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Literature in GFL lessons
The sorrows of young Werther – how to approach a classic

a classic with potential
a classic with potential for activation | © adobe.stock

Goethe’s “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” (The sorrows of young Werther) is a classic of world literature. But it also typifies the sorrows of learners dealing with set books school or university.

By Christine Magerski and Gerald Hühner

In Croatia, as in many countries of the world, “Werther” in translation belongs to the canon of native-language literature; in German studies and teacher training for German-language teachers the original text is compulsory reading. The bar is set high in terms of the language and cultural history expectations learners and students must achieve.

However the text does offer a range of opportunities to link in with themes of current relevance, as well as huge potential for activation with interdisciplinary synergies. The following ideas, questions and suggestions might help to exploit this potential in the classroom:

Motivational access points to Werther’s world

A pre-reading warm-up is available for instance in the “Sommers Weltliteratur to go” series, a set of video films using Playmobil figures in which they play around with a number of world literature texts. In this series, the “Werther to go!” film makes studying the original accessible in a witty way.

The “Musstewissen Deutsch” series also calls the “Sturm und Drang” era the “puberty of German literature” in videos, referring to its political and cultural environment. A wide selection of CLIL activities can follow on the basis of this knowledge, and this can also be delivered in the format of bilingual team teaching. Practical study for instance with Montgolfier balloons, Chappe semaphore systems, galvanic experiments, lithography and steam machines can bring to life the “highlights” of Werther’s time in a visual and memorable presentation.

Learners find Werther’s language in particular rather unwieldy. It is possible to work with visualisations in order to facilitate ease of understanding – and also to reduce complexity. For instance in the context of specific natural events experienced by Werther as a reflection of his state of mind (Spring – Autumn). The search for appropriate images (ones with regional relevance are particularly suitable), the use of self-produced photos and videos, production of pictures or perhaps collages by the students themselves can help prepare for reading of the set text and support this process.

For this, the selection of image motives should always be justified – to extend and consolidate vocabulary, to practise argumentation.

Similarly a musical interpretation of Werther’s feelings and emotions would also be a good choice, ideally in the context of interdisciplinary discourse between teachers. YouTube videos are an inexhaustible resource here. 

READING aloud with an interpretive approach can also be used as a means of accessing the style and function of Werther’s language.

Werther in current theme complexes

Selected letters (passages) can provide inspiration for plenty of activities to prepare for, facilitate and consolidate understanding. To name just a few theme complexes:
  • “Authenticity” theme complex: even the PREFACE links the question of the significance of information with the question of authenticity – or the fiction of authenticity – of the text. Does fiction serve the production of increased attentiveness in this context (“Werther” and “Ossian” are fictional)? What does authentic even mean? Why should something be interesting primarily because of its authenticity? In terms of today’s world: what is the purpose of producing fake news and what effect does it have?
  • “Travel” theme complex: lots of people travel around these days – as they might say: “I’m off on holiday again!”. Why did Werther travel? Where does this wanderlust come from nowadays, this longing to visit foreign climes – and then as a reaction to this a feeling of homesickness and a longing for all that is close and familiar?
  • “Sorrows because of and within society” theme: Werther states that he had something troubling him, something that drove him away. He was talking about an experience of exclusion. Is it still possible to get involved with the “wrong friends” today, to be excluded by the “right people”? How does social exclusion and inclusion work today? The catchphrase is “the sickness unto death” – particularly in times of a massively accelerated spread of information in social networks, blogs and forums, the question emerges: how should we react when we read about a young person who “wants to shoot himself in the head!” Examples taken from day-to-day life and pop culture are well-known, in fact that’s where the money is (“27 Club”). Amy Winehouse: “They tried to make me go to rehab but I said ´No, no, no!” A novel widely consumed by young people, especially in the TV series format, is: “13 Reasons Why”. Both the book and the series received high praises, but also faced hostility. Critics are broadly in agreement that whilst themes such as mobbing, violence, sexual harassment, rape and finally suicide need to be treated with great sensitivity (under the heading Werther effect), they must not be made taboo. Is it possible to shut oneself off from dealing with the theme if it is omnipresent, and in the case of “Werther”, even specified as a set text on the school curriculum? 
Last but not least of course it would be possible to carry on writing the text creatively from today’s perspective too: what if Werther and Lotte had found each other in the era of Tinder (“It’s a match!”)? What would have become of them? The “Sorrows of young Werther” might well have turned into a motivational reading experience. And maybe that way it would even have been possible to become a “good friend” of this classic of world literature.


Sources and literature

Goethe (commentaries on Christoph Friedrich Nicolai: Freuden des jungen Werthers (The joys of young Werther); 1775):

  • Nicolai auf Werthers Grabe (1775)
  • “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” an Nicolai (1775)
  • A chapter in “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (1808 – 1831): http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/freuden-des-jungen-werthers-3826/7
Goethe: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (Series: Classic meets comic. Arousing interest, facilitating access, reading the original text); Klett

Franziska Walther & J. W. v. Goethe: Werther Reloaded (Classics retold), published by Kunstanstifter Manheim 2016