Academic journal article German Quarterly

Goethe's Werther and the Critics

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Goethe's Werther and the Critics

Article excerpt

Duncan, Bruce. Goethe's Werther and the Critics. Rochester: Camden House, 2005. 200 pp. $75.00 hardcover.

Goethe's Werther and the Critics provides an extensive summary of scholarship on Goethe's Werther and an important and useful overview of the main currents of Werther scholarship in German and English from the novel's earliest reception to contemporary views. Students and scholars approaching Goethe's novel for the first time will find Duncan's summaries of critical trends and the extensive bibliographical citations especially helpful. Most interestingly, Duncan outlines the history of literary criticism as it pertains to Goethe's Werther. In other words, Goethe's Werther and the Critics is as much about mapping the shifts and changes in literary criticism from Goethe's time to the present as it is about the history of literary critical approaches to Goethe's novel.

While Duncan provides chronological overviews of the literary critical approaches to Werther within each chapter, he organizes his chapters by approaches or sets of approaches to include: First Responses, Religious Interpretations, Psychological Approaches, Political Interpretations, Goethe, Werther, Reading and Writing, and Lotte, Sex and Werther. This organization of themes allows the reader/researcher to narrow in on those areas they find of greatest interest. Duncan is careful to outline extensively the central analyses of Werther, the critical debates, and the scholarly disagreements. Given the daunting task of summarizing the intense critical engagement with Werther since its appearance in 1774, Duncan's book is admirably successful.

Duncan's book also raises some important methodological issues. In the chapter on psychological approaches, for instance, he illustrates meticulously the major fascination critics have had for the psychological dimensions of the novel and the intense concentration they have devoted to the psychology of Goethe himself and of his fictional character, Werther. In this context, Duncan poses several questions about the application of psychological methods per se to literary interpretation: "Any psychoanalytic approach implies certain fundamental questions: Can we reduce the creative process to unconscious conflicts? …

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