately in love with Lotte. His infatuation progressively deepens to a point of desperation in which he commits suicide. The novel was said to be responsible for making suicide fashionable among the young men of Europe.

What the Creature responds to are less the episodes of the plot or even the dynamics of infatuation than the sense of moral emptiness that Werther finds in the world and from which he turns for refuge to the somewhat maternal Lotte. Precociously intellectual with a late-adolescent intensity, Werther too seeks to understand his identity and to discover his place in a middle-class milieu that cares for little that is not prudent and sensible, the world represented by Albert. In reference to the particular dynamics of Mary Shelley's novel, this milieu would appear very much on the order of the temperate Swiss world of Alphonse Frankenstein and Henry Clerval's father. Thus, curiously enough, the novel establishes a link to Goethe's fiction both through the intense self-questioning and bleak alienation of the Creature as well as the obsessive behavior of his creator Victor Frankenstein, who also turns away from the commonplace Geneva expectations in which he was raised to fathom a new mode of being.