The Sorrows of Young Werther

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Themes and Colors
The Heart vs. The Mind Theme Icon
Self-Absorption of Youth Theme Icon
Upper Class and Lower Class Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sorrows of Young Werther, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Self-Absorption of Youth Theme Icon

The Sorrows of Young Werther contains characters of nearly all ages, but its primary concerns rest with Werther, Lotte, and Albert, three youths at the threshold of adulthood. As Goethe depicts it, young adulthood is a dangerous time: the authorities of youth (parents, teachers, elders) become less powerful, while the young adult’s own perceptions begin to seem like the only reliable, true guide in the world. Werther is a classic example of a youth in the grip of such self-absorption, and while the novel acknowledges that this is both normal and understandable for his age, it also portrays both the absurdity and destructiveness of self-absorption that goes unchecked.

The very form that Goethe chose for The Sorrows of Young Werther suggests self-absorption. The book is an epistolary novel, a novel written as though it were a series of letters, and the only letters presented are Werther’s. Therefore, Werther’s voice—and his endless rhapsody about his emotions—is the only voice readers hear. In addition, Werther’s letters do not show evidence that he ever listens to Wilhelm, his primary correspondent, or even that he cares much about their friendship. The letters rarely allude to anything Wilhelm has written, and when they do, it’s typically in the form of rejecting advice or justifying some mistake Werther has made in spite of Wilhelm’s pleas. Thus, Werther comes to seem self-absorbed to the point of isolating himself; nobody can temper Werther’s actions, perceptions, or emotions because he won’t listen to anyone else. In fact, the only relief from Werther’s narration comes when he has descended so far into his madness that the editor must take over and explain that Werther succumbed to his passions. In other words, Werther is so self-absorbed that the entrance of another voice does not indicate Werther’s willingness to listen and share the stage—the presence of a new narrator shows that Werther has died.

Werther’s relationship with Lotte also highlights his self-absorption in two ways. First, Lotte is not a self-absorbed character, so her presence highlights Werther’s own flaws. Though Lotte is Werther’s age, she is not still a youth; after her mother died, she took on the adult responsibility of raising her siblings, and she has taken on the adult commitment of marriage. Since Lotte’s life is so closely connected to others—namely Albert and her siblings—Lotte understands empathy, compromise, and respect. She lives so much for others that she cannot be self-absorbed, unlike isolated Werther who cannot fathom that another person’s perspective could be equal to his own. Second, Lotte seems to inspire new heights of self-absorption in Werther. Though Werther claims to love Lotte above all else, his actions towards her lack empathy and respect, which casts doubt on the maturity of his definition of love. For example, when Lotte asks Werther to stop courting her and allow Albert to be her husband with Werther as simply their friend, Werther cannot honor her request or even understand the difficult position he has put her in. Locked within his crippling self-absorption, Werther utterly disregards Lotte’s needs in favor of his own desires, which ruins their ability even to be friends.

Werther’s self-absorption is tied inextricably to his insistence on prioritizing emotion over reason. While reason is a powerful moderator of impulse and emotion, Werther insists that reason (book learning, the advice of others, self-reflection) is unimportant. While this can be interpreted as a valid value judgment, Werther’s choice of emotion over reason also seems, in a different light, to act as a justification for selfish behavior. Since dividing the mind from the body and labeling the mind as less important conveniently excuses the mind from its duty to temper and second-guess emotions, Werther’s idea that his behavior is outside of his control allows his selfishness to rule him with impunity. In this way, Werther’s self-absorption allows him to justify whatever behavior his emotions lead him toward. And this behavior, in turn, is destructive: it’s deeply troubling to Wilhelm, it seemingly terrifies his mother, and it pushes away his dearest friend, Lotte, while making an enemy of her husband. Within the insular system of Werther’s own mind, all of this—even his suicide—is justified, because his emotions are justified by the simple fact that he has them.

While Goethe takes Werther’s pain and passions seriously (he doesn’t mock or judge Werther outright), Werther’s actions speak for themselves. Werther is a character who has, to an extreme extent, allowed his self-absorption to rule him, and it leads him to mistreat others and, ultimately, to behave in ways so self-destructive that it costs him his life. The novel, then, gives the sense of a normal developmental stage run amok. Most young people contend with self-absorption to some extent, but Werther’s story shows that, if unchecked, self-absorption can be deadly.

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Self-Absorption of Youth ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Self-Absorption of Youth appears in each Section of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Self-Absorption of Youth Quotes in The Sorrows of Young Werther

Below you will find the important quotes in The Sorrows of Young Werther related to the theme of Self-Absorption of Youth.
Book One: May 4-13, 1771 Quotes

Dear friend! do I need to tell you that you who have so often endured seeing me pass from sorrow to excessive joy, from sweet melancholy to destructive passion? And I am treating my poor heart like an ailing child; every whim is granted.

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Wilhelm
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Werther again writes to Wilhelm, telling him of the joy he’s found exploring the natural beauty of his new home. This passage gives some essential insight into his character: he’s an extremely emotional person prone to throwing his heart recklessly into whatever he’s passionate about. In fact, Werther outright admits that he grants his heart its every whim, which implies that his mind is not permitted to do what many would consider to be its duty of regulating emotions. Werther’s use of the word “childlike” also alludes to what will become a repeated idea of Werther’s: that the lives of children are superior to those of adults, and that “childlike” adults (i.e. peasants) are happier than others. This passage also, in Werther’s reference to Wilhelm having “endured” his mood swings, shows a flicker of empathy for the effect of his actions and emotions on others, though this self-awareness and empathy will be sparse in the remainder of the book. Overall, this passage is a remarkably lucid articulation of Werther’s emotional state, which will ultimately lead to his downfall.

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Book One: May 15-22, 1771 Quotes

I well know we are not equal, nor can be; but…he who supposes he must keep his distance from what they call the rabble, to preserve the respect due to him, is as much to blame as a coward who hides from his enemy for fear of being beaten.

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Wilhelm
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Werther begins to encounter his new neighbors who are mostly poor day laborers and mothers with children. Werther is better educated than they are and of a higher social class. As he often does throughout the novel, Werther expresses regret that social barriers like class keep people of good intentions from being friends with one another. However, as he lambasts upper class people who feel superior simply because of their social position, he subtly condescends to the lower class by saying that they can never be his equal, and by not clearly taking a position on whether the “respect due” to people of higher class is itself wrongheaded, or whether that respect is, in fact, owed to him, but he’s not worried about losing it by mingling with the poor. Additionally, it is precisely Werther’s elevated class that allows him to look down on, and subsequently analyze, his lower class neighbors, since the lower class does not have the mobility and leisure time for such activities. Werther remains willfully blind to this truth.

Book One: May 26-30, 1771 Quotes

You ask why the torrent of genius so rarely pours forth, so rarely floods and thunders and overwhelms your astonished soul?—Because, dear friends, on either bank dwell the cool, respectable gentlemen…

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Wilhelm
Related Symbols: Storms
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In a philosophical rant typical of his early letters to Wilhelm, Werther is discussing the advantages of following the rules of society. He remarks that he certainly understands the need for rules to contain and order people, but he claims that living by such rules—while it will surely produce respectable citizens—tends to squash genius. He regrets that this is true and makes an emotional appeal urging those who feel called to break the rules to do so. It’s one of the many times that he openly chooses emotion over logic in his arguments. This passage also shows a certain lack of empathy for people who might value other aspects of life over genius, and it shows a profound underestimation of the chaos and hurt that might ensue if everyone were to abandon social rules to follow their emotions alone. Statements like this make it clear that, when he meets and is drawn to Lotte, Werther will not do the expected thing and respect her engagement to Albert.

Book One: June 16, 1771 Quotes

When I was younger there was nothing I loved better than novels. God knows how good it felt to be able to sit in some corner on a Sunday and share with my whole heart in Miss Jenny's happiness and sorrows. Nor do I deny that that kind of writing still has its charms for me. But since I so rarely come by a book, it has to be one that is quite to my taste. And I like that author best who shows me my own world, conditions such as I live in myself and a story that can engage my interest and heart as much as my own domestic life does.

Related Characters: Lotte (Charlotte S.) (speaker), Werther
Related Symbols: Books
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Lotte is describing her love of reading to Werther (whom she’s just met) on the way to the ball. Werther is an avid reader himself and is surprised to find another reader living in his new rustic, lower-class town (yet another example of his subtle condescension towards the poor). While this passage might suggest that their shared love of novels would be a way for Werther to bond with Lotte, Werther quickly comes to abandon both books and book learning as he becomes increasingly infatuated with Lotte. This is a result of one of the central conflicts of the novel: that between the heart and the mind. Books come to be a part of “the mind” for Werther, and the few authors that he doesn’t disregard as a result, like Homer and Ossian, are ones who speak to the grand emotional turmoil Werther feels boiling inside of himself. In a sense, then, this passage—which appears to suggest Lotte and Werther’s common ground—is actually one that reveals their ultimate conflict. While Lotte clearly associates books with the heart (even using the word “heart” twice in the passage), Werther is so consumed by his own thoughts and desires that he discards Lotte’s interests and opinions in a misguided quest to woo her.

Book One: June 19-July 6, 1771 Quotes

It is good that my heart can feel the simple and innocent pleasure a man knows when the cabbage he eats at table is one he grew himself; the pleasure he takes not only in eating the cabbage but in remembering all those good days, the fine morning he planted it, the mellow evenings he watered it and the delight he felt in its daily growth.

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Wilhelm
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Having fully described the ball where he met Lotte, Werther returns to the kind of philosophical musings he’d engaged in earlier by telling Werther about Lotte’s siblings and how simple and wonderful their lives are. While simple lives might be happy ones, the logic of this statement is notably bizarre. The lives of 18th century German farmers were difficult, and Werther’s assumption that peasants would find deep peace and satisfaction in the backbreaking labor of farming—labor whose stakes were a family’s survival—is naïve at best, and ignorant and harmful at worst. It betrays Werther’s (and, perhaps, Goethe’s) social conservatism, in which the class hierarchy was deemed beneficial to all and benevolent to the lower class. In addition, this passage condescends to the lower class more subtly by associating peasants with children (after all, this whole passage is a musing about Lotte’s young siblings), and by associating peasants with emotion rather than intellect. Yet, while Werther says he prefers the lower class to the upper because the lower class live better lives, he avoids work like the plague and keeps servants who tend to his needs (like eating).

Book One: July 8-19, 1771 Quotes

My dear fellow, that is the uncertainty I am left in; and my consolation is that perhaps she did turn to look at me! Perhaps!

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Lotte (Charlotte S.)
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Werther and Lotte have yet again shared a carriage, but she doesn’t so much as look at him this time. When he leaves the carriage, he begins to cry, and he watches her depart in hopes that she’ll spare him a glance. While she does lean her head from the carriage’s window, Werther remains uncertain that she did so in order to see him. The repeated “perhaps” in the quote shows both his desperate hope that she did look at him and his complete inability to be sure either way. Like most of Werther’s interactions with Lotte, this one focuses on what might have happened (with Werther liberally assuming certain emotions on Lotte’s part) rather than what actually was.

No, I am not deceiving myself! …Yes, I can feel—and I know I may trust my own heart in this—Oh, dare I utter the words, those words that contain all heaven for me?—I can feel that she loves me!

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Lotte (Charlotte S.), Wilhelm
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In his previous letter to Wilhelm, Werther expressed his amazement at the ability of some men to deceive themselves. Ironically, he opens his next communication with a firm statement that he isn’t doing the same thing. It’s not clear who he’s trying to convince, himself or Wilhelm, but his language shows that convincing is needed, since he’s not dealing with facts. His verbs (“I feel,” “I may trust,” “I can feel”) all prove that Lotte has never come out and said that she loves him. Rather, he’s guessed at it and now (emotionally, rather than logically) he is looking for proof to back up that guess. This assumption that Lotte loves him is further in doubt based on Werther’s reaction to the story of the farmer lad. In that context, he admitted that his emotions led him to prefer his imagination to reality. Here, since he says he is trusting his heart about the matter (his emotional intuition rather than his rational observations), the reader should be skeptical of whether his heart corresponds at all to reality.

Book One: July 19-August 12, 1771 Quotes

I have started on a portrait of Lotte three times, and three times I have failed disgracefully; which depresses me all the more since I could take a very good likeness not so long ago. So then I cut a silhouette profile of her, and that will have to do.

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Lotte (Charlotte S.)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Wilhelm has recently asked Werther if he’s keeping up with his drawing, a hobby the two seem to place on the same intellectual level as reading. Werther admits that he hasn’t, and also confirms that he can’t even begin to draw Lotte anymore (although he used to be able to). Much like his imagined picture of the widow, Werther has created an image of Lotte in his head that’s removed from reality. When he sits with the real, flesh-and-blood woman, he can only capture a general outline, because that basic silhouette is the only thing that can encompass both the real Lotte and his imagination of her. In other words, this passage shows that Werther’s ideas about Lotte are becoming farther and farther removed from the reality of her, which casts further doubt on Werther’s reliability as a narrator.

True, it is wrong to steal: but if a man goes thieving to save himself and his family from starvation, are we to pity him or punish him? Who will first cast a stone if a husband sacrifices his unfaithful wife and her worthless seducer in the heat of his righteous wrath? or if a girl abandons herself for one joyful hour to the irresistible pleasures of love?

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Albert
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Werther and Albert have entered into a debate on the topic of suicide, and Albert, shocked by Werther’s assertion that suicide is sometimes understandable, asks if Werther doesn’t at least feel that suicide is always morally wrong. While Werther agrees that suicide is generally wrong, he offers in this quote several examples of things that are usually wrong but can sometimes be excused. While the first example—a family stealing to survive—seems to be a logical and relevant counterargument, his remaining examples devolve into questions about infidelity, revealing what is really on Werther’s mind. The last question—whether a girl might give herself for an hour to love—seems to be a direct and cruel barb at Albert, implying that Lotte might righteously desire a tryst with Werther. Of course, the substance of the debate—whether suicide is wrong—foreshadows Werther’s fate. Werther, who openly suppresses his mind and indulges his heart, will remain unpersuaded throughout the book by Albert’s use of reason to condemn suicide.

Book One: October 20, 1771-February 20, 1772 Quotes

Oh, it would drive me insane if she could forget—Albert, the very thought is hell.

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Lotte (Charlotte S.), Albert
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Lotte and Albert have married secretly, and Albert writes to inform Werther of this after the fact. Werther congratulates the two, but, self-centered as ever, he manages to turn even someone else’s wedding (let alone the wedding of someone he claims to love) into an event about him. Werther’s statement that Lotte forgetting about him would be hell foreshadows, in a sense, the psychological hell into which Werther descends after Lotte asks Werther not to see her for a while (though she hasn’t forgotten him, it’s almost as though she’s trying to). The statement also seems to carry a second meaning: that Werther won’t let his inappropriate presence in their marriage be forgotten, either.

Book Two: June 11-November 3, 1772 Quotes

It cost me a wrench but in the end I decided not to wear the simple blue frock-coat I had on when I first danced with Lotte any more; it had become quite unpresentable. Still, I have had a new one made, exactly like the other, down to the collar and lapels, and the very same buff waistcoat and breeches as well.

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Lotte (Charlotte S.)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Having left employment with the ambassador and returned to Wahlheim, Werther resumes all of the behaviors that led him to flee the place previously. This is echoed in his literal remaking of the outfit he associates with Lotte. Though he must know that nothing will change with Lotte, he decides to keep on living (and dressing) in the same way as before. In this, he embraces his fate to die of his unrequited love, having failed at escaping this fate through the ambassador and Miss von B. The blue frockcoat outfit, which symbolizes this tragic choice, turned into an icon in 18th century Europe. Fans of the novel would emulate Werther’s dress to signify that they agreed with his embrace of an emotional over a logical life and sympathized with his turmoil.

I have so much, and my feelings for her absorb it all; I have so much, and without her it is all nothing.

Related Characters: Werther (speaker), Lotte (Charlotte S.)
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

For months Werther writes letters to Wilhelm that lack substance. His life, it seems, has been put on hold, as though he were waiting for something to happen. The unmistakable torment present in the voice above hints that he is waiting either for Lotte to change her mind (which he knows is all but impossible) or for him to decide firmly on suicide—a final embrace of the nothingness he feels his life is without her. While this is a clear rumination of the theme of suicide, it also highlights Werther’s constant self-absorption. He does indeed have so much: education, money, freedom. Many people would love to have the kind of life that he has. Yet, because he lacks the one thing he can’t have, he intends to throw it all away.

Book Two: December 20-21, 1772 Quotes

All of these reflections prompted a profound realization, albeit one which she was not consciously aware of, that her secret heart's desire was to keep him for herself, yet at the same time she reminded herself that she could not and might not keep him; her pure and beautiful nature, which at other times was so lighthearted and readily found a way out of predicaments, sensed the oppressive power of melancholy, banishing the prospect of happiness. Her heart was heavy, and her vision was clouded by sadness.

Related Characters: Editor (speaker), Werther, Lotte (Charlotte S.)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

Werther is but a few days away from suicide and is going to see Lotte for what will be the last time. The editor offers a rare glimpse into what Lotte is thinking and feeling, free from Werther’s projected hopes and expectations. This passage reveals a woman desperate to keep her dearest friend close to her, yet certain that she cannot do so without ruining all chances of his happiness. This editorial interlude is essential to the development of Lotte’s character: without it, all that is known about her is what Werther supplies, which includes the possibility that Lotte has maliciously toyed with him. With this passage, however, Lotte becomes a compassionate and empathetic woman who carefully considers her actions and feelings. Rather than a mere receptacle for Werther’s affections, she becomes a multi-faceted, interesting human being. What’s more, her story becomes tragic, as she too cannot have the life she wants.