The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Summary and Analysis of Book Two: Letters of October 20-March 24


A month and ten days have passed since Werther left Walheim when we next hear from him. It is unclear how he has spent his last month, but as of October 20 he has arrived at his place of official employment.

Werther begins his official tenure with hesitant optimism: he pledges to bear the tests of his new life as well as he can. On the plus side, Werther gets along splendidly with Count C.; on the minus, he is intensely annoyed by his immediate superior, the envoy. The envoy is a fact-happy and fussy man - Werther's opposite in spirit. On top of this natural enmity, the envoy becomes jealous of Count C.'s liking for Werther.

Another source of annoyance for Werther is the strict social code of his new town of employment. The aristocracy in the region meticulously cultivates its superiority, holding on to social privilege at all costs. Werther makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B., a "charming creature" of aristocratic birth, whom he finds to be of sympathetic mind; his visits with Fräulein von B. are tarnished, however, by the presence of the young woman's old aunt, who is an intractable snob.

This local obsession with etiquette, manners and social niceties wears quickly on Werther. He feels as though his spirit is abandoning him. A week of stormy weather provides Werther with some respite, prompting him to write to Lotte about the miseries of his official position, as well as about his friendship with Fräulein von B. For the most part, however, Werther becomes increasingly impatient with the people and the customs that he must tolerate as part of his job.

Meanwhile, Werther's difficulties with the envoy increase. The envoy complains about his passionate methods to the Court Minister, who reproves Werther but then writes him a kind and understanding letter. On top of this, Werther learns in a letter from Albert that Lotte and he have been married. They have kept the wedding a secret from him, for which Werther thanks them.

While reeling from the news of Lotte and Albert's marriage, a further misfortune prompts Werther to resign from his post. Count C. invites Werther to dine on an evening when the local aristocracy is used to gathering at the Count's home. After dinner, the Count and Werther converse together as the aristocracy slowly begins to assemble. Werther does not take any notice, and before he knows it, almost all of the nobility have arrived. They all - even Fräulein von B. - act coldly toward him, and Werther realizes that something is amiss; however, he does not leave until Count C. himself asks him to.

The next day, there are local rumors about how the arrogant Werther was "snubbed." Werther is thoroughly humiliated by this gossip. He approaches Fräulein von B. and asks her why she treated him so coldly at the party; she tearfully replies that she was told to act that way by her aristocratic friends, and furthermore, that her aunt has lectured her against seeing him. This is the last straw for Werther, who sends in his resignation to the Court. He thus abandons his promising start in law and, he says, dooms his mother to disappointment in her son. Meanwhile, he has a plan for the next leg of his journey: Prince -, who likes Werther very much, has offered him lodging on his estates, and Werther has accepted the offer.


The beginning of Book Two is, in many ways, a mirror image of Book One. Their settings are opposite: Book One is set in a rural region where Werther is the social equal or superior to all he meets; Book Two begins amongst the aristocracy, where Werther suddenly finds himself the low man on the totem pole. Werther himself has not fundamentally changed between the two books; he is still passionate, impulsive, and inwardly restless. He despises the meticulousness of the envoy with the same spirit that mocked the learning of V. or the practicality of Albert. Werther is still Werther, although his circumstances have changed - in some ways, perhaps, for the better, as he is no longer constantly reminded of his impossible situation with Albert and Lotte. Overall, however, it is clear that Werther cannot survive in the official environment of these letters.

Werther takes the job at court to escape from the irresolvable emotional triangle he has found himself in with Lotte and Albert, and from the looks of his letters, Werther makes a noble attempt at moving on. He writes one letter to Lotte, while holed up in a rustic inn during a winter storm, and one letter to Albert after hearing of their marriage. Aside from these brief attempts at correspondence, he makes no mention of his erstwhile friends. However, Werther's happiness is still defined in terms of Lotte - he makes his new friend, Fräulein von B., "pay homage" to her memory. He has escaped from his rustic, poetic, turbulent existence with Albert and Lotte into a nearly opposite existence among the cultured and the noble, but in so doing he has also escaped any chance of true happiness, however problematic such happiness may have been. He writes to Lotte that a reminder of her was his "first happy moment in a long time."

This unsuccessful attempt to find happiness away from Wahlheim is mirrored by an attempt to see whether his natural proclivity toward passion and sentiment is reconcilable with a respectable career. Whereas Werther seems doomed to long for Wahlheim, this second question is more ambiguous. He finds a great deal of success at the Court, winning the favor of the influential Count C. as well as the quieter admiration of the Court Minister. However, no matter how vociferously Werther commits himself to "hard work," it seems that he cannot abide a situation in which his intelligence and heart must take a backseat to questions of convention and class. Moreover, Werther is not one to compromise, and the world of law is built on compromise. He finds his spirit stifled by this atmosphere - a feeling that he often expresses, and which we can also observe in the infrequency of his letters during his time under the Minister. Werther has been sapped of passion, and thus the receptacles of his passion, his letters, have suffered as well.

The question of class is preeminent in these letters. Compare Werther's letter of May 15, 1771, where he writes of the lower classes, "I know quite well that we are not and cannot ever be equal," with his letter of December 24, 1771, when he writes, "I necessary class distinctions are, and how many advantages I myself gain from them; but they should not stand in my way just when I might enjoy some little pleasure, some gleam of joy on this earth." In the first case, Werther somewhat patronizingly stands on his privilege, while in the second he learns the limits of that privilege. In Book One, Werther's class status works for him; in Book Two, however, it works against him, and it is his "snubbing" by the upper classes that ostensibly drives him away.

A word about Werther's resignation: W.H. Auden, who is of the opinion that Werther is an egocentric monster, and that Goethe intended us to see him that way, cites Werther's resignation as the preeminent example of his selfishness. He writes,

If a man thinks the social conventions of his time and place to be silly or wrong, there are two courses of behavior that will earn him an outsider's respect. Either he may keep his opinions to himself and observe the conventions with detached amusement, or he may deliberately break them for the pleasure of the shock he causes...Werther, by staying on [at the party] when it is clear that his presence is unwelcome, defies the company, but his precious ego is hurt by their reactions, and he resigns from his post, returns to Lotte and disaster for all.

It is certainly true that Werther's behavior at the party seems inconsistent with his subsequent indignation - and perhaps we want to agree with Auden that Werther is a demanding and fiercely egocentric young man. There is, however, a tragic, subtle upshot to Werther's restless actions: Werther knows himself incredibly well; he knows his own follies and foibles; but this self-knowledge never helps him. His passions rule his actions, whatever he may think. If Werther's actions seem inconsistent and lunatic, so be it, but remember that no one knows this better than Werther himself.