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BRUCE DUNCAN "Emilia Galotti lag auf dem Pult aufgeschlagen": Werther as (Mis-)Reader When karl wilhelm Jerusalem, suffering from back-to-back bouts of unrequited love, killed himself in November of 1772, the shot had immediate repercussions in Wetzlar and Frankfurt. Goethe reports in his autobiography how deeply Jerusalem's death affected him at a time when he too had been wrestling with the idea of suicide and was trying to find a poetic shape for his concerns. Shortly after hearing about the suicide, Goethe received from Johann Christian Kestner a detailed account of Jerusalem's last hours1 This letter, according to Goethe, provided the immediate source of inspiration for Die Leiden des jungen Werther. The poetic form that had eluded him now came together; everything crystallized like water that is at the freezing point and immediately becomes solid ice at the slightest shaking of its container. He tells us that he sat right down and produced Werther in a four-week flurry of unselfconscious creativity.2 Given this famous Entstehungsgeschichte, it is hardly surprising that Goethe adapted, even copied, certain parts of Kestner's letter when he wrote Werther. But do these copied details bear any particular significance, or did Goethe simply grab them in haste in order to further the illusion of reality? We should tread carefully at this point, for Goethe is guilty of mixing a little Dichtung in with his Wahrheit when he tells how he wrote Werther. As Stuart Atkins has pointed out, a year and a half passed between the arrival of Kestner's letter and the completion of the novel. Goethe had plenty of time for artifice.3 Scholars who Bruce Duncan 43 uncritically accept the author's version of Werther's gestation risk seeing the novel only as naive autobiography and neglecting its artistic form. Goethe undeniably infused his work with youthful emotion, but it was an emotion recollected in relative tranquillity. One detail borrowed from Kestner's letter occupies a crucial position. Like Jerusalem, Werther dies with an open copy of Emilia Galotti in his room. Why did Goethe include this detail? The question is important, because he made significant changes when he adopted this piece of information, changes that emphasize the central position of Lessing's play and invite the reader to speculate about its presence. When Jerusalem shot himself, Emilia Galotti lay open on a side table and was only one of a number of books and manuscripts scattered about the room. Werther, in contrast, has packed all his books except this one, and it lies open before him as he pulls the trigger. The reluctance of most critics to deal with this question is understandable. If scholars are baffled by the enigma of Emilia Galotti, how are they to explain its function in Werther? Anthony Thorlby ingeniously suggests that the important point is not what Werther was reading, but that he was reading anything at such a time: "From the beginning, Werther's intoxicated state has owed everything to literature; it has been altogether (too) spiritual and scarcely sensual at all. And here at his death-bed are the open book—not one that Goethe much cared for— and the nearly full bottle of wine, side by side."4 Leonard Forster, on the other hand, suggests that Werther deliberately leaves the book as a kind of last testament. By pointing to the figure of the Prince, Werther informs the world that he could have killed his rival, Albert, had he so chosen, instead of himself.5 Erich Trunz similarly maintains that Werther intends to tell everyone that his death, like Emilia's, is more a morally-motivated Wunschtod than a suicide of desperation (p. 586). Klaus Scherpe takes another tack. Goethe, he suggests, increases the political awareness of his eighteenth-century readers by inviting them to compare Werther with Odoardo. Both men confront the repressive power of an arbitrary socio-economic system. Instead of attacking their oppressor, they turn their violence inwards and become the dupes of reaction.6 Erwin Leibfried, in contrast, sees in both suicides the impotence of individual subjectivity when confronted with the material world.7 Most recently, Thomas Saine suggests that Werther leaves the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-9087
Print ISSN
0734-3329
Pages
pp. 42-50
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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