The Sorrows of Young Werther

by Johann Goethe

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Young Werther, leaving home, writes to his friend Wilhelm to describe the secluded region where he went to forget the unhappiness of his earlier years. He discovered a pleasant cottage surrounded by a lovely garden, and he felt that in this peaceful retreat he could live in happy solitude forever. A few days later, he reports that his soul recovered in his rustic surroundings. He does not want books or the companionship of his old friends, for he is transported into a new world of kinship with nature. He mentions a nearby hamlet, Walheim, and the village inn where he can drink good coffee, sit in solitude, and read the works of Homer. Several letters to Wilhelm continue describing Werther’s simple life among scenes of natural beauty.

Suddenly there is a break in his letters, followed by the announcement that he met an angel. At a ball, he was introduced to Charlotte S., the daughter of a judge who retired to a hunting lodge not far from Walheim. Charlotte is a beautiful and charming girl, and despite her being betrothed to another young man, who was not present at the ball, Werther fell deeply in love with her at first sight.

Perhaps his passion became all the deeper because he was warned not to fall in love with her. At the dance, Werther demanded much of her attention, and he began to ask her about Albert, her fiancé, when a storm suddenly interrupted the dance. The host led the guests into a room protected by curtains and shutters. There they played a game called counting. Once Werther kissed Charlotte’s hands. When the party broke up at sunrise, he took her to her home through a dazzling world of raindrops and morning sun. From that time on, he called every day on Lotte, as he refers to her in his letters. He grieved over their separation when she went to attend a sick woman. One day, he went with her to visit an old pastor; he noted that her youthful presence seemed to bring new life to the old man.

Because he could not bear to have her out of his sight, Werther began to object to the time Lotte gave to sick friends and other acquaintances. A glimpse of her as she rode away on some errand was enough to set his head spinning and his heart beating wildly. If her finger accidentally touched his, the blood pounded through his veins. He confesses to his friend that he did little of the painting he had intended; all of his time is consumed with his love for Charlotte.

After he receives Wilhelm’s advice either to press his suit with Lotte or to relinquish his hopeless passion, Werther decides to see the girl less frequently. His decision is further strengthened by Albert’s return to Walheim. Werther is jealous of Albert but writes that he nevertheless admires his rival’s fine character. In answer to further urging from Wilhelm, Werther replies that he can neither give up Lotte nor hope to win her from Albert. That being so, Werther grows more and more melancholy. Because he can possess Lotte only in his dreams, he succumbs to gloom and despair. At last, deciding that he must leave Walheim, he asks Wilhelm to secure a government post for him. When Wilhelm suggests a post with an ambassador, Werther postpones his acceptance or refusal of the position. Wilhelm, however, obtains the appointment without waiting to hear from his friend, so Werther’s course is decided for him. During the two last hours he spends with Lotte and Albert,...

(This entire section contains 1032 words.)

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he pretends that he is not going away, feeling that their farewells will be more than he can bear.

At first, the official duties of his new position keep Werther from brooding over his sorrows, but as time passes he begins to dislike the ambassador for whom he works. No longer interested in government affairs, he reproaches Wilhelm for securing the appointment. He chafes under the responsibilities he is forced to assume. Finally, he writes to Lotte. Albert writes in reply, informing him that the two were married some time earlier.

Werther resigns his position at court. Failing in his attempt to enter the army, he accepts the offer of a young prince to spend the summer on his estate. When he fails to find in the nobleman’s household the peace and calm for which he hoped, he decides to return to Walheim to be near Lotte. However, his first encounter with Albert and Lotte throws him into such a state that his letter to Wilhelm is almost incoherent. He cannot understand why Albert does not look more distractedly happy. Although Lotte pities Werther and Albert sympathizes with him, they are unable to help him. At the same time, Werther is concerned with the fate of a peasant who was convicted of murder. Failing to save the man from his fate, Werther is more wretched than ever. At last, following her husband’s suggestion, Lotte suggests that Werther visit her house less frequently. In despair, he writes that when he can bear his sorrows no longer he intends to end his life.

The rest of his story is told by others. One night, while Albert was away from home, Werther went to Lotte’s house. Frightened by his speech and appearance, she asked him to read aloud some passages from Ossian. After he seized her in a wild embrace, she fled and locked herself in her room. He stood outside the door and begged her to speak so that he could hear her voice for the last time.

The next day, he sent a servant to Albert and asked for the loan of a brace of pistols to take with him on an unexpected journey. He shot himself that night, but he was not quite dead when his servant found him the next morning. He died at noon without regaining consciousness. Hearing of his death, Charlotte fell into a swoon so deep that it threatened her life. Workmen of the village carried Werther’s body to its resting place under the lime trees at Walheim.