Skip navigation


The Core Curriculum

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1749 CE – 1832 CE

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet-philosopher and public intellectual, was an author whose interests spanned both the arts and sciences. He wrote on the subjects of anatomy, botany, and zoology, to name a few. And his contributions to German literature were so great that an entire era bears his name: the “Age of Goethe.”

Born in 1749 to a wealthy family in Frankfurt, Goethe received an extensive education. In 1765 he left for Leipzig to study law, but his legal career was not to be. At age 25, his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, took Europe by storm, making Goethe a literary celebrity. One year later he became an advisor to Duke Karl August and moved to Weimar, where he resided for the rest of his life. Various positions at the Weimar Court provided Goethe financial security and allowed him to pursue his burgeoning interest in the natural sciences.

During his first decade there, Goethe was ennobled (adding “von” to his name) and published research in the fields of anatomy and geology, yet administrative duties stifled his literary production. Suffering from a personal crisis, the famous author fled under the cover of night and the guise of a pseudonym for Italy. During Goethe’s stay in Italy (1786-1788)—recorded in his travelogue, Italian Journey (1816/17)—he experienced an aesthetic rebirth. Goethe immersed himself in classical art and architecture, and devoted himself to writing literature. Returning to Weimar rejuvenated, he finished writing some of the foremost examples of German classicist drama and poetry, penned the genre-defining Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795/96), and took up writing Faust again at the urging of his friend Friedrich Schiller. In 1806, one year after Schiller died, Goethe completed the first part of Faust.

The period following Schiller’s death was one of Goethe’s most prolific. He completed the novels Elective Affinities (1809) and Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1829); he composed a new collection of poetry, West-Eastern Divan (1819); he challenged Isaac Newton in his Theory of Colors (1810); and he completed his autobiography, Poetry and Truth (1831). Between 1825 and 1831 Goethe worked in earnest to finish what he called “the main business”: the second part of Faust. In the summer of 1831, nearly sixty years after he began writing the drama, Goethe completed it. He died on March 21, 1832.

Written by: Alexander v. Thun (Germanic Languages, Columbia University) and Arthur Salvo (Germanic Languages, Columbia University)

Sources Consulted:
Borchmeyer, Dieter. Weimarer Klassik: Portrait Einer Epoche. Weinheim: Beltz Athenäum, 1998. Print.
Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age, 2 Vols., Oxford: OUP,1991/2000. Print.
Jessing, Benedikt. Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1995. Print.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Cyrus Hamlin, and Walter Arndt W. Faust: a Tragedy : Interpretive Notes, Contexts, Modern Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.
Goethe - Kunst - Literatur - Geisteswissenschaften - Das Goethezeitportal. Web. 19 Sept. 2011. .
Richter, Simon. Camden House History of German Literature. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 2005. Print.

Historical Contexts


Faust is considered the most famous work of German literature. Yet, when Goethe began writing the drama in 1773, he lived in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a crumbling realm of principalities and free cities. The German nation state would not be founded until 1871.

Despite their considerable cultural differences, the German-speaking territories were affected by common demographic, political, and economic changes. Following the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the population increased significantly during the mid-eighteenth century, straining traditional forms of social control. After 1750, an ever-increasing portion of the nobility—which had previously monopolized political and socioeconomic life through land ownership—was forced to sell its property to newly affluent commoners. The rise of these “non-noble elites,” who thought of social prestige in terms of wealth, political expertise, educational achievement, and moral stature, challenged the nobility’s claim to power. It was this new social order into which Goethe, the son of a wealthy Lutheran family, was born. He became a public intellectual whose works reached a broad secular readership and whose status made evident the new opportunities available for someone of his social standing.

By the 1770s, the Germans had developed a vernacular literary tradition comparable to that of England and France, and intellectuals like Gottfried Ephraim Lessing and Johann Gottfried Herder led efforts to promote a “national” literary culture. Herder, in particular, argued that the Germans could not build such aliterature by simply imitating English or French models; they needed to utilize theirown traditions and folklore. Goethe’s text, in dramatizing the legend of Faust, does just that.

In the sixteenth century, Faust was understood to be a historical person: he is mentioned in Martin Luther’s Table Talks of 1566, and the publisher of the Historia von D. Johann Fausten of 1587 (see Explorations) asserts that this story is based on the life and writings of an infamous magician of the dark arts. Reformation-era texts such as the Historia recounted and embellished the story in order toinstruct a religious readership about the dangers of the devil and human arrogance. With its references to magic, alchemy, and scholasticism, Goethe’s drama retainsmuch of the sixteenth-century character, while also reflecting sentiments of its owntime. Goethe’s Faust explores modern aesthetic and existential concerns. In 1947,Thomas Mann would reimagine the story in more contemporary ways in his DoctorFaustus (see Explorations).

Written by: Arthur Salvo (Germanic Languages, Columbia University) and Alexanderv. Thun (Germanic Languages, Columbia University)

Sources Consulted:

A New History of German Literature, ed. David E. Wellbery et al (Harvard University Press, 2006).
Nicholas Boyle, German Literature: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Jochen Schmidt, Goethes Faust: Erster und Zweiter Teil: Grundlagen—Werk—Wirkung (C.H. Beck, 2001).
James J. Sheehan, German History: 1770-1886 (Oxford University Press, 1993).