Review of ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Poor tragic sensitive Werther. He’s always at emotional extremes. When he’s happy, heavenly raptures fill his heart with delight and he will kiss everybody a thousand times. When he’s sad, the deepest darkest despair rends his soul into jagged pieces and he becomes suicidal. The clue to this story is in the title.

This is a Romantic book with a capital R. Although I hadn’t read it before, I could recognise its influence in the literature that came after. For a thin book (under 200 pages) it causes a big impact, like a small meteor creating a large crater in the earth. I can’t say I enjoyed the book. It’s too sad for that. However, I liked the straightforward writing style and passionate voice of young Werther. There are a lot of human truths in the book, too. It’s epistolary (narrated through letters), a common device in the 18th century. Werther tells of his love for Lotte, a young woman engaged to a man who is Werther’s opposite in character. The engagement was a wish of Lotte’s dying mother. Now the angelic Lotte is a mother to her own siblings, which charms Werther’s heart. As his obsession develops, so does his depression as he realises he can never be more than a friend to Lotte.

I would recommend this book if you’re looking for a shorter classic, particularly a translated one. Just be prepared for the tragedy.

First published in 1774. This edition is a Penguin Red Classic, 2006, translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

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