When speaking about belles-lettres literature and the history backgrounds it may convey to readers it is but natural that the so called category of presupposition should be mentioned. The category of presupposition consists in the facts out of the reader’s general knowledge and experience pertaining to the historical facts or phenomena revealed. It is a certain kind of a code with the help of which the reader can decipher the author’s message, the indirect way of emphasizing some facts referred to in the narration or alter the shade of their meaning. Here belong geographical and famous proper names as well as names of some historical deeds or phenomena (masons, crusaders, the War of the Roses); but mostly these are the captures of daily routine of people who lived back then in the age portrayed in the story, a detailed survey of a life styles which have been long forgotten.
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The story of novel
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther, first published as Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a piece of belles-lettres writing which pertains to the period of Enlightenment in Germany; to be more specific, it is a part of the so called Sturm und Drang movement in the literature of this age. This movement is most commonly viewed as occurring in the years 1767-1785 and it is characterized by the deep insight into the volatile emotional aspect of the life of individual.
The novel was first published in 1774. As is seen from the date of issue, the book was written in accordance with the best traditions of the mentioned literature movement. XVIII as it is pictured by Goethe in his novel is one of the most brilliant instances in the history of human culture.
Logically, the central phenomenon of culture and ideology of the XVIII century was the movement of Enlightenment. And naturally enough, this shows in the book under discussion. Let’s remember the way young Werther is: he combines talents for almost all the fine arts possible in himself, starting from the first pages of the book we get to know that Werther is an inspired poet, a skilled painter, he has a good ear for music and is simply a highly educated person and a connoisseur of society.
We can hardly name another young man in world literature experience who wouldn’t belong to the higher strata of society and still have such an exquisite taste and exceptional backgrounds in education. This is strictly the novelty of the Age of the Enlightenment – bringing education to everyone, making it publicly available.
First and foremost, the conflict of the book consists in social inequality and dramas it brings to the life of individuals. Thus, Werther is unable to propose to a girl he loves because they are of different social status; shortly, he is refused in hospitality in the house of his protector; he must withstand the mockery of his happy rival knowing only too well that protecting his dignity is not included in his list of social rights. Little by little, the author draws a portrayal of the social and political life which they had in Germany of the XVIII century.
Indeed, everywhere in Europe people started to realize that only learning can take them anywhere. It was a time of great hope, time of awakening, new movements for freedom, civil rights, social equality, religious withstanding were formed.
Another fact in the story by Goethe requires a special attention – Werther commits a suicide at the end. Let us remember the attitude of church and catholic religion in particular to suicides. They were considered to be not only one of the deadliest sins, but also one of the major criminal abuses.
The fact that Werther acclaims his right to decide for himself whether he should live or die is ominous: the society is no longer under the total control of church. Thus begins the gradual loosening of the chains which had been binding the consciousness of people in every civilized country for centuries.
Literature connoisseurs often refer to this period as to the end of adolescence of mankind. Indeed, Werther shows his affection for Charlotte not because she is a fine woman, but due to the fact that she is a thinking individual, a bold personality. They discuss literature, music, they analyze social life. Here we can spot the change of women’s role in the society, for a rare case it was when a woman’s opinion was taken in consideration. Hereby we can witness that feminization began back in the XVIII century with the Age of Enlightenment.
Another peculiar detail revealed in the narration, the milestone of the plot: Werther’s pride is wounded once he’s been turned away from the house of a certain count von K. under pretext that it is not proper for a young man of his social layer to stay with the guests in a house of a noble man. Man’s dignity, when it came down to the dignity of those who did not belong to the upper classes, was of a little value. You either had to put up with this state of things or you ran a risk of being an outsider just like the character of Goethe’s novel.
Such is the historical situation which can be deduced from the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and comparing it with the history of Germany of the XVIII century one can see how truthfully and promptly Goethe depicts the flaws of the then society and their impact on the life of individuals. A great observer of men and manners, he creates a book which can be regarded as a kind of a historical survey of human mind’s evolution.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. The Sorrows of Young Werther. London: Penguin Reds, 2006.