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The Sorrows of Young Werther Summary and Analysis

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Book One: Letters of June 16-July 26

Summary

In the two and a half weeks since Werther's last letter, he has fallen in love. Indeed, he is so madly infatuated that he cannot even sit down long enough to write about it; he interrupts his letter to pay his beloved a visit, only afterwards sitting down to fill Wilhelm in on the events that have transpired. It seems that he met Bailiff S.'s daughter, Lotte, and she turned out to be the woman of his dreams. Her mother died several years before, and she has been selflessly caring for her younger brothers and sisters ever since.

Werther meets Lotte on the way to a dance. His first impression of her is as a mother, tending to her children. Her cheerfulness, her handsome appearance, grace, and charm all strike him immediately, and Lotte is instantly familiar with Werther, telling her siblings to call him "Uncle." As they drive to the dance, they discuss literature and discover that they both enjoy the sentimental fiction coming out of England, such as The Vicar of Wakefield. While at the dance, Lotte and Werther discover that they are perfectly suited to dancing together as well. Werther learns - much to his distress - that Lotte is engaged to a man named Albert. A storm breaks out, mirroring the turmoil in Werther's spirit, and in order to stave off fear the company at the dance gathers together, at Lotte's bidding, to play a parlor game. Werther is smitten, to say the least.

Werther begins to pay Lotte frequent visits at her hunting lodge. He moves to Wahlheim so that he can always be near her. Werther plays with her young siblings as though they are his own, extolling the virtues of family and children, and accompanies her on her visits about the region. On one such visit, to the village of St. -, Werther and Lotte fall in with the company of Herr Schmidt and Friederike. Werther berates Herr Schmidt for his gloomy disposition, claiming to hate nothing so much as a bad-humored person. Later, Lotte is engaged to visit Frau M., a woman in the town, while she is on her death bed. Everyone, it seems, loves Lotte and desires her company while facing life's darkest moments.

Lotte's feelings for Werther are decidedly ambiguous. Lotte is obviously fond of Werther, though she does not abandon herself to him the way he does to her. Lotte's feelings for Werther are never clarified, though Werther thinks that she begins to give him sympathetic looks, and often plays the clavichord to work off the tension (or the awkwardness) of their visits. Werther, meanwhile, says that he is happier than he has ever been during these days when he visits Lotte. He attempts to commemorate his happiness by sketching her, but cannot do so to his satisfaction, and instead settles for an image of her silhouette.

Meanwhile, the voice of Wilhelm creeps into the narrative, suggesting that Werther dedicate himself to drawing if that's his reason for staying in Wahlheim or, alternatively, that Werther take a position under the envoy. Wilhelm himself promises to secure this position for Werther. Werther seems dismissive of the opportunity for now.

Analysis

These are Werther's happiest days, and it is crucial to recognize how near Werther's happiness is to despair. When Lotte grants Werther's request to visit her again, he writes, "Since then, sun, moon, and stars may continue on their course; for me there is neither day nor night, and the entire universe about me has ceased to exist." This, somewhat surprisingly, is Werther's way of expressing passionate happiness; the reader must be forgiven for confusing this passage with a description of suicide.

These two valences, joy and despair, are knit together in everything Werther does. When he berates Herr Schmidt for his gloomy moods, Werther works up such a passion against bad humor that he ironically sends himself into a choleric fury. He writes, "How Lotte scolded me on the way home for my too warm sympathy with everything, saying it would be my ruin and that I should spare myself! O angel, for your sake I must live!" Once again, he ends his description of rapturous joy with a hint of suicide.

Like so many people who lack stability in their own lives, Werther cherishes Lotte's grounded sensibility. He is hugely invested in her maternal role, seeing her as an ideal, nourishing woman. Throughout Western literature, there has been an obsession with the impossible ideal of the virgin mother. Lotte's unique circumstances-being the oldest child in her family, temperamentally suited to child-rearing, and having a mother who died and left her in charge-allow this ancient fantasy of the virgin mother to be fulfilled. Lotte is a virgin mother, at once pure and sensual. She, like the Virgin Mary, plays an intercessional role in her community; the dying Frau M., for example, wants Lotte by her side while she dies.

Of course, Werther's role in Lotte's family is that of an outsider. He observes and participates in their daily functions, but he doesn't belong to them, and they - much as he may want them to - don't belong to him. Indeed, in the July 6 letter, Werther enthusiastically kisses Lotte's youngest sister, trying to express his love for her candor, and she bursts out screaming. Lotte placates her with a quasi-baptismal ritual. Werther can admire Lotte's skill with the children and can theorize about the blessedness of children and the wonder of Lotte's motherliness, but he cannot give a child a hug without scaring her half to death. Similarly, Werther stumbles over his own boots while dancing with Lotte, demonstrating his painful lack of poise. Later, in his letter of July 26 (one of the few letters not addressed to Wilhelm), Werther writes to Lotte, "No more sand in the notes you write me. I took today's too quickly to my lips, and something gritted between my teeth." Werther, the nature lover, gets sand in his teeth. For someone so passionately attached to the natural world, physical reality seems to confound Werther at every possible opportunity.

In this section, there are plenty of indications that things will not continue so happily for Werther. Perhaps the most telling moment in this second section of letters occurs when Werther tries to draw Lotte's portrait, but soon gives up and settles for her silhouette. Of course this conforms to Werther's aesthetic theory - that beauty is best captured in its natural, "artless" energy - but it also hints at the arrival of Albert, who will claim Lotte as his wife. Werther will indeed have to settle for her shadow.

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