“The Sorrows of Young Werther” was Goethe’s first major work, an immediate sensation upon publication, and made Goethe a household name.
While Voltaire parodied rationalism in “Candide”, Goethe transcended it with the semi-autobiographical story of Werther, a young man governed more by his emotions than his reason, whose only employment is his delight in the romantic ideals of the pastoral lives he finds in the rural town of Walheim. There he also finds Charlotte, and in her an idealized but unobtainable old-world domesticity. Werther’s internal dialog about his growing obsession with Charlotte, and his inability to cope rationally with the fact that she is engaged to—and in love with—another man, form the bulk of the book in the form of a series of ever more intense letters to a friend.
Werther’s descent into sorrow has captivated readers for centuries, helped by Goethe’s itensely beautiful prose (translated here by R. D. Boylan), enchanting imagery, and obvious reverence for nature and a dying past.