Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, an epistolary novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in 1774.

The novel consists of letters written by an impressionable young artist (Werther) who is hopelessly and pathetically in love with a friend's wife. In the end, he commits suicide by borrowing the friend's pistols, and shooting himself in the head.

The novel is part autobiography, as the young Goethe went through a similar love situation, with one salient difference: Goethe did not blow his brains out.

Werther is the type specimen of the German Sturm und Drang movement. This type of artist relies solely on his sensibilities and feelings, in a reaction against the Enlightenment cult of reason in which he was brought up. The ultimate triumph of feeling over reason is manifested in the artist's suicide, since he determines life is unliveable if he cannot obtain the sole object of his passion (the friend's wife).

The novel was a huge success, inspiring many copycat Werthers, and for a time, quite a few young European men were shooting themselves in the head, while wearing Werther's trademark blue coat and yellow vest. Napoleon is said to have carried a copy of Werther in his pocket throughout his Egyptian campaign. And strangely, Mary Shelley wrote that Werther was one of the three books Frankenstein's monster used to educate himself (the others being Plutarch's Lives and Milton's Paradise Lost).

The following irreverent summary takes a few liberties with the plot, and leaves out a few details about Werther's intellectual life (Werther reads Homer when he is sane, and Ossian when he is mad), but it does capture the centrality of the famous scene (27 May 1771) in which Werther first sees his love preparing food for the children.

Sorrows of Werther

Werther had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter.
Would you know how he first met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married woman,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing that would hurt her.

So he sighed and pined and ogled,
And his passion boiled and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by them troubled.

Charlotte, when she saw his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person
Went on cutting bread and butter.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Transcribed from memory (!) by yours truly; it sometimes alarms me what I find lying around in my grey matter.

CST approved: Thackeray died in 1863; this work is in the public domain.

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