The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Summary and Analysis of The Editor to the Reader


In the final section of the novel the editor steps in, informing us that he has taken great pains to discover the full history of Werther's final months both from documents and interviews. In the editor's narrative, Albert grows increasingly wary of Werther's visits. He begins to leave the room when Werther comes by, worried that this triangle is not being seen charitably by propriety. Werther does not take this hint, instead resenting Albert's conventionality; his conviction that Lotte would have been happier with him grows stronger. Lotte, caught in the middle, tries not to offend either her husband or her good friend, but begins to tire of Werther's intrusions.

While on a walk with Lotte, Werther hears that the country lad with whom he identifies has murdered his replacement in the widow's service. Werther attempts to plead for the country lad before the bailiff, explaining his motives; of course, the bailiff doesn't listen. During Werther's agony over this case, he writes a letter to Wilhelm stating that torrential rains, seemingly expressive of his turbulent soul, have flooded Wahlheim. Meanwhile, Werther grows more obsessed with Lotte: in a letter written on December 14, he states that, unable to control himself, he held her in his arms and covered her with kisses.

The editor writes that this concurrence of misfortune is what makes Werther decide to take his own life; he bides his time in doing so, however, until he can fully accept his decision and execute it with a calm hand. Lotte has also reached a determination of her own: she cannot continue to see Werther so frequently, given Albert's tacit disapproval. Three days before Christmas, when Werther visits her at night, Lotte tells him not to visit again until Christmas Eve; she tries to convince him to accept a new, conventional friendship with her, adding (with unimpeachable insight) that "it is only the impossibility of possessing [her] that attracts [Werther] so much." Werther, hopelessly distraught, retreats.

He begins to write a long suicide note addressed to Lotte, in which he determines that either he, Albert, or she must die, and he is resolved that it shall be himself. After beginning his letter, then settling his affairs, Werther - against Lotte's wishes - pays his beloved a final visit. When she hears him ask for her, Lotte tries to invite some of her friends over so she won't be alone with him (Albert is away on business), but the friends cannot come. Lotte and Werther find themselves in an incredibly uncomfortable situation, which Lotte tries to diffuse first by playing the clavichord, then by having Werther read from his translation of Ossian. This excerpt is very long. The Ossian sends Lotte and Werther into hysterics as "they [feel] their own misery in the fate of the noble Gaels." Unable to restrain himself, Werther forces a kiss between he and Lotte; furious, she orders him out of her house, never to see her again.

When at his home once again, after having taken a late-night hike in the pouring rain to relieve his spirit, Werther writes to Lotte, requesting Albert's hunting pistols. Albert, meanwhile, has returned, and assents to lending Werther the pistols. Lotte passes them to Werther's servant with her own hands. When Werther receives the pistols, delighted that Lotte has apparently implied approval of his suicidal intentions, he spends the rest of the evening going through his papers, burning some and preserving others. He addresses the final section to his suicide letter to Lotte, noting his wishes for burial and saying that his soul is at peace with his decision. Just after the stroke of midnight, he shoots himself in the head.

The shot does not immediately kill him. The next morning, Werther is found - the death-rattle in his throat - with his brain laid bare. The doctor tries to save him, but in vain. Lotte, Albert and her family attend his final hours. The novel closes: "That night around eleven the bailiff had Werther buried at the place he himself had chosen. The old man and his sons followed the body to the grave; Albert was unable to. Lotte's life was in danger. Workmen carried the coffin. No clergyman attended."


There is plenty to unpack in this final section - every action is so loaded with meaning. We can examine Werther's suicide, during which his soul indeed seems to have finally found peace, as the normally excessive Werther requires only "one glass of wine" before pulling the trigger (reminding us of the letter of November 8, in which Lotte implores him not to drink "the whole bottle"). We can discuss about how appropriate it is that Albert is away "on business" when Werther pays his last visit to Lotte, proving to some extent Werther's point that Albert cares more about his office than his wife. We can mull over the reading of Ossian, which most critics agree is terribly inappropriate for a climactic scene, especially given its length and its opacity, but which we can see as a clear expression of the zeitgeist. Sturm und Drang relies on the knowingness of its initiates, of whom Lotte and Werther are two examples. Such authentic Romantics would not need context for Ossian - in fact they would scoff at those who do - and so Goethe doesn't provide any. His translation of Ossian is in this light an audacious gesture, like a stretch of feedback and free jazz at an avant garde rock show, intended to separate the true Romantics from the pretenders who don't get it. But what is most telling in the last section of Werther, perhaps, is the use of the editor.

Who is this editor? Who would take so much trouble to document, with "exact facts," the final days and hours of Werther's life? There have been many suggestions as to the identity of this editor, maybe the most creative being that it is Werther himself narrating from beyond the grave (and who but Werther would be so interested in himself?). The fact remains, however, that Goethe deliberately left the identity of the editor vague and impossible to determine.

What is more important about the editor is that he represents, to some degree at least, a refutation of Werther's philosophy. He is an organizer, a gatherer of facts, and a scientist of suffering, so to speak. The editor emphasizes the role that deliberation, not spontaneity (Werther's argument), plays into the forging of art. In his respectful attentiveness to Werther's motives and character, married to his gentle and implicit refutation of Werther's theory of art, the editor provides a model for the ideal reader of Werther: someone who appreciates the tumult and enthusiasm that Werther represents without letting that appreciation snowball into emulation. It seems to be the sensible voice of Goethe himself, who has lived through the turmoil that Werther experienced, but who comes to embrace some aspects of Enlightenment order, and represents an embedded critique of his own zealous creation. What a pity that the readers of the late eighteenth century took this book to be an unabashed endorsement of Werther's lifestyle, even to the point of copying his fate. (Needless to say, the irony is apparent: the "non-conformists" conforming to the fate of their hero, wearing his blue and yellow garb and scented, perhaps, with the popular perfume, Eau de Werther...)

At the final accounting, it is hard to say whether Werther is to be despised, or to be pitied for his fate, as the editor's note at the beginning of the novel implores us. Werther himself knows, especially in these final letters, that he seems doomed to bring unhappiness to those he loves most, but this self-knowledge cannot wholly vindicate the pain he brings both to Albert and Lotte's otherwise happy marriage; the novel ends, after all, with uncertainty as to whether or not Lotte will survive the shock of Werther's death. If he truly cared for Lotte - and if he were really as calm in his decision as he claims - shouldn't he have chosen a different location for the deed, sparing her the immediate sight of his dead body? Even his calmness is carefully staged: the single glass of wine, the open copy of Lessing.

It is worth noting, in the end, that Werther leaves the world in an utterly inelegant manner. His final Romantic gesture ends unromantically, with his messy, dying corpse. Goethe's style in this final section is anything but Romantic: he uses spare, short sentences, utterly factual and unsentimental. Of course the ending is moving - especially the last sentences, in which the themes of class (the workmen carry his coffin) and religion (he is denied a religious burial) are so concisely touched upon - but it is ambiguous as to whether or not it offers an endorsement of Werther's dire decision.