Die Leiden des jungen Werther[s]; The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; revised version 1787)

[For the first edition, published anonymously in Leipzig, the title of the novel had a genitive ‘s’ at the end but this was dropped for most subsequent editions]

Werther is a powerful and dangerous book: rarely has suicidal depression been depicted with such eloquence and charm. The book should come with health warnings, and indeed it does. Werther dies a slow and agonizing death, and Goethe also provided a subtle warning in the preface to the revised edition of 1787:

Und du gute Seele, die du eben den Drang fühlst wie er, schöpfe Trost aus seinem Leiden, und laß das Büchlein deinen Freund sein, wenn du aus Geschick oder eigener Schuld keinen näheren finden kannst.


And you good soul who feels the same urge as him, take comfort in his suffering, and let this little book be your friend, if you can find no closer one because of fate or your own guilt.

This opening statement by a fictional editor raises the question of whether Werther’s melancholy, or that of the reader who identifies with Werther, is due to fate, or personal fault. However, apart from the brief interpolations by the editor at the beginning and end of the novel, and the occasional footnote (e.g. 16 June 1771; 17 February 1772), the novel consists entirely of Werther’s letters to his friend Wilhelm.

The novel soon became a bestseller. Its epistolary form drew expertly on the contemporary discourses of Pietism and Empfindsamkeit (sensibility) which were embodied in the letter-writing culture of the time. In the 18th century reading letters aloud was an essential part of the culture of sensibility, based on the public celebration of love and emotion. Such public demonstrations of private emotion were intrinsic to the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere in the 18th century, since these rituals of sensibility helped to provide a forum in which questions of economic and social status could be articulated and negotiated.

In the 18th century it was common for novels to claim factual authenticity. The anonymous publication of Werther in 1774 left open the possibility that these letters were not fiction, but fact. Indeed the details of Werther’s suicide were taken from a genuine case, the suicide of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem. Like Werther, Jerusalem was suffering from unrequited love for a married woman, Elisabeth Herd. Jerusalem shot himself in Wetzlar on 29 October 1772 using pistols which he had borrowed from Goethe’s acquaintance Johann Christian Kestner. Goethe himself had fallen in love with Kestner’s fiancée Charlotte Buff, whom he had met on 9 June 1772, and so Goethe could see the affinities between his own situation and Jerusalem case. The end of Werther draws closely on the description of Jerusalem’s death which Goethe had received from Kestner: for example, the borrowing of the pistols, the death the following morning at midday, the copy of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti is found open in the bedroom. These details, combined with the intimate epistolary form, give a plausible, almost documentary appearance to Werther.

The novel of sensibility was already well-established by this time (by Prévost, Richardson and Rousseau), but Goethe’s novel intensifies the genre by focusing exclusively on tormented psyche of the main protagonist; on his desperation to make a genuine personal connection and his inability to do so. The novel takes the conventions of literary Empfindsamkeit (sensibility) and gives them a pathological twist. The result is a compulsive, supercharged emotionality.

The following plot summary is based on the revised version of 1787:

Book One

In the first letter, 4 May 1771, Werther admits he has a tendency to dwell imaginatively on his misfortune, and spends his time weeping for the Count of M., a man whom he has never met.

In the second letter, 10 May 1771, Werther says:

‘Ich könnte jetzt nicht zeichnen, nicht einen Strich, und bin nie ein größerer Maler gewesen als in diesen Augenblicken’


‘I could not sketch now, not even a stroke, but I have never been a greater painter than at these moments.’

This is an astonishing claim. On one level this is evidently untrue, since an artist can only be judged in terms of what he or she actually achieves. On another level, though, this expresses how Werther prefers the imaginative potential of the inner life to genuine, tangible achievement. Werther’s next assertion, that human hands can never do justice to the glory of the Allmighty’s creation, could be interpreted as a sign of humility or as a facile admission of defeat. Werther enjoys the sense of being overwhelmed: ‘aber ich gehe darüber zugrunde, ich erliege unter der Gewalt der Herrlichkeit dieser Erscheinungen’; ‘but this is ruining me, I succumb to the violent majesty of these phenomena’.

On 22 May 1771 Werther says he finds a world inside himself, and that the real world is a prison which one can leave whenever one wants.

On 30 May 1771 Werther meets a ‘Bauerbursch’; a ‘peasant lad’ who is in love with his employer, a widow (compare 4 September 1772).

On 16 June 1771 Werther describes his first sight of Lotte, slicing a loaf of bread for her six younger siblings. That evening Werther dances with Lotte at a country ball. Lotte tells Werther she is as good as engaged to Albert, and at once a thunderstorm breaks out (pathetic fallacy). As the thunderstorm clears, Lotte puts her hand on Werther’s and she says one magic word: ‘Klopstock!’

On 1 July 1771 Werther describes his visit to a pastor in a mountain village with Lotte and her sister. Werther meets the pastor’s daughter Friederike and her fiancé Herr Schmidt. When Werther is courteous to Friederike, Herr Schmidt becomes bad-tempered and jealous. This annoys Werther who gets very heated. Lotte tells Werther not to get so excited about everything. It will be the ruin of him, he should take more care of himself.

On 12 August 1771 Werther asks to borrow Albert’s pistols and they have a discussion about suicide.

On 18 August 1771 Werther describes how he has lost his faith in nature: ‘ich sehe nichts als ein ewig verschlingendes, ewig wiederkäuendes Ungeheuer’; ‘I see nothing but an endlessly swallowing, endlessly masticating monstrosity’. https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/goethe/werther/werther.html

On 28 August 1771 Werther writes: ‘wenn meine Krankheit zu heilen wäre, so würden diese Menschen es tun’; ‘If my illness were curable, these people would cure it.’ It is Werther’s birthday (the same day as Goethe’s), and he has just received a new edition of Homer from Albert and Lotte.

On 30 August 1771 Werther writes how, after feasting on Lotte’s presence for hours, he weeps or rushes out into the fields, mountains and woods. He imagines going to live as a monk, and sees no end to this but the grave.

On 3 September 1771 Werther agrees with Wilhelm’s advice that he should leave, and on 10 September 1771 he bids farewell to Lotte and Albert.

Book Two

On 20 October 1771, Werther describes his attempt to pursue an adminstrative career with a diplomatic legation at the court of a small German principality. He says that now he is surrounded by this activity he feels a little better.

On 24 December 1771 Werther describes how he is appalled by the petty snobbery of these people. He has met a nice girl from an impoverished aristocratic family, Fräulein von B.., but her aunt is a dreadful snob who sneers at Werther for not being an aristocrat.

On 20 January 1772 Werther writes to Lotte herself, and tells her about Fräulein von B.., whose aristocratic status prevents her from marrying below her class.

On 17 February 1772 Werther says that he is arguing with his employer.

On 20 February 1772 Werther congratulates Lotte and Albert on their wedding, and says that he doesn’t mind not having been invited.

On 15 March 1772 Werther is told that he is not welcome at a court banquet; worse still, the man who tells him he must leave is the man Werther thought he could rely on (der Graf von C..; Count C.).

On 16 March 1772 Fräulein von B.. tells Werther that her aunt witnessed his humiliation at the banquet. Now her aunt has told her to avoid Werther. Werther is mortified, and on 24 March 1772 he tells Wilhelm that he has asked permission to leave his post at court.

On 9 May 1772 Werther visits his home town and stands under the great linden tree he had once walked to as a boy. The letter concludes: ‘mein Herz habe ich allein’; ‘the only thing I have is my heart’.


On 29 July 1772 Werther is back with Lotte and Albert, and consumed with jealousy.

On 4 September 1772 Werther reports that the peasant lad (see 30 May 1771, above) declared his love to the widow, and when she refused he grabbed her, using force. She defended herself and then her brother appeared. The peasant lad was fired on the spot.

On 5 September 1772 Lotte writes a note to Albert and Werther fantasises that it was written to him – Lotte is not best pleased.

On 12 October 1772 Werther reports that Ossian has replaced Homer in his affections. This is an indication of how Werther is losing touch with reality, since James Macpherson’s Ossian drips with sentiment. Macpherson claimed he had translated it from ancient Gaelic sources, but in fact it was created by Macpherson himself.

On 15 November 1772 Werther quotes Jesus Christ on the cross: ‘Mein Gott! Mein Gott! Warum hast du mich verlassen?’; ‘My God! My God! Why have you abandoned me?’ (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34)


On 21 November 1772, Werther imagines he is drinking a beaker of poison which Lotte has given to him. The imagery here bears a resemblance to Goethe’s poem Der König in Thule.

On 30 November 1772, Werther meets a young man, Heinrich, who previously worked as a scribe for Lotte’s father. Heinrich has gone insane because of his unrequited love for Lotte.

On 4 December 1772 Lotte starts singing Werther’s favourite tune and he screams at her. Lotte tells him that he is ‘sehr krank’; ‘very sick’.

Shortly afterwards, the Editor (Herausgeber) intervenes in order to tell the story of Werther’s final weeks. Werther learns that the peasant lad has murdered the man who replaced him in the widow’s service (see 4 September 1772). Werther pleads with the local magistrate to take pity on the murderer, but Albert disagrees. The magistrate tells Werther that the man cannot be saved. After this, Werther goes downhill rapidly. On 20 December 1772, Werther visits Lotte and she asks him:

Warum denn mich, Werther? Just mich, das Eigentum eines andern? Just das? Ich fürchte, ich fürchte, es ist nur die Unmöglichkeit, mich zu besitzen, die Ihnen diesen Wunsch so reizend macht.


Why is it me, Werther? Why me precisely, the property of another man? Why precisely that? I fear, I fear it is only the impossibility of possessing me which makes this wish so attractive to you.

Shortly before Christmas, Werther visits Lotte again whilst Albert is away and he reads her several verses from Macpherson’s Ossian. Werther kisses Lotte’s arm and she trembles. Shortly afterwards Werther sends a note to Albert asking to borrow his pistols (as he did before on 12 August 1771). Lotte gives the pistols to Werther’s servant. After eleven at night, Werther writes his final letter (his suicide note) to Lotte.

Werther shoots himself in the head around midnight; his death agony lasts twelve hours and he dies the next day at midday.

* * *

Why does Werther commit suicide? This is the central question of the novel. Lotte herself, in the above quotation, implies that Werther's motives are somehow inauthentic: he fell in love with her precisely because she was unattainable. Georg Lukács asserts that Werther is doomed by ‘the insoluble contradiction between personal development and bourgeois society’ (see below, Lukács, p. 46). Barker Fairley contends that Werther is destroyed by his passionate concern for the universal life within himself, which leads him to ignore his own limitations (see below, Fairley, p. 44). Roy Pascal sees Werther’s death as an expression of the incompatibility between his rich inner life and the practical life he hungers for (see below, Pascal, p. 151); and Pascal points out that, unlike Werther, Lotte’s feelings take ‘concrete forms’ (ibid., p. 143). Hans Rudolf Vaget thinks that Werther is doomed because he is a dilettante (see below, Vaget); Michael Gratzke thinks that Werther dies because he is a masochist (see below, Gratzke). Matthew Bell suggests that Werther’s death is the logical consequence of Werther’s decision to prefer imagination to reality, and of the imaginative associations which result from this (see below, Bell, pp. 114-17). Thorsten Valk argues that Werther displays the symptoms of pathological melancholy as it was defined in the 18th century (see below, Valk, p. 61).

Three years after the first publication of Werther, in 1777, Goethe wrote a play called Triumph der Empfindsamkeit; Triumph of Sensibility (first performed 1778), in which he describes his own Werther as the dregs of sentimentality.

On the subject of Werther, W. H. Auden writes (see reading list below, pp. 18-19): ‘The work of a young writer – Werther is the classic example – is sometimes a therapeutic act. He finds himself obsessed by certain ways of thinking and feeling of which his instinct tells him he must be rid of before he can discover his authentic interests and sympathies, and the only way by which he can be rid of them forever is by surrendering to them. Once he has done this, he has developed the necessary antibodies which will make him immune for the rest of his life. As a rule, the disease is some spiritual malaise of his generation. If so, he may, as Goethe did, find himself in an embarrassing situation. What he wrote in order to exorcise certain feelings is enthusiastically welcomed by his contemporaries […] they regard him as their spokesman. Time passes. Having got the poison out of his system, the writer turns to his true interests which are not, and never were, those of his early admirers, who now pursue him with cries of “Traitor!”’

Werther served as the inspiration for Ulrich Plenzdorf’s novel Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.; The New Sufferings of Young W. (1972/73).

The French critic and theorist Roland Barthes produced a study of lovers’ discourse using several examples from Werther, entitled Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977), translated as A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (see below, Barthes).

Recent English Translations

The Sorrows of Young Werther: A Dual-Language Book, trans. by Stanley Appelbaum (New York: Dover, 2004) [Bilingual Edition]

The Sorrows of Young Werther, trans. by David Constantine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

The Sufferings of Young Werther, trans. by Stanley Corngold (New York and London: Norton, 2012)

Further Reading in English

W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1989) [pp. 18-19]

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. by Richard Howard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990)

Matthew Bell, Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology: Man and Other Plants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), Chapter 2 on Werther, pp. 68-124

Richard Block, ‘“I’ll love you forever, Wilhelm”: Queer Echoes in Roland Barthes’s Reading of Werther and the Eternal Return of the Same in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments’, literatur für leser 33:3 (2010), 147-66

Bruce Duncan, Goethe’s ‘Werther’ and the Critics (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005)

Barker Fairley, Goethe as Revealed in his Poetry [1932], 2nd edition (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1963)

Ignaz Feuerlicht, ‘Werther’s Suicide: Instinct, Reasons and Defense’, German Quarterly 51 (1978), 476-92

Michael Gratzke, ‘Werther’s Love. Representations of Suicide, Heroism, Masochism, and Voluntary Self-Divestiture’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 81:1 (2012), 26-38

Georg Lukács, Goethe and his Age, trans. Robert Anchor (London: Merlin Press, 1968), Chapter 2: ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ [first published 1936], pp. 35-49

Roy Pascal, The German Sturm und Drang, 2nd edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1959)

Edward T. Potter, ‘Hypochondria, Onanism, and Reading in Goethe’s Werther’, Goethe Yearbook 19 (2012), 115-40

Martin Swales, Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Deirdre Vincent, Werther’s Goethe and the Game of Literary Creativity (Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 1992)

Sally A. Winkle, Woman as bourgeois ideal: a study of Sophie von La Roche’s Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim and Goethe`s Werther (New York and Bern: Peter Lang, 1988)

Further Reading in German

Harald Neumeyer, Anomalien, Autonomien und das Unbewusste. Selbstmord in Wissenschaft und Literatur von 1700 bis 1800 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009)

Roger Paulin, Der Fall Wilhelm Jerusalem. Zum Selbstmordproblem zwischen Aufklärung und Empfindsamkeit (Göttingen: Wallstein, 1999)

T. J. Reed, ‘Man stelle sich vor – Werthers Tagebuch!’, in Neue Einblicke in Goethes Erzählwerk. Genese und Entwicklung einer literarischen und kulturellen Identität, ed. by Raymond Heitz and Christine Maillard (Heidelberg: Winter, 2010), pp.17-25

Hans Rudolf Vaget, ‘Die Leiden des jungen Werthers’, in Goethes Erzählwerk. Interpretationen, ed. by Paul Michael Lützeler and James E. McLeod (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1985), pp. 37-72

Thorsten Valk, Melancholie im Werk Goethes. Genese – Symptomatik – Therapie (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2002)

Further Reading in French

Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux (Paris: Seuil, 1977)

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Die Leiden des jungen Werther in German; click on a word for the English translation