In The Shadow of Goethe

Vorlesung aus Goethes „Werther“ (Reading Goethe’s “Werther”), Wilhelm Amberg, 1870


Thomas Mann‘s 1939 novel, Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns, or otherwise known by Lotte in Weimar or The Beloved Returns, is a story written in the shadow of Goethe; Thomas Mann developed the narrative almost as a response to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, although Goethe’s work is more than 150 years older than Lotte in Weimar. Lotte in Weimar was first published in English in 1940.

The Beloved Returns is the story of one of Goethe’s old romantic interests, a real historical figure by the name of Charlotte Kestner neé Buff, who has come to Weimar to see him again after more than 40 years of separation. Goethe had romanced Charlotte when they were young, but she had already been engaged (and then married) to another man whom she truly loved. Ultimately, the romance ended unconsummated; afterwards, Goethe wrote a fictional depiction of these events, with some artistic changes, and published it under the title The Sorrows of Young Werther—a still famous book, which brought early renown to Goethe. The real Charlotte became inadvertently and unwillingly famous, and remained so for the rest of her life to a certain degree.

Her return in some ways is due to her need to settle the “wrongs” done to her by Goethe in his creation of Werther; one of the underlying motifs in the story is the question of what sacrifices both a “genius” and the people around him/her must make to promote his/her creations, and whether or not Goethe (as the resident genius of Weimar) is too demanding of his supporters. Most of the novel is written as dialogues between Charlotte and other residents of Weimar, who give their own opinions on the issue of Goethe’s genius. Only in the last third of the book, starting with the internal monologue in the seventh chapter, the reader is finally directly confronted with Goethe and what he himself thinks of the entire affair.

Lotte in Weimar also echoes in subtle ways Mann’s and the world’s concerns with German military aggression and social oppression.

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