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The Sorrows of Young Werther Summary and Analysis

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Book Two: Letters of April 19-December 6

Summary

After Werther's resignation from the court is accepted, he travels to his place of birth en route to the Prince's estates. He writes of his joy at seeing the old landmarks of his childhood, and his disdain at seeing new additions to the landscape. Once settled with the Prince, Werther claims at first that things are going well, but very quickly grows tired of conversing with his host. He admits that he "only want[s] to be closer to Lotte once more," though he is chilled by the thought of her marriage to Albert, and makes plans to relocate back to Wahlheim.

On his way back to Wahlheim, Werther meets two of his past acquaintances. First, he meets the mother of Hans and Philip, who tells him tragic news: Hans has died, and her husband has returned from Switzerland without receiving any money. Further along, Werther runs into the country lad who loved his widow employer. Tragedy has struck in this quarter as well: the country lad, unable to stand his love any longer, made overtures to the widow, who resisted him. The country lad attempted to rape her in his madness, when the widow's brother showed up and drove him out of the house. Now, the lad says, his place has been filled by another worker, and he is filled with intense jealousy.

Once settled again in Wahlheim, Werther tries to reestablish his friendship with Lotte, though he is more and more dangerously drawn to her. His lack of physical contact with Lotte becomes an obsession. Lotte, who is still fond and trusting of Werther, ambiguously abets his growing madness. For instance, she has a small bird who kisses Werther's mouth and then her own. Meanwhile, Wahlheim, too, is not the rustic paradise Werther once took it for. The new pastor's wife, in her disregard for nature, has cut down the local walnut trees; Werther is incensed by this loss.

Befitting Werther's increasingly turbulent spirit, Homer has been replaced in his esteem by Ossian, the legendary poet of Scotland. Werther's thoughts are constantly occupied by death and suicide - even more so than before. Complementing these thoughts of death are frequent thoughts of sex. He desires Lotte as he never has before, and feels himself drifting into madness. Ossian and religion are his only consolations - and religion becomes an increasingly ambiguous, incomprehensible force in Werther's life.

A chance meeting represents all of Werther's fear and despair: while taking a walk in the winter weather, he comes across Heinrich, a man "in a shabby green coat" who is acting strangely. Werther discovers that the man is searching for wildflowers because "he has promised his sweetheart a nosegay." Heinrich carries on about a past time when he was well-off, and curses his current existence. This madman's mother comes along and tells Werther that this idealized past Heinrich talks about is in fact the time he spent in the asylum, "when he did not know himself." Werther is tossed into despair by this thought. To top all, Albert later tells Werther that Heinrich was once an employee of Lotte's father, and had developed an impossible passion for her. When he confessed his love, he was dismissed from his job and went insane.

Haunted beyond reason by his need for Lotte, Werther reaches new depths of suffering. He feels his fate linked to the other unfortunates in this section - Heinrich and the country lad with a passion for the widow - and even wishes for Albert's death when he is not wishing for his own. The editor takes up Werther's story while he flounders in the depths of desolation.

Analysis

One of the most titillating threads in Werther is the largely unexplained relationship between Werther and his mother - a relationship that doesn't receive much ink in the novel but which nonetheless informs a great deal of its action. This section begins with the most direct references to their relationship. In one letter, Werther writes that he "wont need the money from [his] mother, for which [he] asked her the other day" - implying that Werther remains financially dependent upon his mother. In the next letter, Werther writes about visiting the place of his birth, saying, "I plan to enter the town by the same gate through which my mother drove out with me when she left the dear familiar place after the death of my father to shut herself in the unbearable town where she now lives."

What should we make of this? First - and most obviously - Goethe reveals that Werther is on uneasy ground with his mother, and by extension his family as a whole. He depends on his mother financially, and yet he does not write her letters directly, instead relying on Wilhelm as a go-between. This uneasy relationship seems to stem from his mother's decision, following the death of his father, to move to whatever "unbearable town" Werther refers to. This unhappy experience with his own family seems to account for a great deal of Werther's instability. Though Lotte and her family are not mentioned in these specific letters, it makes sense that one who lost both his father and moved away from his rural birthplace at a young age would cling to Wahlheim as a sort of idyllic replacement. Werther is perhaps redirecting the love he denies to his mother to Lotte, whom he sees as a perfect motherly being. This becomes further complicated, of course, as Lotte becomes increasingly sexualized, which we also see happening in this section.

This sexualizing of Lotte is one of the major developments in the latter half of Werther. In the letter of September 12, Lotte and Werther undergo a strange courtship ritual when Lotte passes Werther a bird that has just pecked at her lips. She says, "'He shall kiss you too'...handing the bird over to me. The tiny beak made its way from her lips to mine, and the pecking touch was like a breath - a foretaste of the pleasures of love." This flirtation is odd, to be sure, but is captures Lotte and Werther's growing relationship: their connection, from the beginning, has been based on a romantic affinity with Nature - it is the only medium through which Lotte and Werther are allowed to share their love. The bird, as a representative of nature, symbolizes this connection. Furthermore, in Germanic folktale traditions, the bird is often depicted as a go-between in human courtships, a tradition that still resonates in more contemporary literature. On yet another level, birds have been used as phallic symbols since ancient Roman times. There are several famous poems by Catullus (accessible in the "related links" section of this analysis) that use birds in this manner, and Werther, learned man that he is, certainly knows his Catullus. The bird, of course, is just one instance of an intense, burgeoning need in Werther to consummate his love with Lotte (see, for example, the letter of November 22). This unsatisfied physical need, as much as anything, is what ultimately drives him to suicide.

Once Werther returns to Wahlheim, his miserable trajectory not only complicates his relationship with Lotte and Albert, but also contaminates the lives of the local peasants he once eulogized, and even the very landscape. Both young Hans and the country lad have met misfortune head-on; the loss of the walnut trees expresses the fall from grace of Wahlheim as a whole. In addition, Werther meets Heinrich, a ghoulish foreshadowing of the madness that Lotte's can inspire in a man. Werther seems most threatened by Heinrich's feeling that he was happiest when in an asylum, for Werther is obsessed with subjective knowledge; for him, it would be worse than death to be alive and ignorant, like Heinrich.

Werther's suffering eventually becomes so pronounced that language itself is insufficient to express it. From the beginning of the novel, Werther has been playfully fascinated with the limitations of expressive language; he remarks regularly that trite and tired phrases cannot capture the beauty of sentiment. See, for instance, his argument with Albert in the letter of August 12, or his letter of May 30, in which he describes the country lad's love for the widow. However, as the novel builds to its tragic end, prosaic language is not merely inadequate for Werther: he begins to feel that the only way of expressing himself is through terse, opaque epigrams (see the letters of June 16 and October 10). In the last days of his life, Werther loses the ability to express himself with words, and can only use dashes that seem loaded with the inexpressible burden of his sorrow. Werther's inability to put into language his growing misery is why the need for an editor becomes so obvious in the last section of the novel.

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