The Sorrows of Young Werther Summary and Analysis

Book One: Letters of July 30-September 10

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Summary

Lotte's fiance Albert arrives (he has been attending business following the death of his father and also applying for an official position) and Werther determines to leave. Werther likes Albert; he just cannot stand to see him "in possession of so much perfection." Werther reports that he esteems Albert for his "composure," contrasting with his own "inner restlessness," and indicates that Albert also admires him.

Werther's determination to leave is short lived, and without explanation we find that he is remaining in Wahlheim, visiting with Albert and Lotte together almost every night. Albert tells Werther of the virtue of Lotte's deceased mother, whose place she has filled perfectly, and they cultivate a friendship of their own, complementary to Werther's bond with Lotte. Albert provides Werther with a well-matched debate partner; on the occasion of borrowing Albert's hunting pistols, they argue about suicide, with Werther contending that suicide can be an act of absolute freedom and Albert arguing that no one capable of a larger view of life can be excused for committing suicide.

Confronted with the constant spectacle of Lotte and Albert's happiness, yet at the same time drawn to Lotte, her family, and even to Albert, Werther descends into misery. We learn through Werther's responses that Wilhelm is attempting to convince Werther to apply for the position at the Legation under Count C in order to escape an impossible situation. Meanwhile, the friendship between Lotte, Albert and Werther grows stronger; for his birthday, Albert gives Werther one of the pink ribbons Lotte was wearing when they first met and Lotte gives Werther a duodecimo copy of Homer.

Unable to resolve his love for Lotte with mere friendship, Werther applies for the position at the Legation and leave the company of Lotte and Albert. During his last visit with Lotte and Albert, while Albert and she are unaware that he is to leave so soon, they have an intense conversation about Lotte's deceased mother. At the end of this talk, Lotte says farewell as though they will meet again the next day. Werther collapses in grief with the knowledge that he cannot stand to be near the one he loves any longer.

Analysis

Werther's initial response to Albert's arrival is to leave-and it would have been wise for him to do so, in retrospect-but, without any explanation other than his "inner restlessness," he stays. For a brief month, Albert, Lotte and he achieve something of a balance: the love triangle works, because each member in it respects the others. Albert is a very good man - too sensible perhaps for Werther's taste, but a good friend nonetheless. He speaks, in a way, for Wilhelm (and, it will come to be clear, for the sensibility of the editor), and might be a great friend to Werther were it not for Lotte.

Some of the major themes of the novel gain clarity and force in this section. Werther's self-knowledge, for instance, begins to take on a tragic sheen. He writes of his impossible love for Lotte, "How clearly I have seen my condition, yet how childishly I have acted. How clearly I still see it, and yet show no sign of improvement." In this distinction between self-knowledge and self-satisfaction, Werther articulates his romantic disposition. Enlightenment thinkers might be inclined to equate self-knowledge with self-realization. Descartes' cogito, ergo sum places the onus of ego squarely on the thinker, implying that reason is the realm of the self. Ben Franklin, in his Autobiography, implies that acting virtuously is simply a matter of recognizing the right from the wrong in a given choice and choosing the right. Werther, in contrast, says that no matter how well he knows what he should do (for instance, "I should leave now that Albert has arrived"), his heart will ultimately steer his course, for better or worse. Werther recognizes the contradictions in his being, but rather than seeing them as problematic, sees them as definitional. This tendency is pure Romanticism.

Werther's inability to acknowledge his inherent contradictions lie at the root of his discontent. The passing references to suicide in earlier sections become central during this month, as Werther describes suicide as an example of an act in which reason has failed to satisfy the self, and passion must therefore take over. Of course, in his debate with Albert, Werther is speaking on a very personal level. He is quite comfortable with his suicidal tendencies. In speaking in defense of suicide he is not upholding an abstract cause, but is rather defending himself. Werther's right to suicide is, in many ways, the basis of his own being. He reserves the right to end his own life if he should ever need to. In this opinion, Werther draws from the ancient Romans; Pliny the Elder, for instance, in his Natural History, states that the ability to free oneself from the miseries of existence is what separates man from animal.

Now, however, is not Werther's time to kill himself, however unhappy he may be. He takes his leave from Albert and Lotte in what we might call a remarkably unselfish way. He reaches his limit, and simply leaves. Lotte's rumination at the end of Book One about her beloved mother and her expressed conviction that they will meet again in the next world is especially poignant given that (unbeknownst to her) Werther will never see her again. Her hope speaks for him, that in the next world they might at last be together. In this world, it is impossible.