Goethe's Werther and the Critics

July 2005
2 black and white illustrations
206 pages
9x6 in
Literary Criticism in Perspective
ISBN: 9781571132840
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
Camden House

Goethe's Werther and the Critics

Bruce Duncan

A literary-historical look at the scholarly criticism of Goethe's great first novel.
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.

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Table of Contents

First Responses
Religious Interpretations
Psychological Approaches
Political Interpretations
Goethe, Werther, Reading, and Writing
Lotte, Sex, and Werther


Duncan leads the reader carefully and lucidly through this critical pandemonium. . . . No one approaching Werther critically can afford to ignore this fascinating survey of its critical history. MLR

Duncan succeeds not only in demonstrating how various critical approaches to literature in general and to Goethe's novel in specific have influenced readings of the text, but also how art and its reception and interpretation enter a reciprocal relationship with culture. GERMAN STUDIES REVIEW

This judicious overview of the vast literary scholarship since the novel's comet-like appearance ... will be a welcome point of orientation for researchers and teachers.... COLLOQUIA GERMANICA

The author concentrates on central issues in the interpretation of fictional literature so that the critical reception of Goethe's novel in effect becomes a model for the treatment of literary texts in general. GOETHE JAHRBUCH

[A]dmirably surveys two centuries of scholarship with remarkable clarity . . . . THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY CURRENT BIBLIOGRAPHY

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