The Sorrows of Young Werther: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Plot Summary
  • 2:30 Analysis: Goethe &…
  • 3:21 Analysis: Emotional Experience
  • 4:22 Analysis: Experiencing Nature
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

''The Sorrows of Young Werther,'' originally written in 1774 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is a novel about a young man caught in a love triangle. In this lesson, you'll find a summary of the novel and learn more about the way in which its themes inspired a literary movement!

Plot Summary

The Sorrows of Young Werther is mostly made up of a series of letters that Werther, the title character, sends to his friend Wilhelm. In these letters, Werther shares his artistic endeavors and his philosophies on life. For example, Werther believes that feeling deep emotions is the best way to experience life. He also believes in being artsy and creating rather than being bogged down by an industrial job that he doesn't want. In fact, Werther moves to a small town in the countryside (Wahlheim) in order to get away from modern city values and go back to what he believes is the simpler life in the country, where he makes friends with some of the locals.

One of the friends that Werther makes is a woman named Lotte. He falls in love with her because she is caring and responsible; she takes care of her family and her sick mother, and Werther recognizes that she is faithful and devoted. Unfortunately for him, Lotte is already engaged to be married. Werther becomes more and more infatuated with Lotte anyway; he thinks that they are meant to be together and have much more in common than she does with her husband-to-be, Albert. However, since Lotte is, in fact, faithful and devoted, she refuses to leave Albert and Werther is so overcome with sadness and frustration that he leaves town for a job in the royal court at Weimar.

However, things get worse for Werther at Weimar. He does not enjoy his job, and though he makes friends with two aristocrats named Count C and Fraulein von B, the fraulein snubs him at a party and embarrasses him, which is the last straw for Werther at Weimar. He moves on to spend a bit of time with a friend before going back to Wahlheim in order to see if he can get Lotte to return his love one more time.

In Wahlheim, he finds that one of his friends is dead and that Lotte and Albert are still together. Werther's insistence on trying to be more than friends with Lotte ruins his relationship with Albert and eventually, Lotte tells Werther that he must stop coming around her after he tries to kiss her instead of remaining platonic friends.

Since Albert has won Lotte's heart, Werther decides that he would rather die than remain miserable. Werther sends a letter to Lotte asking for Albert's pistols, saying that he's going on a journey and will need them. Lotte sadly sends them over, not knowing what Werther plans to do, and Werther uses the pistols to commit suicide. In the end, he dies after being in a coma for twelve hours, watched by Lotte and Albert, and he is buried without a church service underneath a tree.

Analysis: Goethe & Romanticism

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote this novel when he was in his early twenties, which many of us can relate to as a time of romantic drama and of encountering strong feelings related to love, romance, and figuring out what life is all about. This is where Goethe is coming from when he writes about young Werther, who is something of a stand-in for him.

This novel is seen as one of the first examples of Romanticism. Romanticism is a writing style that was popularized in the late 1700s and early-to-mid 1800s. It was a direct response to the thinking of the Enlightenment that came just before it. Romanticism was all about valuing emotional experience over rationality and about experiencing nature rather than city life. Romantic writers wanted to describe the indescribable. Goethe was no different when he wrote Sorrows.

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