One of the world's first bestsellers, this tragic masterpiece attained an instant and lasting success upon its 1774 publication, catapulting the author to the forefront of the German literary movement known as Sturm und Drang. A burst of parodies, operas, poems, and plays based on The Sorrows of Young Werther rapidly ensued, along with the cultlike following of young romantics across Europe who affected the manner of the novel's passionate and self-destructive hero.
Young Werther bares his soul to readers in the form of alternately joyful and despairing letters about his unrequited love. His story marks the initial great achievement of what has since been termed "confessional" literature; Goethe, who based the story in part on his own unhappy love affair, acknowledged a sense of freedom upon completing the work. A sensitive exploration of the mind of a young artist, the tale addresses age-old questions — the meaning of love, of death, and the possibility of redemption — in the exuberant language of youth.
"Werther appeared to seize the hearts of men in all quarters of the world, and to utter for them the word which they had long been waiting to hear," observed the Victorian sage Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, Goethe's portrayal of Zerrissenheit, "the state of being torn apart, in which a character struggles to reconcile his artistic sensibilities with the demands of the objective world, proved tremendously influential to subsequent writers, and The Sorrows of Young Werther continues to speak to modern readers.