The Sorrows of Young Werther (Modern Library Classics)

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Paperback, 2005





Modern Library (2005)


A major work of German romanticism in a translation that is acknowledged as the definitive English language version. The Vintage Classics edition also includes NOVELLA, Goethe's poetic vision of an idyllic pastoral society.

Media reviews

The legend that it generated a teenage-suicide epidemic across Europe is dubious, but the novel’s international popularity two hundred years ago can’t be overstated. ... Werther’s sorrows didn’t look petty to Goethe or to his original audience, and they ought to feel even more familiar to us.

User reviews

LibraryThing member theokester
I went into this book knowing virtually nothing about it. I remembered a vague reference to it from reading Frankenstein last year (the monster discovers and reads this book and relates strongly to Werther) but beyond that, and the general "sorrow" of the central character, I hopped in blind.

The book is written in epistolary style with each letter being sent from Werther to his friend Wilhelm (a couple of the letters seemed addressed to his brother as well?). We never read any responses written to Werther but can sometimes infer the reactions from Wilhelm. Still, the core of the story is told in Werther's letters themselves.

Because of the epistolary style, the narrative is a little 'jumpy' as it skips over time in between letters…sometimes a day or two, sometimes weeks or more. Some of the letters are very lengthy and pour out large segments of plot and action. Others are very short segments of exclamation or emotion. Sometimes even the longer letters don't advance the "plot" so much as provide insight into the thoughts and emotions of Werther.

Through the letters, we follow Werther as he moves to the country and encounters a young girl named Lotte. He is immediately transfixed by her and professes undying love. She coyly allows his advances and it seems as though a romance may appear between them. Quickly we learn that Lotte is betrothed to another man named Albert. Werther is taken aback by this, but still persists in being close to Lotte with the hope of perhaps persuading her to love him. When the time comes, Lotte does marry Albert, much to Werther's dismay, but the three of them remain friendly. Werther visits them frequently and seems to hover incessantly over Lotte. He grows more and more jealous of Albert, which creates some tension in the group and Albert begins to leave the room when Werther comes to visit.

Werther's obsession with Lotte grows more and more intense as time goes on. He battles with himself over the emotions he feels and writes his friend for advice, although it is very clear that Werther does not feel able to (nor does he desire to) make a break from Lotte and strive to love another. He does finally move away from Lotte and spends some time trying to move on with his life. He becomes more and more discontent in his work and more and more obsessed with returning to her.

He finally does move back to live by them again. Albert is more offstandish and put off by Werther's presence. Werther continues to be insistent in his own mind (and sometimes to Lotte or Wilhelm) that there must be a way for her to love him. At the same time, he is emotionally conflicted because he knows she "belongs" to another man and he does not feel it is right to try and take her from him. She eventually tells Werther that he needs to stop coming around so often (he'd been visiting almost daily) but says that he's still a friend and should come by for Christmas as she's made him a gift.

*** SPOILER ***

Shortly after (the day after) Lotte tells Werther to back off a bit, he finds Lotte alone one night and again professes his love and pushes on her and kisses her passionately. She forces him off and tells him how wrong he's behaving. He's again in turmoil but does leave, though he announces (somewhat veiled) that she won't see him again…ever. He returns home and writes a few more notes in preparation of his suicide. He sends a note to Lotte and Albert to borrow their pistols for "a trip he's taking." Lotte realizes what's going on, but sends the pistols anyway. He shoots himself in the middle of the night and dies the next morning. He's buried without clergy, graveyard or cemetery.


The presentation of love versus obsession is very interesting here and is very well done. You get a very good sense of the turmoil that Werther's going through…of the pain he's feeling as well as the desire he has but cannot fulfill. After reading the book, I looked up some info on it and found that it is actually fairly autobiographical. Apparently Goethe fell in love with his own Lotte who refused him and married another. He was obsessed for some time and found it hard to work or concentrate. There was a quote I read where Goethe indicates that he actually used Werther (and particularly the ending) to save himself [Goethe].

The story itself is intriguing though not particularly entrancing. It's really the presentation of the mental anguish of Werther that makes this noteworthy to me. Getting into his head and participating in the psychology of obsessive love was really interesting. A lot of his language was actually very romantic and, had it been spent on someone more receptive, could have been very powerful in enhancing a romantic relationship. Parts of the read were a bit slow, but overall, it was a good read.

4.5 out of 5 stars
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LibraryThing member Katie_H
For being written in 1774, this German novella is a timeless classic. It is often described as a romance or tragic love story, but I'd have to disagree with that description. What I experienced was a case study in severe depression and angst, not "love." But that's just semantics. Goethe wrote the book as a series of letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm. Werther finds himself "in love" (obsessed) with a girl, Charlotte, who is engaged to another man, Albert. He is consumed with complex and extreme emotions, loneliness, frustration, and constant thoughts of death. The majority of the time, he comes across as overly dramatic and extremely whiny, and the reader finds herself wishing that he would just "get a grip." Forshadowing of the climax begins on the first page and continues frequently throughout the text. Even though Werther comes across as pathological, anyone who has ever experienced a broken heart or a situation of unrequited love will be able to relate to his experience. This is one of the must read fictional masterpieces, but be warned that it is very dark and very disturbing and probably isn't a good choice post break-up.… (more)
LibraryThing member DavidHenry
I feel a little phoney writing a review for a classic. But anyway...

I first read Werther when I was about seventeen and I have to say that it went completely over my head. Alas, I thought it was dull. I reread it recently and thought it was brilliant!

Werther is a love and loss story. The odd thing about it is that the main protagonist (Werther) falls in and out of love with life, whilst the relationship with the love interest, Lotte, remains constant. The novel takes the form of a briefmarken, allowing the reader acquaint his or herself with Werther's ruminations (predominantly ethical and aesthetic), which become increasingly despairing as the novel progresses, and the development of his affections toward Lotte.

Werther is a disaffected youth, lofty and sincere - a romantic - who struggles to come to terms with the rather uninspired world of petite-bourgeois aspirations and conventions he encounters throughout the novel. Goethe's depiction of Werther's descent from a loftly-minded pollyanna to a disaffected outsider is subtle, poignant and thought provoking.
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LibraryThing member AustereAdam
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is not so much a tale of love and romance, as it is a chronicle of mental health; specifically, it seems, Goethe is tackling the idea of depression and even (though the term would not have existed then) bi-polar depression. Werther spends his days feeling everything in extremes. When he is happy in something, even something seemingly miniscule, he is overjoyed by it. His “cup overfloweth” and he radiates a sun-like magnitude of warmth and well-being to everyone around him. When he is saddened by something (or someone), he is inconsolable. Each disappointment pushes him nearer and nearer to the edge, of which Werther himself seems to be aware and almost welcoming. The crux of Werther’s Joys and Sorrows is, of course, a woman – a love which cannot be reconciled. Ultimately, each encounter with Werther’s love-interest, Lotte, becomes more detrimental to Werther’s fragile state-of-mind and, with one final visit (one which Lotte had expressly forbidden), Werther reaches his limit.

The Good:
Though this has been criticized by some, I appreciate the epistolary structure of this novel. I also like that to each of Werther’s letters, a response must be guessed or imagined, because none of the letters Werther received are included. I have a difficult time deciding why I like that we only get access to Werther’s side of the conversation but, I think, it is because – really – no other character has much to do with what is going on inside Werther’s head. In fact, even Lotte, the reason Werther “sacrifices” himself in the end, is only an excuse for the sacrifice and not the actual, root cause of Werther’s sorrow. Also, something I found particularly irksome throughout the first half of the novel, but which ultimately I find pleasing, is the lack of any type of characterization, even for those characters who play a larger role, such as Lotte and her husband Albert. At first, I found it difficult to engage with the novel because of this but, upon reflection, I realize the necessity. After all, this novel is about Werther’s state of mind, so the development of any other character would largely detract from the work’s purpose. In addition to this distraction, one must also realize that Werther is a rather arrogant, self-centered person, who is not very concerned about anybody else (even Lotte, when it comes down to it). Werther is entirely engrossed in his own pleasures, his own happiness, and his own despairs; thus, to focus even for a moment on anyone else’s personality or achievements would decrease the importance that Goethe had been placing on Werther’s own self-involvement.

The Bad:
The novel closes by introducing a rather omniscient “Narrator,” who is not to be mistaken for Goethe’s narrator (this can also be a bit tricky throughout the novel, when “narrator comments” are footnoted). The Narrator seems to be viewing things from the outside, to be evaluating Werther’s life and letters as a bystander, a researcher; however, he does also seem to have some connection to the characters, some insight into their emotions and actions. Does this make him unreliable? Perhaps. I also find the act of introducing a portion of the book as belonging to the Narrator, and including that Narrator suddenly into the plot-line not just unreliable but also distracting. While having the Narrator there to explain some of Werther’s actions and emotions, to guide the reader through Werther’s final days, rather than have Werther write them in letters per usual (and this may have seemed more appropriate to Werther as, when one is ending one’s life, does one really write a letter about all the actions he is taking, all the steps covered, tasks completed? ) is probably necessary, I found it a harsh break from the rest of the novel and, at the point where I would most liked to have been connecting with the main character, I felt most separated. I did also find the many pages devoted to Ossian’s poem (Werther reading the translation to Lotte) indulgent and unnecessary. Finally, though I understand and partially agree with the under-development of the other characters, I also believe this could have been a rich novel and a gripping story, equally honest to mental torment as this novel, had the plot and characters been more flushed out.

Final Verdict: 3.5/5.0
It is difficult for me not to give this novel a better rating, because I know I am supposed to love it. Still, I found faults, the main problem being that I could not really connect with the story because the majority of its format was guarded, and the final chapter was such a break from the rest that I felt displaced when I could have begun to surrender. The Sorrows of Young Werther did have its positives, though. I appreciated the subject matter, especially coming from an author in the late-1700s. Goethe seemed truly concerned with mental disturbances and depression; he was taking the disease seriously and not just allowing his character to be played off as “having passions.” Goethe, I think, understood that Werther’s “lost love” Lotte was not the true reason for his final descent and, for the close reader, this point comes across loud and clear. What was Goethe experiencing, I wonder, which allowed him or induced him to write this novel?
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LibraryThing member FrankensteinsMonster
"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 which were for ever alive in my own bosom. 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 up 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."

- Frankenstein, Volume II, Chapter VII
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LibraryThing member Cecrow
I expected to dismiss this book, having read others' reviews in advance. Goethe himself often wished it forgotten after he wrote it, when it still haunted his legacy. Maybe he felt embarrassed by the biographical aspect and his own youthful foolishness. He was too hard on himself. It may be easy to deride Werther's sorrows and weakness, but Goethe did a fine job of capturing youth's irrational passions. There's a reason why it's so hard for adults to relate to teenagers, and I think this classic sums it up perfectly.

Werther has to start high before he can fall, and he begins very high. His adoration of a pastoral scene is enough to trigger tears of happiness in him, demonstrating how commanded he is by emotional highs and lows. A storm is brewing - literally, as he is about to meet Charlotte for the first time. At first he is merely an admirer, desirous of her company but not overly wounded that she is engaged to Albert. He is still full enough of life that he can argue with Albert that moroseness is a sin: extreme dramatic irony on a re-read. But gradually admiration turns to obsession, as he begins to idealize his love and then encounters hardships with his attempt at a career, doubled by the impending marriage of Charlotte and Albert becoming fact. After that it's a swift slide to the bottom.

Interesting arguments surface. Werther compares a wounded heart to dying of a disease; that there can only be so much pain before one's endurance is overcome, no matter how determined the mindset. Here he clearly ranks emotion above reason as the force which commands him. With this imbalance locked in, no appeal can save him. At this point the reader's loathing is liable to be set in as well. Just snap out of it! Accept what is, and move on! It's compounded by Werther being directionless and possibly too proud and lazy for his own good. He lives off his mother's allowance, and how old is he? Clearly I'm thinking like a parent, or at least a mature adult. To understand this character, I need to cast my mind further back.

Can I never recall admiration for an unobtainable girl that led beyond reason? It would be a cold, hard life I've led if I could not. In youth our passions command us. We can hear and speak reason, but only within the context of values largely determined by our feelings. Urgency comes from desiring the company of an ideal vision of the opposite sex, unaware how much we are projecting onto the nearest target and value accordingly beyond what reason dictates. Puppy love transgresses into puppy idolization, to the detriment of the worshiper and the worshiped. I choose to pity Werther out of sympathy, but only up to the point where he contemplates suicide. That state is only obtainable by the sustaining of blind romantic notion far beyond anything I achieved. It is a reality that some are not so lucky. To deride Werther is to deride all youth who give way to irrational despair. Understand him, and you may perceive a life to be saved.
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LibraryThing member sfisk
This is one of the best tales of unrequited love I've ever read

Truly a masterpiece and often overlooked
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
To put it simply, Sorrows of Young Werther is about a young, impressionable artist who moves to a new, yet fictional town. He is enamored with his surroundings and shares his new-found joy with his friend, Wilhelm, through enthusiastic, vividly descriptive letters. For the first month the letters contain glorious accounts of the landscape, the sights, the sounds, and the people - everything around him. After that first month though, Werther's entire focus centers on a young woman he met at a party. It's obsession at first sight and he can think of nothing else but to be with her constantly. Unfortunately, Werther's affections are doomed as the object of his affection, Charlotte, is already engaged to be married to a "worthy" gentleman. In an effort to remain near to Charlotte, Werther befriends her husband-to-be. Things becomes complicated (as they also do in this kind of situation). Of course this love triangle cannot last and ultimately ends in tragedy.… (more)
LibraryThing member AMD3075
The Sorrows of Young Werther is a Romantic tragedy told mostly through a series of letters written by a young, emotional artist (Werther) to his companion Wilhelm, the content of which focuses in intimate detail on Werther's unrequited love for an engaged woman. Werther is deeply passionate, sensitive and fiercely oppositional to social standards, and cannot endure the agony rooted in his doomed desire. In the end, he is moved to suicide. Goethe's captivating style and perceptive expression makes it one of the greatest works in the history of Romantic tragedy.… (more)
LibraryThing member JosephCamilleri
To our cynical, post-modern sensibilities, Werther may well come across as an arrogant, pompous and misguided young fool who is likely displaying the symptoms of bipolar disorder. However, anybody with a passing interest in the Romantic movement should read this seminal novel. Given the bland, aseptic world we live in, perhaps we need a few messy, idealistic characters like the protagonist.… (more)
LibraryThing member greeniezona
I had somehow mentally classified Goethe as "difficult to read classics" and had avoided him thus far. But somehow when I saw this charming little volume at my beloved bookstore's "going out of business" sale, I couldn't resist it.

And it was charming. And not difficult to read at all. Told mostly in letters, and letters only from Young Werther, we get none of the replies at all -- we get not only a one-sided but a "how I want to represent myself to my friend" side of a young man's descent into romantic obsession with a woman he cannot have. Part of what makes it so fascinating is how many chances and choices he had along the way -- to realize this path would never make him happy, could only end in misery, to choose to go somewhere else, give himself a chance to love someone else. But at the same time, making those different choices would make him a different person. So do any of us really have any choice at all?… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
This is of course a great classic, which had a profound impact on the culture of its time. Sometimes, I truly appreciate great classics, for themselves as works of art, not just as for artifacts of culture. But sometimes, I can't make the breakthrough and get really involved with a work -- I observe it, rather than experience it. "The Sorrows of Young Werther", for me, was such a book. I am glad I finally read it (I have certainly read enough about it, over the years) but I won't do so again. Perhaps if I read German, or perhaps if I were a third as old as I am ----- .… (more)
LibraryThing member pre20cenbooks
Call me slightly vengeful, but I enjoyed a male character on the other side of coin in romance. I generally avoid romance novels, but if a story line is psychologically intriguing, unpredictable for me, I will stick with it to the end. Enjoyed very much, even though the tragic end was spoiled by some reviews I read approx two months ago.… (more)
LibraryThing member Staramber
I find it hard to properly review a book that says ‘classics’ on the cover so I’ll only add that I liked reading about the destructive nature of passionate, one-sided love. It’s a perfect remedy to love can conquer all writing when you can see the pain and violence that often goes hand in hand with love.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I did not enjoy 'The Sorrows' as much as, I believe, the likes of Byron did. It is a romantic book, but so over-the-top by modern standards that I couldn't really get to grips with it very well. I'm just glad it didn't go on too long, or I might have struggled with a narrator obsessed with himself and with his passionate feelings.… (more)
LibraryThing member proteus147
I've read this book being aware of the fact that immediately after it was published in 1774 a "Werther" crisis began.Suicidal acts,broken hearts,painting,dressing styles.Everything was pointing toward Goethe's novel.It was very exiting to go through a such harrowing love story written in a masterfully style.Like all other classical texts it made me anxious and eager to find out what the next page had to offer.I remember even crying out loud a couple of times so in my case it was by no means a boring lecture.I'd recommend this book to anyone who thinks loving is easy and "pink".Take a look at love from a other(probably disturbing) point of view.… (more)
LibraryThing member beabatllori
Soo, I know this is part of a historical period, and it's very representative of a literary movement and yada yada yada. But seriously, dude - man up already. And I mean this in a very non-sexist way.
LibraryThing member wizardcarlos
Amazing book about a platonic love that can't be lived by the force of destiny.
LibraryThing member GEPPSTER53
According the FT, the most popular book of the 17th centur.
LibraryThing member Audreyy
This book was OK, therefore not the most memorable and favourite book of mine, but for the sake of general knowledge worth of reading. I was somehow expecting more from Goethe, maybe more drama and action so to speak and this book kinda left me cold. Can't help but give the book only two stars.
LibraryThing member lesserlady
This book is spectacular. The prose of Goethe is stunning and the depth of emotion is amazing. Do not read this book if you are in a melancholy mood; it will intensify those emotions and may pull you from melancholy to despair. Despite that negativity it is a stellar exploration of human love, affection, friendship and emotion.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
One of those classics that actually deserves the name. A brilliant psychological meditation.
LibraryThing member joshrothman
I didn't love this - until the end, when it becomes amazing. Advice: don't read this translation, get a newer one. And read Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity.
LibraryThing member aegossman
awesome and then some.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
A sensitive youth and suffering artist, Werther is one of Goethe's greatest creations. The book is a bit dated but still evokes the power of emotion that captivated young readers when it was first published. This new translation by Burton Pike is excellent.


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