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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Works & Biography

Instructor: Sophie Starmack

Sophia has taught college French and composition. She has master's degrees in French and in creative writing.

This lesson provides an overview of the life story and major works of Goethe, the German poet, novelist, and playwright. We'll also look at Goethe's lasting influence on Western literature, music, and philosophy.

Overview

A young man pushes his long hair back from his pale forehead. Propping himself up on one elbow, he scribbles a few passionate lines in his leather-bound journal, then sinks back into the gently waving grass, trailing his free hand through the wildflowers, gazing up at the blue sky. Nothing in life can comfort him--how terrible it is, to be so misunderstood by his family, his teachers--even the woman he loves is out of reach! Only the changing seasons and the mysterious workings of nature can come close. Out here in the fields he feels--almost--at peace. Almost.

A tormented scholar pauses in his studies. He's read everything, written till his fingers ache, but knowledge is elusive, there's always some new revelation just out of reach. He'd sacrifice anything to find it, even--his soul?

If these scenes sound melodramatic and emotionally charged, they are! They're descriptions of scenes from Goethe's most famous prose works, The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust. While these images might seem a bit overblown to the modern reader, when these books were written, around the turn of the 19th century, they provoked and even scandalized their audiences. At that time, literature and philosophy were supposed to be rational and moralizing, aiming to chart the waters rather than rock the boat. Goethe was one of the key writers in a new movement that aimed to explore the stormy terrain of an individual's emotional life. Because of his success at delving into the passionate inner life of his characters, his numerous literary works have left a lasting impact on Western literature and culture.

Biography

Early Years

Goethe was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1749. Like most young men of his time, he was educated at home, learning classical and modern languages, drawing, mathematics, and physical sports like fencing, dancing, and riding. At age 16, he was sent to study law, a career that he would pursue sporadically for several years.

From a young age, Goethe preferred reading and composing poetry and going to the theater to memorizing long and dusty law texts. Goethe came from a Lutheran family, and he was highly skeptical of both Catholicism and organized religion in general, especially Christianity. This is important to remember, because we'll see that many of his major works take up controversial themes and question conventional morals.

First Success

Goethe's early love of literature and his facility with language soon paid off, because his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, written when he was just 25, made him an instant celebrity. It was so famous that the Duke of Weimar invited him to the court, where Goethe made his home for the rest of his life. His legal studies paid off, too--as a close friend of the Duke, Goethe held several political positions and even served in the army for a few brief stints. He was such a successful writer and politician that he was granted the title of nobility--the 'von' was added to his last name, showing his new status.

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Portrait of Goethe

Later Life

At Weimar, Goethe wrote and published at an astonishing rate. He churned out scores of poems, several plays, philosophical treatises, scientific works (he was passionate about light, plants, insects, and minerals), memoir and autobiography, as well as hundreds of letters. The play Faust, probably his other best-known work, was published during this period.

Goethe did find some time for fun amidst his busy writing schedule and political duties. He spent two years in Italy, a country he admired for its link to classical literature, philosophy, and art. He also carried on a lengthy affair with Christiane Vulpius, whom he only married after they'd had several children. In his later years, he became smitten with the 18-year-old Ulrike von Levetzow. She refused to marry him, but he got some great poetry out of it: The Marienbad Elegies, which detail his lovelorn grief, are considered to be some of his finest verse. Goethe died in 1832.

Literary Works

Goethe was an immensely prolific writer, publishing far too many pieces for us to go into each one individually in this article. For now, we'll take a brief look at his major works, and we'll see what set him apart from writers who had gone before him: his exploration of individual experience; his relationship to romanticism, nature, and emotion; and his unconventional questions about morals and religion.

The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)

This is an epistolary novel, which takes the form of a collection of letters written by the main character, Werther. Werther is a sensitive young man who's spending some time in a country village, where he is delighted by the simple ways of the peasants and the dazzling views of nature. He is also desperately, obsessively in love with Lotte.

Unfortunately, Lotte can never return Werther's love--she's engaged to another man. The situation spirals out of control until Werther realizes the only way out is to end his own life. He shoots himself and dies, and is buried by some workmen, with no priest to provide a proper funeral. 'Werther' was a raging success when first published, although the suicide of the main character provoked much controversy, and even, it is rumored, a spate of copy-cat suicides. Even today we speak of the 'Werther effect.'

Lotte at Werther

Faust, Part I (1806) and Part II (1831)

Faust is Goethe's other best-known prose work. The two sections of the work, composed many years apart, are written in the form of plays, though they were meant to be read in a book rather than performed on stage.

In Part I, Faust is a young scholar who makes a pact with the devil, here called Mephistopheles. Unbeknownst to Faust, Mephistopheles has made a bet with God that he (Mephistopheles) can sway the upright human away from righteousness. Driven by his quest for knowledge, Faust trades his soul to Mephistopheles, who offers him ultimate success while he lives.

Faust falls in love with Gretchen, and with the devil's help, he wins her heart. But, as bets with Satan tend to, things quickly devolve out of control: Gretchen's mother is poisoned and dies; Gretchen gets pregnant; her brother, attempting to defend her honor, is killed by Faust in a duel; and Gretchen, overcome with despair, drowns the child. Ultimately, Faust is condemned to hell and Gretchen is forgiven. Sound melodramatic? It is! But it brings up timeless themes: the conflicts between good and evil, knowledge and sin, redemption and despair.

Part II focuses on Faust's search for redemption. Less plot-driven, it reflects Goethe's interest in philosophy and religion, and is far more intellectual rather than dramatic. Goethe's 'Faust' has inspired dozens of other writers, musicians, and artists, who are captivated by the timeless theme of a man torn between his allegiance to wisdom and the temptation of ultimate power.

Poetry

True to his early love of verse, Goethe wrote and published dozens of poems during his lifetime, including the Roman Elegies, reflections of his travels in Italy and his interest in classical culture; and the Marienbad Elegy, the account of personal grief he felt at being rejected (at the age of 73!) by a young woman. Like his prose works, Goethe's poetry reflects themes of passion, nature, individual experience, and sensuality. Many of his poems were set to music, both during his lifetime and by later composers in the 19th century.

Scholarly Works

Although best known for his novels and poetry, Goethe was a real man-of-all-trades, passionately interested in science, language, and philosophy in addition to literature. He wrote several treatises on color theory, insect metamorphosis, minerals, and plants. He also wrote philosophy and memoir.

Analysis

Individual Experience

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