Dr. Fidel Fajardo-Acosta's

World Literature Website












Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Biographical Information

Main Works

Featured Work: Faust, Part I

Historical & Cultural Background

Selected Quotations


Biographical Information

German poet, playwright, novelist, critic, journalist, painter, statesman, educator, scientist, philosopher; Goethe considered Weltliteratur (World Literature) to have the purpose of advancing civilization by promoting mutual understanding and respect; interest in the reconciliation of opposites, Romanticism and Classicism, mind and heart, reason and passion

born at Frankurt am Main, August 28, 1749; son of a middle-class lawyer

studied law, literature, and painting at Leipzig (1765-1768); returned to Frankfurt and studied occult philosophy, alchemy, astrology, and religious mysticism

further studies of law, music, art, anatomy, and chemistry at Strassburg where he met literary critic Gottfried Herder and was first exposed to Romantic influences (1770-1771)

met Friederike Brion (1770-1771) who inspired several of Goethe's female heroines (e.g. Gretchen in Faust); receives law degree and returns to Frankfurt to practice law

co-authored, with Herder, Of German Style and Art (Von deutscher Art und Kunst) (1773) which began the Romantic movement known as "Sturm und Drang" (Storm and Stress)

1775, visited court of Charles Augustus, duke of Saxe-Weimar; remained in Weimar the rest of his life; served as duke's chief minister for ten years; met and fell in love with Charlotte von Stein; studied mineralogy, geology, and osteology

trip to Italy (1786-1788); studied ancient Greek and Roman architecture, art, and literature; his works of this period began the movement known as Weimar Classicism

research in science, plant biology; wrote The Metamorphosis of Plants (Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen) (1790) foreshadowing Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution; also research on optics, anatomy, and the scientific method

friendship with Friedrich von Schiller (since 1794), the Schlegel brothers, and other figures in German Romanticism

married Christiane Vulpius in 1806

died in Weimar, March 22, 1832

Main Works

The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) (1774), short novel; first popular success of Goethe; novel was very important in establishing the image of the introspective, self-pitying, melancholic Romantic hero; story of a young man who is gifted with sensitivity and intelligence, but is tormented by his own intellectual speculations and love for a girl, Charlotte, who is engaged to someone else; he finally shoots himself; the novel caused a wave of suicides among young romantics throughout Europe.

Iphigenia in Tauris (Iphigenie auf Tauris) (1787), play (based on the work of the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides) about Iphigenia, daughter of the Greek commander Agamemnon who wanted to sacrifice her in order to secure good weather for the Greeks' voyage to Troy; at the altar of sacrifice she is rescued by the goddess Artemis (Diana) and placed in Tauris as a priestess; eventually she is reunited with Orestes, her brother. Goethe emphasized in this play what he called "pure humanity" (the emotional link between all human beings).

Faust, Part I (1808), Part II (1832), Goethe's most famous work; a play in which an old scholar, yearning for sensuous experience, makes a deal with a devil named Mephistopheles.

The Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) (1809), novel dealing with a married couple and their attraction for other people; exploration of the darker side of human nature and its instinctual affinities, animal magnetism.

Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit) (1811-1833), autobiography, describes Goethe's happy childhood, his relationship with his sister Cornelia, and his infatuation with a barmaid named Gretchen; also describes changes in his thinking brought about by the Seven Years' War and the French occupation, as well as other experiences.

The West-Eastern Divan (West-östlicher Divan) (1819), a book of poetry modeled after the work of the Persian poet Hafiz; exemplifies how the Orient was central to German Romanticism and its attempt to bring together East and West.

Wilhelm Meister's Travels (Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre) (1821-1829), extended Bildungsroman on the education, disillusionment, and development of its hero; included the earlier Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre) (1795-96); life understood as a never-ending wandering where the road and the destination merge into one.

Historical & Cultural Background

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), French philosopher and author, whose essay, Discourses on the Sciences and Arts (Discours sur les sciences et les arts) (1750) is credited with initiating Romanticism. A second essay followed in 1754 that celebrated the "natural man" and indicted private property and the political state as causes of inequality and oppression.

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), German dramatist, poet, and historian; associated with Goethe from 1794 until his death; led with Goethe the movement known as Weimar Classicism.

August (1767-1845) and Friedrich (1772-1829) Schlegel, brothers, German romantic poets and critics; responsible for helping form the movement known as German Romanticism; Friedrich defined romantic poetry as a "progressive universal poetry" and established the concept of Romantic Irony; believed in full equality of sexes; also responsible for the establishment of modern techniques of literary criticism; the Schelegel brothers were pioneers in the fields of Romance philology and Sanskrit studies.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), German philosopher who attempted to define the domain and limits of rational understanding; opposed David Hume's belief that pure reason is of no real use in understanding the world, but also challenged the Enlightenment faith in the unlimited scope of reason. Engagement of both Romantic and Enlightenment ideas.

Seven Years' War (1756-1763), worldwide conflict over colonial possessions and European hegemony involving an alliance of France, Austria, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Spain against Great Britain, Prussia, and Hanover; as a result Britain acquired Canada and Florida, Spain got Cuba and the Philippines, while France won colonies in India and Africa as well as Guadeloupe and Martinique

American Revolutionary War, 1776; uprising against English colonial rule and political and economic oppression; inspired by the ideals of the French Enlightenment

French Revolution, 1789; popular uprising against the monarchy of Louis XVI; ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood; issuing of the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen"

Napoleon, crowned Emperor of France (1804); defeated by the English at the Battle of Waterloo (1815); death in 1821

Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom (crowned 1837)

Selected Quotations

  • "The eternal Feminine leads us upward" ("Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan") (Faust)


  • to come


Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Matthew C. Peckham in the creation of this page.


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Last updated: 9/14/04

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