GERMANY >> GERMAN LITERATURE >> JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE
(1749 - 1832)
JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in
Frankfurt am Main. Together with his only sister Cornelia, he received a profound education in old and new languages, science, and musical theories. Goethe himself tells us in his autobiography
"facts and fiction" (Dichtung und Wahrheit) how he became interested in storytelling. His grandmother once gave him a puppet theater as a Christmas gift when Goethe was a little one. He soon
started to present the plays which he had invented. Even though he was fascinated by literature, his father urged him to get trained for a concrete profession. In 1765, 16-years-old Goethe
started to study law at the University of Leipzig. Three years later, Goethe had to interrupt his studies because of pulmonary hemorrhage, which was a severe and life-threatening illness in the
18th century. He moved back home to renew his strengths and spend plenty of time reading books. In 1770, he continued his studies in Strasbourg. There he met other students who were interested in
literature. Goethe paraded together with Johann Gottfried Herder, Heinrich Leopold Wagner, Michael Reinhold Lenz and Friedrich Maximilian Klinger their youth and their freedoms. They all had in
common an understanding of art and literature, which requires a subjective experience, the so-called original genius (or genius cult). Their writings brought a new literary period into being,
namely the Sturm und Drang period. It was characterized by a literary revolt against social conventions. Their own feelings and personal freedoms were the things that mattered. The
genius cult justified enjoying life to the full. Friedrich Maximilian Klingers work Sturm und Drang was the name-giver of this unique German literary period. Goethe moved to Frankfurt am Main and
started to work as a lawyer. In Frankfurt, he wrote a play called Götz von Berlichingen (1774) that would make him famous overnight. Goethe was 25 years old when his main character of the
play, a knight with an iron hand and a larger-than-life figure, came to life at a stage in Berlin. Goethe was talented at handling difficult situations by composing fine literature. When he fell
in love with the fiancee of one of his colleagues, he folded up his tents and escaped from Wetzlar to cope with his love for Charlotte by writing "The Sorrows of Young Werther." The work
was Goethe's second masterpiece and brought him fame all across Europe. It was the first bestseller in the history of German literature and offered strong identifiability for the readers.
Goethe's Werther became a cult, and many young men started to wear the same clothes as the described Werther, and some decided to end a story in Werther's
way, namely committing suicide. Fiction was capable of creating facts.
Goethe composed with Faust I and Faust II, the most important works in German literature. The central theme of Faust is based on the biblical story of Hiob, who became the subject of a bet between God and the devil. Goethe depicts the life of Dr. Faust, who seeks knowledge about the mysteries which hold the earth together. As he recognizes that his attempts to gain such an all-encompassing knowledge failed, he meets the devil who comes at first in the form of a dog that transforms itself into a human, introduced as Mephisto. He offers a deal to Dr. Faust, namely to become his servant. Should Mephisto be able to offer Faust a sense of happiness, Faust will become his servant in return in the aftermath. The deal opens the door to the sorrow and destruction of innocent people. Goethe's Faust is a play about values and morals, using various literary devices, making the drama a literary work that scores off all others, a masterpiece of writing that remains unchallenged in world literature's history.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was Germany's most influential and prominent writer. His works influenced three literary periods, namely Sturm und Drang, Classicism, and Romanticism.