Let me tell you a story.
In the summer of 1772, 245 years ago, a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe took a position articling in Wetzlar, Germany. He wasn’t a very good lawyer, however, and spent most of his time “lying in the grass beneath a tree, philosophizing with his friends” (The Sorrows of Young Werther, 5)–a job usually more suited to city workers than lawyers. Often, he would walk to the quaint village of Garbenheim and sit in the village square enjoying the quaintness of the scene, reading his Homer or the Bible, and talking to the villagers. He often sat in the shade of the linden tree, sketching the scene or reading or writing notes, and occasionally indulging the neighbourhood children with some money for a treat.
Not too long after he went to Wetzlar, in early June he went to a ball and a young woman caught his eye. Her name was Charlotte Buff. She was a simple country girl, beneath his social stature, but he was captivated. He was haunted by her beauty and lively charm, so he pursued her, not knowing that she was engaged to be married already to a personable young man named Christian Kestner.
Charlotte Buff was the second oldest of eleven children, the daughter of a widowed military officer. After her mother’s death, she gave herself lovingly to her family, caring for the children in her energetic, witty and unassuming way. Goethe fell in love with Charlotte’s domestic bliss and her inspiring ability to bring lightheartedness to any occasion. He was taken with the children, and was kind to Charlotte’s brothers and sisters, helping out as the occasion arose.
Interestingly, he became close friends with her betrothed, Christian Kestner, who had a “calm and even behaviour, clarity of opinions, and firmness in action and speech” (Werther, 6). As the character of Werther says in Goethe’s novel, “No doubt about it, [he] is the best fellow on the earth” (54). They had a mutual respect for each other, and Kestner called Goethe a talented genius, a man of character with a vivid imagination. He noted in letters to friends that Goethe was prone to “violent emotion,” but worked hard at a self-control that worked well with his independent spirit.
For Goethe, the summer was idyllic, with the friendship between he, Charlotte, and Kestner blossoming into full bloom in the joyous beauty of the countryside. They were inseparable, and Goethe felt that the friendship was smooth and painless.
Reading Kestner’s diaries, though, we see that that was not his impression. He trusted Goethe, and knew that they were friends, but as he was at work, Goethe would spend his days with Charlotte. When Kestner returned home, he felt the annoyance of Goethe. Goethe was frustrated, to be sure, but felt like being with Charlotte was a kind of reward, a great happening in the longing he had for her (recalling the words of Peter Abelard, who had fallen in love with the forbidden Heloïse).
How long could this love triangle withstand tension? Goethe felt like it was completely innocent—and it seems that according to social convention, it was innocent. But the tension must have been unbearable. Goethe’s echo in the voice of Werther is intriguing: “we should treat children as God treats us; He makes us happiest when He leaves us our pleasant delusions” (42). It seems he would prefer to remain in his delusions about their relationship than face the truth.
Finally, in mid-August, Charlotte told Goethe not to expect her to return his love. He became quite depressed, and within a month Goethe returned to the city, leaving without warning, simply leaving a note that said, “I am alone now, and may shed my tears. I leave you both to your happiness and will not be gone from your hearts.”
For those who have read The Sorrows of Young Werther, this will seem vaguely familiar. More than “vaguely,” actually. The parallel with Werther is pretty remarkable–and a little frightening, considering how the novel ends. In the second half of the novel, the main character—Werther, in love with “Charlotte” who is betrothed to another—descends quite dramatically to the point of suicide. Does this too parallel Goethe’s experience? Did Goethe commit suicide?
Well, like Werther, Goethe moved to the city to work, away from Charlotte and Kestner. And, like Werther, he fell in love again and was again disappointed, for he loved a young woman of a higher class who was, again, wedded to another person.
Historical sources suggest that Goethe was in some sort of depression. He heard a rumour—untrue, but shocking to him—that his good friend von Goué had committed suicide. He wrote to Kestner—yes, they are still on writing terms—that “I honour the deed,” but “I hope I shall never trouble my friends with news of such a kind” (Werther, 8-9). Then, three weeks later, a young gentleman named Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem shot himself.
Jerusalem was a law student with Goethe and was also a sharp writer and thinker. He took a job as a secretary to the ambassador of Braunschweig, just as Werther took clerk position in the novel. As a secretary he worked in his free time on painting and poetry and philosophy, occasionally attending the social functions.
Jerusalem struggled in Wetzlar, however. He had been rejected by high society and even though he was reasonably fashionable and polite, he did not make friends easily—he called Goethe, one of our most enduring authors, a “fop” and a “scribbler.” Unfortunately, his rejection by the aristocracy was personally troubling, and he fell in love with another man’s wife. He began to brood in Wetzlar, taking long, lonely moonlit walks.
As his passion for the married woman hit its peak, he wrote a popular article in defense of suicide; it is quite similar to Werther’s defense of suicide in the novel. In the novel, Charlotte’s fiancé is going on about his scruples over keeping guns, and Werther places a gun to his head in mock suicide. He reacts strongly. “it isn’t loaded,” Werther counters. “Even if it isn’t, I cannot imagine how a man can be so foolish as to shoot himself; I find the mere thought repellent.” (55)
They then have a discussion of morality where Werther suggests suicide is a great thing done by great men, suggesting that, “it would be as misconceived to call a man cowardly for taking his own life, as it would be to say a man who dies of malignant fever was a coward” (58). There is no agreement around the table on this question.
Returning to Goethe’s real life friend, Jerusalem, we find that Jerusalem wrote of the woman he loved, “I do not believe she cares for gallant amours, and in any case her husband is extremely jealous; so his love finally put paid to his heart’s ease and peace of mind” (9). One night, Jerusalem borrowed some pistols from a friend, saying that he was going to go on a trip. He dismissed his servants, wrote a note—which we still have—and shot himself at his desk. He bled throughout the night and died not long after being discovered in a pool of blood on the floor. Werther’s fate was precisely the same. And just as Werther does in the novel, Jerusalem left a copy of Lessing’s play Emilia Galotti on his desk.
Goethe was clearly thrown off by the suicide, writing to Kestner, “The poor fellow! … he is in love. It was loneliness, God knows, that ate away at his heart” (9). In the end, though, Goethe does not follow the fate of his friend Jerusalem and his character Werther.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is an intriguing “what if?” story. The first half of the novel is really a semi-autobiographical story of his falling for Charlotte–cleverly disguised as Lotte in the novel–and loving her even when it is impossible that she might return his love. The second half, after he is unsuccessful in love once again, is not Goethe’s story, precisely. It is the story of Jerusalem, who surrendered to his passions—or had the courage to surrender, if you believe the argument. The second half of Werther is the path that Goethe could have taken, but didn’t.
What if Goethe had lost himself to his passion like Werther had? Jerusalem was, for Goethe, the path not taken, the road not travelled. And there are other cautionary tales in the novel, warnings of paths that Goethe could have taken—madness and murder—but did not.
Instead, Goethe moves on. For his part, he retained a healthy correspondence with Kestner, but did not pursue Charlotte again. He wrote the novel we read in about a month in 1777, 240 years ago, and it became an international best seller. There was a kind of “Werther Fever” that erupted when Napoleon took a copy on his campaign in Egypt (as American Presidents are often photographed with books that become bestsellers). Young men all over Europe read the book and started dressing like Werther. Pilgrimages to Germany became a regular feature of the literary world, and the Romantic period saw Werther as a kind of ideal story, one lost in unrequited love and living only for love. There was even reputed to be a rash of copycat suicides, each one leaving the copy of their favourite play covered in blood.
Goethe, however, came to hate the book. Although it created a new literary movement, he wished he had chosen not to be so dangerously autobiographical. He also exposed the real Charlotte to public scrutiny—something he never intended. He recognized the book’s power to move young lovers, but he hated being famous for it. Really, he was the world’s first international celebrity. But he did better work than this, he thought. His creation of the character Faust is probably his most important literary work, but his scientific work is important—he is the first to theorize that colours appeared in a spectrum, a play of darkness and light. Clever fellow.
I think he is probably a jerk for writing a best-selling novel at 24 years old, and then snubbing superstardom. But he really captures some key things about the shifting cultural understandings of love. It is also a book I make my students read, knowing some will loathe it and others fall in love. It is a novel that defined a generation–actually, one that changed every romance story after it. Yet it is still, for a lover of books, simply a light summer read.