The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Book 1: Jul 19-Aug 12, 1771 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Wilhelm has offered to help Werther find a job with the ambassador. It’s not a suggestion for which Werther has much enthusiasm. He doesn’t like being bossed around, and he doesn’t much care for the ambassador, either. Nor does he have much of a passion for drawing anymore (another subject Wilhelm has pestered him about). He admits that he cannot draw even a basic likeness of Lotte, though he’s often tried. Speaking of Lotte, Werther tells Wilhelm that he has tried to see less of her, but something constantly forces him back to Lotte. He isn’t sure if that something is emotion or some magic-like power she has over him.
Werther is an accomplished artist, and even recently he’s produced some very respectable landscapes. He can’t get Lotte’s likeness right, though, because there are really two Lottes in his life: the flesh-and-blood Lotte, who is engaged to Albert, and Werther’s imaginary Lotte, who is helplessly in love with him. The imaginary Lotte is perfect in Werther’s mind, and he struggles to reconcile her image with the real woman he’s trying to draw.
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Finally, Albert arrives, and, in a fit, Werther resolves to leave. He likes Albert well enough, and Albert seems to like him (which Werther feels is Lotte’s doing. He remarks that women often keep their admirers on friendly terms with one another, so that they can take advantage of them). But Werther simply can’t endure seeing Lotte and Albert together. This is so obvious that, in his own words, he makes a fool of himself and Lotte is forced to reprimand him for his bizarre behavior.
Werther’s accusation that Lotte is taking advantage of him is at odds with all the praise he had for her before Albert came. Of course, before Albert’s return, Werther was free to imagine whatever he liked about Lotte’s feelings. With her fiancé there, Werther’s fantasies become more difficult to maintain, and he begins to demonize her.
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Wilhelm reminds Werther that this fate was inevitable—after all, he knew that Lotte was engaged before he fell in love with her. Werther agrees, but still hopes to find some way around the problem. He chides Wilhelm for his pessimism, asking if Wilhelm would suggest that a terminally ill man commit suicide, since death was inevitable for him.
The position Werther takes on suicide here comes up again very soon, when he argues about suicide with Albert. Here, he’s much more upbeat about it than he will be. His argument suggests that even a terminally ill man should keep fighting for his life.
Themes
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In considering possible “ways around the problem,” Werther decides that things maybe aren’t as unbearable as he’s made them out to be. He tells Wilhelm that he could actually be living the best possible life if he weren’t thinking so foolishly about things. Albert, after all, is a quite enjoyable man—Werther even goes so far as to call him “the best fellow on earth.”
The idea of “the best possible life” and Albert as the “best fellow on earth” both seem likely allusions to the book Candide by Voltaire. In it, a naïve young man believes his world to be the best one possible until experience teaches him otherwise.
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Directly after making this declaration, Werther describes a debate that he and Albert have recently engaged in on the topic of suicide. Albert holds that suicide is morally wrong. Werther agrees, but suggests that there are times when it might be allowable. Stealing is wrong too, he suggests, but if someone steals a loaf of bread to feed their starving family, their actions can and should be forgiven. Werther goes on to compare the act of suicide to a nation overthrowing a tyrannical leader, and to make a handful of other comparisons that Albert declares nonsensical. In the end, they both agree the debate has accomplished nothing.
The theme of suicide (which didn’t come up very often before Albert) is suddenly always on Werther’s mind. It’s interesting that here he attempts to use logic to make what is essentially an emotional argument. Fittingly, Albert, who is much more emotionally mature and responsible than Werther, can’t really understand Werther’s argument, even though Werther makes his case coherently. The two simply live in different worlds.
Themes
The Heart vs. The Mind Theme Icon
Self-Absorption of Youth Theme Icon
Suicide Theme Icon
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