Georg Lukács 1936
Translator: Robert Anchor;
Source: Goethe and His Age Merlin Press 1968;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008, corrected by Christos Kefalis, 2020.
The year in which Werther appeared, 1774, is an important date, not only for the history of German literature, but also for world literature. The brief but exceptionally significant philosophical and literary hegemony of Germany, which temporarily relieved France of ideological leadership in these areas, became clearly evident for the first time with the worldwide success of Werther. To be sure, German literature had already produced works of significance for world literature before Werther. One need only mention Winckelmann, Lessing and Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen. But the exceptionally extensive and profound effect of Werther on the entire world clearly brought to light the leading role of the German Enlightenment.
The German Enlightenment? That startles the reader who has been “schooled” in the literary legends of bourgeois historiography and the vulgar sociology which depends upon them. Indeed, both in bourgeois literary history and vulgar sociology, it is a commonplace that the Enlightenment, on the one hand, and “Storm and Stress” – and especially Werther – on the other, are exclusively opposed to one another. This literary legend first began with the famous book on Germany by the Romantic writer, Madame de Stael. Then it was taken up by progressive bourgeois literary historians as well and, by way of the well-known works of Georg Brandes, it found its way into vulgar pseudo-Marxist sociology. It goes without saying that bourgeois literary historians of the imperialist period, like Gundolf, Korff, Strich, etc. enthusiastically built upon this legend. Is not constructing a Chinese wall between the Enlightenment and German Classicism the best ideological means to debase the Enlightenment to the advantage of the subsequent reactionary tendencies in Romanticism?
When a historical legend is built upon an ideological need as deep as that of the hatred of the reactionary bourgeoisie for the revolutionary Enlightenment, then it goes without saying that the makers of such historical legends will not concern themselves at all with the obvious facts of history, and that it is a matter of perfect indifference to them if their legends fly in the face of the most elementary facts. This is quite clearly the case on the Werther question. For even bourgeois literary history is forced to regard Richardson and Rousseau as literary precursors of Werther. Of course, it is characteristic of the intellectual level of bourgeois literary historians that they can at one and the same time see a literary connection between Richardson, Rousseau and Goethe and deny all connection between Werther and the Enlightenment.
To be sure, intelligent reactionaries sense a contradiction here. But their way out is to take Rousseau already as an opponent of Enlightenment and to make of him an ancestor of reactionary Romanticism. With Richardson, however, even this “wisdom” fails to work. Richardson was a typical bourgeois Enlightenment figure. He achieved his great European success precisely among the progressive bourgeoisie; ideological pioneers of the European Enlightenment, like Diderot and Lessing, enthusiastically heralded his fame.
What then is the ideological content of this historical legend? What ideological need of the nineteenth century is it meant to satisfy? However pompously expressed the content is remarkably paltry and abstract. It is that the Enlightenment supposedly took into account only the “intellect” [Verstand], The German movement of “Storm and Stress,” on the other hand, is supposed to have been a revolt of “feeling,” “soul” and “instinct” against the tyranny of intellect. This barren hollow abstraction serves to exalt the irrationalist tendencies of the bourgeois decadence and to distort all the traditions of the revolutionary period of bourgeois evolution. Among liberal literary historians of Brandes’s type, this theory is eclectic and compromising, arguing for the ideological superiority of the no longer revolutionary bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century over that of the revolutionary period, due to the fact that its subsequent development was supposedly “more concrete,” and that it also supposedly took into account the “soul,” etc. The avowed reactionaries unconditionally turn upon the Enlightenment and shamelessly calumniate it.
What was the essence of this infamous “intellect” of the Enlightenment? Clearly a relentless criticism of religion, of the contamination of philosophy by theology, of the institutions of feudal absolutism, of feudal-religious precepts of mortality, etc. That this relentless struggle of the Enlighteners should have become ideologically insufferable to a now reactionary bourgeoisie is easy to understand. But does it follow that the Enlighteners, as the avant-garde of the revolutionary bourgeoisie in science, art and life, disdained or depreciated man’s emotional life in any way because they only acknowledge what withstood the test of human reason and a confrontation with the facts of life? We believe that a clear formulation of the question itself clearly testifies to the abstract and untenable character of such reactionary constructions. They appear plausible only from the standpoint of post-revolutionary legitimism, which gives all royalist traditions a false and sentimental emotional accent, extending this false sentimentality to the anti-popular traditions of the Enlightenment. As opposed to bourgeois literary historians and vulgar sociologists who trace Chateaubriand, for example, to Rousseau and Goethe, Marx refers to “... this belletrist who combines the refined scepticism and Voltarianism of the eighteenth century with the refined sentimentalism and Romanticism of the nineteenth in the most disgusting way.”
In the Enlightenment itself the problem was posed quite differently. To choose only one example, since our space is much too limited for a thorough analysis: from what point of view did Lessing oppose both the theory and practice of the tragedian Corneille? His point of departure was precisely that Corneille’s conception of tragedy is inhuman, that Corneille disregarded the human soul and man’s emotional life, that, being engrossed in the courtly and aristocratic conventions of his time, he offers us lifeless and purely intellectualist constructions. The literary-theoretical struggle of such Enlightenment figures as Diderot and Lessing was directed against these aristocratic conventions. They combatted these conventions all along the line; their intellectualist frigidity as well as their irrationality. There is not the slightest contradiction between Lessing’s struggle against the frigidity of tragedie classique and his proclamation of the rights of reason in the religious question, for example. For every great socio-historical revolution brings forth a new man. In these ideological conflicts, therefore, the question is the struggle for this concrete new man against the obsolete man of the detested and dying old social order. But never (except in the apologetic fantasy of reactionary thinkers) does a struggle really occur between two abstract and isolated human attributes (instinct versus reason).
Only by destroying such historical legends and contradictions, which have never existed in reality, can we open the way to an understanding of the actual inner contradictions of the Enlightenment. These actual contradictions in turn ideologically reflect the contradictions of the bourgeois revolution and those of the emergence, growth and development of bourgeois society itself with its social content and driving-forces. And, of course, in the life of society itself, these contradictions are not rigid and fixed once and for all. They emerge rather in an extremely uneven way, corresponding to the disparity of social evolution, are resolved in a seemingly satisfying way at a certain stage of evolution, only to reappear at a subsequent stage of social development on a higher level and in a more complex form. The literary polemics of the Enlighteners, the criticism of Enlightenment literature by the Enlighteners themselves –from which reactionary literary history draws its “arguments” by wilful abstraction– are therefore only reflections of the contradictions of the evolution of society itself, conflicts between various currents within the Enlightenment and conflicts between its various stages.
Mehring was the first to destroy the reactionary historical legends concerning the character of Lessing’s fight against Voltaire. He convincingly demonstrated that Lessing criticized the backward and compromising aspects of Voltaire from a more advanced stage of the Enlightenment. This problem is especially interesting as regards Rousseau. In Rousseau, for the first time, the ideological aspects of the plebeian realization of the bourgeois revolution come to the fore and, in conformity with the inner dialectic of this movement, they often fuse with petty bourgeois reactionary elements; often the confused plebeianism pushes the social content of the revolution into the background. Rousseau’s Enlightenment critics (Voltaire, d'Alembert, etc. also Lessing) were therefore completely right, regarding Rousseau, to insist on the purity of this social content; but in this polemic they often ignored the positive new elements in Rousseau, in his plebeianism-the incipient dialectical approach to the contradictions of bourgeois society. Rousseau’s literary work is very closely related to these basic tendencies in him. Thus he raised to a much higher level, both intellectually and artistically, Richardson’s representation of the inner world of bourgeois daily life and its conflicts. And if Lessing often protects and –in agreement with Mendelssohn –supports Richardson against Rousseau, that is because he missed some very essential features of this new, higher and more contradictory phase of the Enlightenment.
The work of early Goethe is a continuation of the line of Rousseau, after a German fashion, of course, which involves in turn a series of new contradictions. The specifically German note is inseparably linked to Germany’s socio-economic retardation, to the German abjectness [Misere]. But as important as it is to mention this German misery, one must be on guard against any vulgar simplification of it. Of course this German literature lacks the socio-political purposefulness and firmness of the French, nor does it reflect an advanced and richly expanded bourgeois society, as in England. Naturally, it is stamped by the pettiness of life in an undeveloped and dismembered Germany. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that the contradictions in the evolution of the bourgeoisie have nowhere found such passionate feeling and vivid expression as in precisely this German literature of the eighteenth century. One need only consider bourgeois drama. It originated in England and France; yet in these countries it achieved, neither in social content nor in artistic form, such heights as it did in Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, and especially in the Robbers and Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe) of young Schiller.
To be sure, young Goethe was no revolutionary, not even in the sense that young Schiller was. But in a broad and deep historical sense, in the sense of their internal involvement with the basic problems of the bourgeois revolution, the works of young Goethe represent a revolutionary peak of the European Enlightenment, the ideological preparation for the great French Revolution.
At the centre of Werther is the major problem of bourgeois revolutionary humanism, the problem of the free and full development of the human personality. Feuerbach once said: “Our ideal should not be a castrated, disembodied, abstract being; our ideal should be the complete and real man, perfectly and fully formed.” Lenin, who included this sentence in his philosophical excerpts, said this ideal is that “of advanced bourgeois democracy or revolutionary bourgeois democracy."
The profundity and universality of young Goethe’s formulation of the problem rests on the fact that he viewed the opposition between personality and bourgeois society as pertaining not only to the semi-feudal absolutism of petty principalities in the Germany of his time, but as pertaining to bourgeois society in general. The struggle of young Goethe was aimed obviously at those concrete forms of suppression and curtailment of the human personality which manifested themselves in contemporary Germany. But the profundity of his comprehension shows in the fact that he did not stop with a criticism merely of the symptoms, with a polemical description of the obvious manifestations. He portrayed rather the everyday life of his age with so deep an understanding of its driving-forces and its fundamental contradictions that the significance of his criticism extends far beyond that of a critique of the conditions of retarded Germany. The enthusiastic reception of Werther throughout Europe shows what the inhabitants of countries at a more advanced stage of capitalism must have experienced immediately in Werther’s fate: tua res agitur. [ This is your concern] .
Young Goethe had a very broad and complex understanding of the opposition of personality and society. He did not limit himself to showing the immediate social obstacles to the development of personality, although a large and essential part of his work obviously is devoted to them. Goethe did see a direct and essential obstacle to the development of the human personality in the feudal stratification and separation of the social classes [ Stände ] and correspondingly criticized this social order with sharp satire.
But at the same time, he saw that bourgeois society itself, the evolution of which so vehemently posed the problem of personality, incessantly hinders the development of personality. The same laws, institutions, etc. which serve the development of personality in the narrow class sense of the bourgeoisie and which generate the freedom of laisser faire are simultaneously merciless destroyers of the real development of personality. “While the capitalist division of labour, the indispensable foundation of the development of the productive forces forms the material basis of the developed personality, it simultaneously subjugates the human being and fragments his personality into lifeless specialization, etc.” It is clear that young Goethe lacked an economic understanding of these relations. All the more highly then must one value his poetic genius which enabled him to represent the real dialectic of this development in terms of human destinies.
Since Goethe starts from actual human beings, actual human destinies, he grasped all these problems in that concrete complexity and mediation in which they manifest themselves in the personal destinies of individual men. And because he fashioned his hero as a man remarkably differentiated subjectively, these problems emerge in a very complex manner which enters deeply the realm of ideology. But the relationship is visible everywhere and is consciously understood throughout in some way or other even by the characters involved. So, for example, Werther speaks about the relationship of nature and art: “It (nature) alone is infinitely rich, and it alone forms the great artist. One can say much in favour of the rules, almost what one can say in praise of bourgeois society.”
The central problem remains always the unified and comprehensive development of the human personality. In Dichtung und Wahrheit, where the old Goethe described his own youth, he thoroughly examined the principal foundations of this conflict. He analyses the thinking of Hamann who, next to Rousseau and Herder, influenced his youthful years most deeply and expresses in his own words that basic principle whose realization was the primary aspiration of the youth of others, as well as his own.
“Everything that a man attempts to achieve, whether brought into being by deed or word or some other way, must arise from the totality of his unified powers; everything isolated is harmful. A marvellous maxim, but difficult to follow.”
The principal poetic content of Werther is a struggle for the realization of this maxim, a struggle against the internal and external obstacles to its realization. Aesthetically this means the struggle against the “rules” about which we have already heard. Here too one must guard against thinking in rigid metaphysical antitheses. Werther, and with him, young Goethe are enemies of the “rules.” But the “absence of rules” means for Werther a great and deeply felt realism; it means the admiration of Homer, Klopstock, Goldsmith and Lessing.
More vehement and passionate still is the rebellion against the rules of ethics. The essential line of bourgeois evolution requires a unitary system of national law instead of corporate and local privileges. This great historical movement must be reflected also in ethics as a demand for unitary universal laws of human action. In the course of Germany’s subsequent development this social tendency found its highest philosophical expression in the idealist ethics of Kant and Fichte. But this tendency – often appearing, of course, in actual life in philistine forms – existed long before Kant and Fichte.
Now however necessary this development may have been historically, it also prevented the development of personality. Ethics in Kant’s and Fichte’s sense seeks to discover a unitary system of rules, a consistent system of precepts for a society, the basic driving principle of which is contradiction itself. The individual who acts in this society, who is compelled to recognize in principle the system of rules in general, is bound to come into continual conflict with these principles in the concrete situation. And, of course, that does not happen, as Kant imagined, simply because man’s base egoistic drives conflict with his noble ethical maxims. Rather the contradiction arises very frequently and, in the cases which are pertinent here, only out of the best and noblest human feelings. Not until much later did the Hegelian dialectic – in an idealist form, to be sure – succeed in grasping conceptually a relatively adequate image of the contradictory reciprocal action between human passion and social evolution.
But even the best conceptual comprehension cannot counteract a contradiction which really exists in reality itself. And young Goethe’s generation which deeply experienced this vital contradiction, even if it did not conceptually grasp its dialectic, passionately assailed this obstacle to the free development of the personality.
Perhaps the friend of young Goethe, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, most clearly expressed this rebellion in the realm of ethics in an open letter to Fichte. He says: “Yes, I am the atheist and Godless one who ... wishes to lie, as dying Desdemona lied, who wishes to lie and deceive like Pylades posing as Orestes, who wishes to murder like Timoleon, break laws and oaths like Epaminondas and Jan de Witt, choose suicide like Otho, pillage the Temple like David – yes, pluck ears of corn on the sabbath; but only because I am hungry, and because the law is made for the sake of man, not man for the sake of the law.” And Jacobi calls this rebellion “the majestic right of man, the mark of his dignity.”
The ethical problems of Werther are all enacted under the sign of this rebellion, a rebellion in which the internal contradictions of revolutionary bourgeois humanism manifest themselves for the first time in world literature in a great poetic creation. In this novel Goethe plotted the action in a remarkably economical way. Almost without exception he selected those characters and events in which these contradictions, the contradictions between human passions and social legality come to light. In fact, almost without exception, he selected those conflicts between emotions which contain nothing intrinsically base, nothing asocial or anti-social; and laws which are not to be rejected as senseless in themselves and inhibiting to development (like the separation of social orders in feudal society), but only those which contain the general limitations of all the laws of bourgeois society. “With marvellous art Goethe presented by means of a few strokes in one or two short scenes, the tragic fate of the infatuated young servant whose murder of his beloved and his rival forms the tragic counterpart to Werther’s suicide. In his later description of the Werther days, already mentioned, the old Goethe still recognized as rebellious and revolutionary the claim of the moral right to suicide. It is very interesting – and for relating Werther to the Enlightenment, very instructive in turn – that he appeals to Montesquieu in this matter. Werther himself has a justification for the defence of this right which sounds even more revolutionary. Long before his suicide, long before he had actually made this resolve, he had a theoretical conversation about suicide with Albert, the fiancé of his beloved. This quiet citizen naturally denied any such right. Among other things, Werther argues: “Can you call a people weak which groans under the unendurable yoke of a tyrant, if it finally rises and rends its chains?”
This tragic struggle for the realization of humanist ideals in young Goethe is intimately related to the popular aspect [Volkstümlichkeit] of his endeavours. In precisely this respect young Goethe extends Rousseauesque tendencies as opposed to the refined aristocratic approach of Voltaire whose heritage became important for Goethe later, when he was frequently disenchanted and resigned. Rousseau’s cultural and literary lineage may be expressed most clearly by Marx’s words concerning Jacobinism: it is “a plebeian way of dealing with the enemies of the bourgeoisie; absolutism, feudalism and philistinism.”
We repeat: politically young Goethe was no revolutionary plebeian, not even within the limits possible in Germany, not even in the sense that young Schiller was. Thus, the plebeian element in him does not appear in a political form, but rather as an opposition of humanistic and revolutionary ideals both to the corporate society of feudal absolutism and to philistinism. The whole of Werther is a glowing tribute to this new man who emerged in the course of preparation for the bourgeois revolution, to that awakening of the universal activity of man which the development of bourgeois society engendered – and also tragically condemned to destruction. This new man was formed then by being continually contrasted dramatically to corporate society and bourgeois philistinism. Time and again this newly emerging human culture is set over against the malformation and the sterility and lack of cultivation of the “upper classes” and the stagnant, torpid, petty egoistic life of the philistine bourgeoisie. And each of these oppositions is a glowing affirmation that both a real and vital understanding of life and a vital consideration of its problems are to be found exclusively in the people itself. As a vital human being, as a representative of a new world, it is not only Werther who opposes the dead petrification of the aristocracy and philistinism, but time and again popular figures do also. Werther always represents what is popular and alive as against this torpidity. And the cultural elements which are very liberally inserted (references to painting, to Homer, Ossian, Goldsmith, etc.) always move in this direction: for Werther and for young Goethe, Homer and Ossian are great popular poets, poetic reflections and expressions of the productive life that exists uniquely and alone among the working people.
Through this tendency, through this content of his work, young Goethe proclaimed the popular revolutionary ideals of the bourgeois revolution – although he personally was neither a plebeian nor a political revolutionary. Even his reactionary contemporaries immediately recognized this tendency in Werther and evaluated it accordingly. The orthodox pastor, Goeze, notorious for his polemic with Lessing, wrote, for example, that books like Werther are the mothers of Ravaillac (the murderer of Henry IV) and Damiens (the would-be assassin of Louis XV). And many decades later Lord Bristol attacked Goethe because his book made so many people miserable. It is very interesting that the old Goethe, who was otherwise so politely refined and restrained, answered these charges with gratifyingly blunt rudeness and reproached the astonished lord with all the sins of the ruling classes. Such assessments put Werther on a level with the openly revolutionary youthful dramas of Schiller. The old Goethe also preserved an extremely characteristic remark of the enemy about these plays. A German prince once said to him that if he had been God Almighty and had known that the creation of the world would have resulted in the birth of Schiller’s Raubern, he would never have created the world.
These utterances from enemy quarters endorse the real significance of the great works of “Storm and Stress” far better than the subsequent apologetic interpretations of bourgeois literary history. The popular-humanistic revolt in Werther is one of the most important revolutionary expressions of bourgeois ideology in the preparatory period of the French Revolution. Its world success is that of a revolutionary work. Werther is the culmination of young Goethe’s struggles for the free and universally developed man, those tendencies which he also expressed in Götz, in the Prometheus fragment, in the first drafts of Faust, etc.
It would be a false depreciation of the significance of Werther to see it simply as the expression of a transitory, exaggerated, sentimental mood which Goethe himself quickly overcame. It is true that scarcely three years after Werther, Goethe wrote a playful humorous parody on “Wertherism” called Triumph der Empfindsamkeit. Bourgeois literary history observes only that Goethe characterized in it Rousseau’s Heloise and his own Werther as the “dregs” [Grundsuppe] of sentimentality. But it ignores the fact that Goethe was ridiculing here precisely the aristocratic and courtly parody of the Wertherian spirit which had degenerated into the anti-natural. Werther himself flees to nature and to the people in the face of the lifeless disfigurement of aristocratic society. The hero of the parody provides himself with a theatrical, artificial nature, fearing the real one, and in his frivolous sentimentality has nothing to do with the vital forces of the people. Hence the Triumph der Empfindsamkeit lays stress on just that popular basic theme in Werther; it is a parody on the unintended effect of the work on the “educated” classes, but not on the so-called “exaggerated” elements of the work itself.
The world success of Werther is a literary triumph of the bourgeois revolution. The artistic foundation of this success rests on the fact that Werther offers an artistic fusion of the great realist tendencies of the eighteenth century. Young Goethe artistically advanced the line of Richardson and Rousseau far beyond his predecessors. He took over their theme: the representation of the inner world of feeling in bourgeois daily life, in order to delineate in this inwardness the outlines of the emerging new man in opposition to feudal society. But where Rousseau still dissolves the external world (with the exception of the landscape) into a subjective mood, young Goethe also inherited an objective and clear treatment of the external world, the world of society and of nature; he not only continued Richardson and Rousseau, but also Fielding and Goldsmith.
Viewed externally, from a technical point of view, Werther is a culmination of the subjectivist tendencies of the second half of the eighteenth century. And this subjectivism is not something superficial in the novel, but the adequate artistic expression of the humanist revolt. Everything, however, which appears in this world of Werther, Goethe objectified with an unprecedented plasticity and simplicity learned from the great realists. Only in Werther’s state of mind at the end does the haziness of Ossian displace the lucid plasticity of Homer understood as a popular figure. As a creator, young Goethe remained a student of this Homer throughout the work.
But Goethe’s great youthful novel does not only surpass those of his predecessors artistically. It also does so in content. As we have seen, it is not only the proclamation of the ideals of revolutionary humanism, but also the perfect formulation of the tragic contradiction of these ideals. Hence Werther is not only a high-point of the great bourgeois literature of the eighteenth century, but at the same time the first major forerunner of the great realistic problem literature of the nineteenth century. By regarding Chateaubriand and his consorts as the literary successors of Werther, bourgeois literary history tendentiously reduces the book’s significance. Not reactionary Romanticism, but the great writers of the tragic decline of humanistic ideals in the nineteenth century, Balzac and Stendahl, continued the real tendencies of Werther.
Werther’s conflict, Werther’s tragedy is the tragedy of bourgeois humanism and shows the insoluble conflict between the free and full development of personality and bourgeois society itself. Naturally this tragedy appears in its German, pre-revolutionary, semi-feudal, politically fragmented, absolutistic form. But even in this conflict the outlines are very clearly visible of those conflicts which subsequently emerged more distinctly. And ultimately these are the ones that actually destroy Werther. To be sure, Goethe only formulated the dimly visible outlines of the great tragedy which manifested itself later. This enabled him to concentrate his theme into so strict a framework and limit himself thematically to the representation of a small world, almost idyllic and closed, ŕ la Goldsmith and Fielding. But the formation of this externally narrow and closed world is already impregnated with that dramatic quality which, after Balzac’s achievements, constituted the essentially new element of the nineteenth century novel.
Generally Werther is regarded as a love story. Is that correct? Yes, Werther is one of the greatest love stories in world literature. But like every really great poetic expression of erotic tragedy Werther provides much more than a mere tragedy of love.
Young Goethe succeeded in introducing organically into this love-conflict all the great problems of the struggle for the development of personality. Werther’s tragedy of love is a tragic explosion of all those passions which usually occur in life in a divided, partial, abstract way; but in Werther they are fused, in the fire of passionate love into a homogenous, glowing and radiant mass. Here we can only concentrate on a few of the essential aspects. First of all, Goethe made Werther’s love for Lotte into an artistically heightened expression of the hero’s popular, anti-feudal way of life. Of Werther’s relationship to Lotte, Goethe himself later said that it put him into contact with daily life.
But even more important is the composition of the work itself. The first part is devoted to a description of Werther’s emerging love. As Werther realizes the insoluble conflict of his love, he seeks refuge in practical life, in activity, and he even accepts a position with a legation. Despite the fact that his talents are recognized there, this attempt proves unavailing against the barriers erected by aristocratic society against the bourgeoisie. Not until after Werther fails in this attempt does his tragic re-encounter with Lotte take place.
It may be of some interest to mention that one of the greatest admirers of this novel, Napoleon Bonaparte, who even took Werther along with him on the Egyptian campaign, reproached Goethe for having introduced a social conflict into a love-tragedy. With his courteous and refined irony, the old Goethe observed that the great Napoleon indeed had studied Werther very attentively, but had done so like a judge studying his briefs. Napoleon’s criticism is obviously a misjudgment of the broad and comprehensive character of the Werther question. Of course, even as a tragedy of love, Werther would have been a great and typical expression of the problem of the time. But Goethe’s intentions went deeper. In his representation of passionate love, he showed the insoluble contradiction between personality development and bourgeois society. And in order to do so, it was necessary to enable us to witness this conflict in all areas of human activity. Napoleon’s criticism is a rejection – understandable from his point of view – of the universality of this tragic conflict in Werther.
It is through this apparent diversion that the book ends in catastrophe. As regards this catastrophe itself, we must bear in mind that Lotte also loved Werther and that she became conscious of this love through the explosion of his passion. But this is exactly what brings about the catastrophe. Lotte is a bourgeois woman who instinctively holds on to her marriage with a capable and respected man and draws back in alarm from her own feelings. Thus the tragedy of Werther is not only the tragedy of unhappy love, but the perfect expression of the inner contradiction of bourgeois marriage: based on individual love, with which it emerged historically, bourgeois marriage, by virtue of its socio-economic character, stands in insoluble contradiction to individual love.
Goethe was as plain as he was restrained in emphasizing the social aspects of this love tragedy. After a conflict with the feudal society of the legation, Werther clears out and reads that chapter in the Odyssey in which Odysseus, returning home, converses with the swineherd on human and comradely terms. And on the night of his suicide, the last book that Werther reads is Lessing’s Emilia Galotti, at that time the high-point of revolutionary bourgeois literature.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is one of the greatest love stories in world literature because Goethe concentrated into this love-tragedy the whole life of his time, with all its conflicts.
For that very reason the significance of Werther surpasses the faithful description of a particular period and produces an effect that has survived long after its own time. In a conversation with Eckermann about the reason for this effect, the old Goethe said the following: “If one examines it closely, the much talked of age of Werther, it is true, does not belong to the course of world culture, but rather to the life-process of every individual who, with a free and innate sense of nature, seeks to find himself and adapt to the restrictive forms of a world grown old. Thwarted happiness, hampered activity, ungratified desires – these are not the infirmities of a particular period, but those of every single human being, and it must be sad if each should not once have had a phase in his life when Werther affected him as if it were written only for him.”
Goethe exaggerated here a little the “timeless” character of Werther; he concealed the fact that the individual conflict in which, according to his own view, the significance of his novel lies, is just this conflict between personality and society in bourgeois society. Precisely through this one-sidedness, however, he accentuated the profound universality of Werther for the whole duration of bourgeois society.
When the old Goethe read a review about himself in the French periodical, Globe, in which his Tasso was called an “intensified Werther,” he agreed enthusiastically with this characterization. Rightly so. For the French critic quite correctly drew attention to the connecting threads which lead from Werther to Goethe’s later production in the nineteenth century. In Tasso the problems of Werther are enhanced and driven more intensely to their extremes; but for that very reason the solution to the conflict is considerably less pure. Werther is shattered in the contradiction between human personality and bourgeois society; but he is destroyed in pure tragedy, without his soul being sullied by compromise with the evil reality of bourgeois society.
The tragedy of Tasso preludes the great fiction of the nineteenth century novel insofar as the tragic resolution of the conflict in this literature is already less a heroic explosion than suffocation caused by compromise. The lineage of Tasso then becomes a leading theme of the great nineteenth century novel from Balzac to our own time. It may be said of a very great number of the heroes of these novels – but not in a mechanistic and schematic way – that they are “intensified Werthers.” They are destroyed in the same conflicts that Werther was. But their downfall is less heroic, more abject, more sullied by compromise and capitulations. Werther commits suicide precisely because he will relinquish nothing of his humanistic-revolutionary ideals, because he knows no compromise in these questions. This straightforwardness and consistency endows his tragedy with that radiant beauty which even today constitutes the imperishable charm of this book.
This beauty is not simply the result of young Goethe’s genius. It arises from the fact that, although his hero is destroyed in a conflict common to the whole of bourgeois society, Werther is still the product of the heroic pre-revolutionary period of bourgeois development.
Just as the heroes of the French Revolution went to their deaths radiantly heroic, filled with heroic and historically necessary illusions, so too does Werther go under in the dawn of the heroic illusions of humanism prior to the French Revolution.
According to the accounts of his biographers, unanimously agreed upon, Goethe soon overcame his Werther phase. That goes without saying. And there is no question about the fact that Goethe’s subsequent development frequently went far beyond the horizon of Werther. Goethe experienced the disintegration of the heroic illusions of the pre-revolutionary period and yet he held fast to his humanistic ideals in a unique way, representing them in a more comprehensive and richer form in their conflict with bourgeois society.
But he always retained his feeling for the imperishable and vitally essential element in Werther. He did not transcend Werther in that vulgar sense that most of his biographers mean it, in the sense of the bourgeois who grows wiser, comes to terms with reality and overcomes his “youthful follies.” When Goethe wanted to write a new preface to Werther fifty years after it first appeared, he wrote the stirring first part of the Trilogie der Leidenschaft. In this poem he expressed his relationship to the hero of his youth in this way:
“Summoned, I to stay, you to part, You went ahead – and lost little.”
[Zum Bleiben ich, zum Scheiden du erkoren, Gingst du voran-und hast nicht viel verloren.]
This melancholy mood of the old and mature Goethe shows most clearly the dialectic of his overcoming of Werther. The evolution of society had passed beyond the possibility of the consistently pure tragedy of Werther. The great realist Goethe never denied this fact. Indeed, a profound grasp of the essence of reality is always the foundation of his great poetry. But at the same time, he sensed what both he and humanity had lost with the passing of these heroic illusions. He felt that the radiant beauty of Werther characterized a period in the development of mankind which would never return, that dawn upon which followed the sunrise of the great French Revolution.