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Goethe's 'Werther' and the Critics

Goethe's 'Werther' and the Critics

Bruce Duncan
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Goethe's 'Werther' and the Critics
    Book Description:

    When Goethe's first novel, 'Die Leiden des jungen Werther' (The Sorrows of Young Werther) appeared in 1774, it caused a sensation that is hard to exaggerate. "Werther fever" gripped not just Germany, but Europe and North America. The many pirated versions make sales figures difficult to establish, but it was probably the most popular book of its century. Napoleon claimed to have read it seven times. In the intervening years, this interest has persisted, and the book has inspired hundreds of imitations and sequels in every conceivable genre. Numerous editions are still in print in many languages, and in English-speaking lands the novel is regularly read on campuses in comparative literature and "great book" courses. Literary critics, too, have maintained their interest, following on the lively debate that ensued upon the book's publication concerning its aesthetic and moral implications. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, critics increasingly explored its narrative strategies, its relation to various literary movements, its autobiographical elements, its depiction of an individual subjectivity, its social criticism, and its role in constructing a German national consciousness. Hundreds of subsequent critics have continued these discussions and added topics that reflect such developments as semiotics and gender studies. In fact, the history of 'Werther's' critical reception largely mirrors the history of literary criticism in the last 230 years. The present study traces this development, demonstrating how changing notions of both aesthetics and the role of literary criticism have influenced perceptions of this great work. Bruce Duncan is Professor of German Studies at Dartmouth College.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-663-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    When she heard the plans for this book, my 91-year-old mother remarked that “it doesn’t sound like much of a page-turner.” She’s right, of course. Few people will take Goethe’s Werther and the Critics along to the beach. Students and scholars, on the other hand, might find it a useful tool. As part of the Camden House series Literary Criticism in Perspective, it seeks to trace the critical reception of Goethe’s first novel. “One of the primary purposes of the series,” the editors state, “is to illuminate the nature of literary criticism itself, to gauge the influence of social and...

  4. 1: First Responses
    (pp. 7-28)

    Werther’s explosive effect, wrote Goethe thirty-eight years after the fact, was a matter of timing: at this particular point in history, a disaffected but inarticulate younger generation suddenly found its concerns expressed (HA 9: 589–90¹). As Peter Hohendahl reports, the novel uncovered a rift between the adherents of the optimistic-sentimental doctrine of virtue and the exponents of Weltschmerz (world-weariness; 1977, 81). The novel’s appearance coincided with another less dramatic but nevertheless significant schism that marked the tail end of a profound paradigm shift in German literary criticism. Pre-Enlightenment critics had assessed a work’s literary value on the basis of...

  5. 2: Religious Interpretations
    (pp. 29-38)

    It should not necessarily surprise us that the earliest critical responses to Werther paid relatively little attention to its religious elements. As Albrecht Schöne observes, the eighteenth century was so steeped in biblical language and imagery that their presence does not necessarily point to religious feeling so much as to feeling itself (1958, 175–76, 248–49). Nevertheless, one might expect orthodox churchmen like Johann Melchior Goeze and Christian Ziegra to be disturbed by Werther’s blasphemous appeals to God, not to mention his self-identification with Christ. Their objections, however, center far more on the novel’s threat to the church’s position...

  6. 3: Psychological Approaches
    (pp. 39-72)

    The earliest critical responses to Werther, as we have seen, tend to define its hero psychologically. Many factors continue to encourage this approach. Goethe himself invites it by asserting in his autobiography that Werther describes a sick delusion (HA 9, 583¹) and by reporting on the therapeutic effect that the story’s composition had on his own youthful preoccupation with suicide. Later, in 1824, he confessed to Eckermann that he hesitated to look at the book again, fearful that he would be forced to revisit the pathological condition from which it sprang (Eckermann 1824, 28–29 [January 2]); and his poem...

  7. 4: Political Interpretations
    (pp. 73-105)

    Werther invites a political approach, in addition to a psychological one. Not only does it portray a wide spectrum of society, from farmhands to nobility, but several of Werther’s letters contain reflections on the prevailing class system. These societal implications, we have already seen, caused the novel’s earliest critics to consider the book a threat — welcome or not — to the established order. This response continued over the next two centuries, assuming various forms that reflect historical developments, from the rise of liberal nationalism through conservative nationalism to the Cold War clash between socialism and liberal democracy. Over time, the sometimes...

  8. 5: Goethe, Werther, Reading, and Writing
    (pp. 107-133)

    Werther’s original appeal derived not only from its articulation of a new generation’s sensibilities, but also from the titillating effect of its being a roman à clef. Everyone knew that Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem’s shocking suicide in 1772 was the model for Werther’s death. Indeed, most readers considered that prominent clergyman’s son and Goethe’s fictional hero to be interchangeable. When Friedrich Christian Laukhard, writing in 1792, recalled the Werther-inspired midnight ceremonies at Jerusalem’s burial site 16 years earlier, he added that “young Werther’s grave is still being visited” (1792, 219). That was still the case in 1839, when the Rheinische Provinzialblätter...

  9. 6: Lotte, Sex, and Werther
    (pp. 135-154)

    The late twentieth century’s theoretical concern with the body finds a variety of reflections in Werther scholarship. Such studies often begin with Lotte. At one extreme we find inquiries that seek to establish her real self, an entity that has been obscured by Werther’s subjectivism. Some of these investigations stress the material, including corporeal, forces that impinge upon or even define her. At the other extreme are critics who start with the assumption that, rather than the self, “The body is the site upon which the various technologies of our culture inscribe themselves, the connecting link to which and from...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 155-190)
  11. Index
    (pp. 191-200)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 201-201)