Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is a pivotal figure in European literary history. Coming at the end of the Baroque Period (also described as the Enlightenment), he was one of the writers who introduced Romanticism into European literature. Goethe was a poet, playwright, novelist, travelogue-writer, scientist, lawyer, and government advisor. He attempted (unsuccessfully) to improve upon Isaac Newton’s theories regarding light; he also studied the shapes of rock crystals and tried to make parallel studies of living creatures.
Of his many writings, two stand out as highlights of his long career. One is his verse interpretation of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and wisdom. Goethe worked on this project for most of his professional life. The other is his early novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, translated as the Sorrows (or the Suffering) of Young Werther. Based very loosely upon some of Goethe’s own experiences as a young man, along with accounts he heard about other young men, the novel explores issues about mental and emotional health in a way deeply profound for the early nineteenth century.
Werther, the title character, is highly intelligent but deplorably lacking in social skills. He is impulsive, obsessive, anxious, and given to bouts of deep depression. That the other characters in the novel are unable to perceive or comprehend the depths of Werther’s emotional struggles is a key to the plot. That inability is still widespread today in spite of a century of psychological studies.
A previous crisis, only vaguely mentioned in the novel, causes Werther to relocate into a small German town where he meets and becomes enamored of Charlotte (Lotte), the eldest daughter of the local magistrate. Lotte and her fiancé Albert willingly befriend Werther, unaware of his obsessive tendencies or the damage those tendencies will wreak. When Werther tries to share the emotional storms in his mind and heart, Albert and Lotte respond casually. Werther defends the act of suicide, which Albert scorns as unimaginable for any person of intelligence. As his obsession with Lotte deepens, Werther realizes he must leave the area. He does so, and in his absence Lotte and Albert are married. Werther’s lack of social skills brings him into another crisis, which sends him careening back into Lotte’s hometown. His deepening gloom leads to a suicidal depression; none of his friends and associates understand what is happening to Werther or know how to help him.
Most of the novel is presented as letters and diary entries written by Werther, although at times Goethe must add some third-person paragraphs to fill gaps in the story. That Goethe closely associated himself with Werther is revealed in several details, including the fact that the author and character share their birthday (August 28).
Werther was a bestseller and established Goethe’s reputation as a great author. For the rest of his life, he was a celebrity, as famous as contemporaries such as Napoleon and Beethoven. Young men in Europe imitated Werther’s clothing and even his suicide. Werther remains a powerful description of mental illness, one which can be read with profit by anyone seeking to understand obsession and depression. J.