I began to study German in my first semester at Bowdoin. In my junior year, during a semester abroad in Freiburg, Germany, I took a seminar on Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther. The course focused on close readings of the text, which I enjoyed, but because the culmination of the course was simply an oral exam, I didn’t feel that I had really been able to process all of the ideas that I had encountered throughout the semester. When I returned to Bowdoin, I decided to formulate the ideas and insights that I had gained from this course into an honors thesis.
Werther’s tragic story is told through a compilation of letters addressed to his friend, which are in turn assembled by an anonymous editor. Not only did Werther define this genre of the modern epistolary novel, but in addition, it changed the perception of the impact literature could have on the audience and society. It is rumored that the release of the first version of the novel was followed by a series of suicides and scandal, during which young men fully clad in the “Werther-Tracht” began to shoot themselves in exact imitation of Werther. Although Goethe never intended for this effect, it certainly aided in his success in creating his own literary legend and tradition.
With the help of Professor Tautz, I was able to focus in on the rhetorical strategies that Goethe used to create this text. After reading previous Werther responses and critiques, I chose a topic that hadn’t thoroughly been addressed by other critics: Goethe’s façade. Werther, Goethe’s fictional creation, instructs us, the reader, on how to read his subjective experiences and constructed identity in order to gain a better understanding of his elaborate project. Through the creation of Werther, a character who himself wants to create his own myth, Goethe is able to in turn create his own legacy.
This project challenged me to think about the novel in a new light and as a result allowed me to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the story, literary context and impact.
Courtney Reichert '06, a double major in German and mathematics, is currently teaching at a local public high school.