The Sorrows of Young Werther

Author:  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

Type of Work:  Novel

Type of Plot: 

Time of Plot:  Mid-eighteenth century

Locale:  Germany

First Published:  Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, 1774 (English translation, 1780)

Principal characters:

WERTHER, a young man

CHARLOTTE (LOTTE), a young woman with whom he falls in love

ALBERT, Charlotte’s fiancé

The Story:

Young Werther, having left home, wrote to his friend Wilhelm to describe the secluded region where he had gone to forget the unhappiness of his earlier years. He had discovered a pleasant cottage surrounded by a lovely garden, and he felt that in this peaceful retreat he could live in happy solitude forever. A few days later, he reported that his soul had recovered in his rustic surroundings. He did not want books or the companionship of his old friends, for he had been transported into a new world of kinship with nature. He mentioned a nearby hamlet, Walheim, and the village inn where he could drink good coffee, sit in solitude, and read the works of Homer. Several letters to Wilhelm continued describing Werther’s simple life among scenes of natural beauty.

Suddenly there was a break in his letters, followed by the announcement that he had met an angel. At a ball, he had been introduced to Charlotte S., the daughter of a judge who had retired to a hunting lodge not far from Walheim. Charlotte was a beautiful and charming girl, and despite the fact that she was betrothed to another young man, who had not been present at the ball, Werther had fallen deeply in love with her at first sight.

Perhaps his passion became all the deeper because he had been warned not to fall in love with her. At the dance, Werther had demanded much of her attention, and he had begun to ask her about Albert, her fiancé, when a storm had suddenly interrupted the dance. The hostess led the guests into a room protected by curtains and shutters. There they played a game called counting. Once Werther kissed Charlotte’s hands. When the party broke up at sunrise, he took her to her home through a dazzling world of raindrops and morning sun. From that time on, he called every day on Lotte, as he referred to her in his letters. He grieved over their separation when she went to attend a sick woman. One day, he went with her to visit an old pastor; he noted that her youthful presence seemed to bring new life to the old man.

Because he could not bear to have her out of his sight, Werther began to object to the time Lotte gave to sick friends and other acquaintances. A glimpse of her as she rode away on some errand was enough to set his head spinning and his heart beating wildly. If her finger accidentally touched his, the blood pounded through his veins. He confessed to his friend that he had done little of the painting he had intended; all of his time was consumed with his love for Charlotte.

After he received Wilhelm’s advice either to press his suit with Lotte or else relinquish his hopeless passion, Werther decided to see the girl less frequently. His decision was further strengthened by the fact that Albert returned to Walheim. Werther was jealous of Albert but wrote that he nevertheless admired his rival’s fine character. In answer to further urging from Wilhelm, Werther replied that he could neither give up Lotte nor hope to win her from Albert. That being so, Werther grew more and more melancholy. Because he could hope to possess Lotte only in his dreams, he succumbed to gloom and despair. At last, deciding that he must leave Walheim, he asked Wilhelm to secure a government post for him. When Wilhelm suggested a post with an ambassador, Werther postponed his acceptance or refusal of the position. Wilhelm, however, obtained the appointment without waiting to hear from his friend, and so Werther’s course was decided for him. During the two last hours he spent with Lotte and Albert, he pretended that he was not going away, feeling that their farewells would be more than he could bear.

At first, the official duties of his new position kept Werther from brooding over his sorrows, but as time passed he began to dislike the ambassador for whom he worked. No longer interested in government affairs, he reproached Wilhelm for securing the appointment. He chafed under the responsibilities he had been forced to assume. Finally, he wrote to Lotte. Albert wrote in reply, informing him that the two had been married some time earlier.

Werther resigned his position at court. Failing in his attempt to enter the army, he accepted the offer of a young prince to spend the summer on his estate. When he failed to find in the nobleman’s household the peace and calm for which he had hoped, he decided to return to Walheim to be near Lotte. Yet his first encounter with Albert and Lotte threw him into such a state that his letter to Wilhelm was almost incoherent. He could not understand why Albert did not look more distractedly happy. Although Lotte pitied Werther and Albert sympathized with him, they were unable to help him. At the same time, Werther was concerned with the fate of a peasant who had been convicted of murder. Failing to save the man from his fate, Werther was more wretched than ever. At last, following her husband’s suggestion, Lotte suggested that Werther visit her house less frequently. In despair, he wrote that when he could bear his sorrows no longer he intended to end his life.

The rest of his story was told by others. One night, while Albert was away from home, Werther went to Lotte’s house. Frightened by his speech and appearance, she asked him to read aloud some passages from Ossian. After he had seized her in a wild embrace, she fled and locked herself in her room. He stood outside the door and begged her to speak so that he could hear her voice for the last time.

The next day, he sent a servant to Albert and asked for the loan of a brace of pistols to take with him on an unexpected journey. He shot himself that night, but he was not quite dead when his servant found him the next morning. He died at noon without regaining consciousness. Hearing of his death, Charlotte fell into a swoon so deep that it threatened her life. Workmen of the village carried Werther’s body to its resting place under the lime trees at Walheim.