The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Summary and Analysis of Book One: Letters of May 4-May 30


After a very short note from the editor encouraging the reader to sympathize with Werther's tragic fate, The Sorrows of Young Werther begins with Werther in an ebullient mood, having escaped a young woman named Leonora, whom he implies was madly in love with him. Werther has retreated to a quiet country setting in Germany with the intention of spending his time drawing. He has left behind both his best friend, Wilhelm, and his mother, who is left unnamed. Werther and his mother do not seem to get along particularly well - a fact that we can assume because he never addresses her directly, instead speaking to her through Wilhelm. He notes, however, that he has taken care of some family business stemming from a disagreement between his mother and his aunt.

Werther is not a very diligent artist; he spends most of his time wandering the nearby rural regions and observing the customs of the peasant class. He finds the peasants enchanting and watches them as they go about their daily tasks. When he sees young women fetching water from a local well, Werther is reminded of the women in the Bible who do the same. In general, he sees the countryside as operating according to an ancient patriarchal code, untainted by the influence of erudition.

Several more examples reveal how Werther has had enough of book-learning. He tells Wilhelm not to send his library, saying that he is happy to read his Bible and his Homer - nothing more. Later, Werther dryly relates a conversation with a young man he calls V., who is enthusiastic about the latest Enlightenment thinkers and theories. Werther likes V. but is rather condescending toward his learnedness. Another acquaintance Werther makes is the Prince's bailiff, S. He notes that the bailiff's eldest daughter is much admired-Werther, too, will come to admire her, to say the least.

Although he takes joy in his surroundings, Werther's gloomy side is apparent right from the start. He writes that he finds many of the people he meets "thoroughly repulsive and quite intolerable in their demonstrations of friendship." He also states that the happiest people are the most ignorant - those who lack the intelligence or the curiosity to see the injustice of the world. This haughty note is complemented by an obsession with death. In the letter of May 22, Werther alludes to suicide, saying that through it one can "leave this prison whenever he likes."

Werther writes that he has taken to wandering over to a charming nearby village, Wahlheim. While there, he makes the acquaintance of the local landlady and some of the peasant children. He makes a sketch of two peasant brothers that depicts the elder allowing the younger to rest in his arms. Werther thinks his sketch is marvelous (not a modest man, he...) and attributes its success to the spontaneous beauty of nature. He also meets the brothers' mother, whose husband has gone to Switzerland to retrieve his inheritance from an obstinate cousin.

Also in Wahlheim, Werther meets a young "country lad" who has a rather tragic story to tell: he is in love with the widow he works for and pines all day long for her. Werther finds the rustic eloquence of the country lad as he talks about his beloved just as beautiful as the most perfectly crafted poems of the intelligentsia. He admires spontaneous passion that is imperfectly expressed and channeled through raw nature.


First, a word about the editor's note with which the novel opens. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan's otherwise very good translation of Werther leaves out this opening note, to the detriment of the work. The note is important because it serves as a framework for the novel. First of all, it spoils the "surprise" of the ending, as it suggests that Werther meets an untimely fate. This is important to a full reading of the novel, however, as the reader should have no illusions that Werther's tale might end happily. Second, the epigraph exhorts those who might follow Werther's example to take solace in their pain by reading about Werther's. Goethe presents his book as a friend and companion - essentially the equivalent of a living pen pal like Wilhelm. Of course, historically, Werther probably incited more suicides than it prevented, but Goethe included the note specifically to warn readers against this possibility. Finally, the epigraph emphasizes the fact that this volume is edited. This is Goethe's ambiguous gesture toward verisimilitude-he pretends that an "editor," either he or someone else, has collected all of the available documents about Werther's tragic end. It is important to keep in mind while reading Werther that Goethe wants us to know that the story is edited and organized from a perspective other than Werther's. In the original 1764 edition of Werther this editorial hand was quite subdued, but he especially emphasizes the role of the editor in the revised edition of 1787, the version that is almost always read today. At the close of the novel, the editorial perspective will become especially important.

Just as the editor's note contains the seed of tragedy that will grow over the course of the novel, so the first six weeks of letters provide us with a fairly complete portrait of Werther, emphasizing his shortsightedness as well as his likeability. Werther does not, in truth, change a great deal over the course of the novel; his tragic potential and suicidal personality merely unfold according to their own logic. Goethe is the master of the Bildungsroman (which roughly translates "Novel of Education"), a novel form in which the kernel of nature in a protagonist comes into its own through narrative action. Even in this, his first work of fiction, Goethe operates according to the rule of the Bildungsroman. Werther does not do anything unlike him; the possibility of his suicide is present from the first words of the book, in the editor's note. Lotte's rejection merely catalyzes his natural chemistry.

However, in the first letters that he writes to Wilhelm, Werther is nearly always happy. He observes the world with acute sensitivity, always aware that all observations must come from himself. Indeed, Werther's own subjectivity fascinates him. (This is the same era, it is worth mentioning, during which the European stage was set for the subjective philosophy of Kant and his followers.) For example, in his letter of May 10, Werther writes, "I am so happy, dear friend, so completely sunk in the sensation of sheer being, that my art suffers. I could not draw anything just now, not a line, and yet I have never been a greater painter than at the present moment." What, one might ask, does Werther mean by that? Werther uses this paradox to illustrate his reflective state. For Werther-and for Romantics in general, of all eras and ages-perception of nature itself is a kind of painting. Because we always play an active role in interpreting the world-through our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, and flesh-we are, in a way, painting the world. This deep inner communion with outer and inner nature, in all its confusion, is the most emblematic attribute of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement in Germanic literature, of which Werther is the preeminent example.

Werther's intense subjectivity provides a basis for his theory of art, which he outlines extensively in his letters of May 26 and May 30. The dominant aesthetic theory at the time of Werther's publication held that beauty was revealed through rules-that it is through form and constraint that art comes to be. Werther admits that there is some truth in this opinion, but contends that truly overwhelming beauty follows from nature itself. In the simple-yet-profound, unstaged charity of one peasant brother caring for another, for example, Werther sees a glimpse of the infinite, the sublime. He is so passionate in his feeling that truth and beauty reveal themselves best in unadorned nature that he mocks anyone who attempts to learn about these absolutes through schoolbooks or theories (such as poor V.). The Enlightenment, he thinks, has got it all wrong. The true locus of beauty is not in the intellect or in reason, but in natural feeling and passion. It is worth adding that Goethe himself, though certainly sympathetic to Werther's passion, does not see things so simply; his novel, in fact, is a work of form, "rules," and intellect just as much as it is a passionate, unadorned outpouring of the heart.

Werther is undeniably a very interesting fellow: he rejects the erudition and rationality popular during his age, and has lovely, poetic things to say about himself. However, one cannot overlook his many obvious flaws. Remember, for example, that the novel is composed almost entirely of letters to Wilhelm. How often does he ask about Wilhelm, or about his mother? How much genuine interest does he show in anyone except himself? Even when he praises others, Werther is primarily praising his own perception of that person. Werther's standard for judging whether someone is worth his time is quite simple: he asks himself, "How brilliant does this person think I am?"

Also, Werther has a complicated relationship with the lower classes. He is a youth of obvious privilege. Though he is estranged from his mother, he is financially dependant on her, and spends his days doing essentially nothing-pretending to draw. Of course the laborers fascinate him: he hasn't done a day's work in his life. Furthermore, his idealization of lower class workers actually disguises a strain of snobbery. He writes of the peasants, "I know quite well that we are not and cannot ever be equal; but I am convinced that anyone who thinks it is necessary to keep his distance from the so-called mob in order to gain its respect is as much to blame as the coward who hides from his enemy because he fears to be defeated." Werther considers himself superior to the peasants he draws and converses with; they are like a spoiled boy's playthings, valued for their charming, poetic ignorance, useful because they offer Werther opportunities to feel liberal and wise. This example and several others, including the whole of the letter of May 22, suggest a lurking misanthropy beneath Werther's romantic facade, which will become more prevalent as the novel continues.