The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Book One: May 15-22, 1771 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Moving away from descriptions of nature, Werther now turns to his encounters with the people of his new home. They are of a lower class than he is, and they live simpler lives. Yet, Werther holds no prejudice against them because of this. Instead, he laments that differences of class make befriending such people impossible. He doesn’t think this can be changed, but he thinks it nonetheless regrettable. As if to illustrate his goodwill towards the lower class, Werther tells Wilhelm about a servant girl whom he helped to carry water.
Werther feels that the traditional distinctions between the upper and lower class are just as they should be. But this is easy enough for him to feel: he’s of a higher class than those he’s surrounded by here. As a member of the middle class, Werther will never have to perform physical labor of any sort, and certainly not in order to earn a living. He doesn’t think about this in his evaluations, however.
Themes
Self-Absorption of Youth Theme Icon
Upper Class and Lower Class Theme Icon
Class remains on Werther’s mind in his next letter to Wilhelm, which opens with another lament: that no members of high society are to be found in town. Still, Werther makes do with the peasants and country folk that befriend him. Soon, he finds himself wrapped up in their ways and enjoying their simpler humor and more rustic forms of entertainment and dance.
Werther feels a kind of self-conscious embarrassment as he leaves behind his intellectualism to mingle with his new friends. Here he deepens the novel’s inferred understanding that to be a peasant is to operate primarily with one’s heart.
Themes
The Heart vs. The Mind Theme Icon
Upper Class and Lower Class Theme Icon
Werther recounts to Wilhelm his recent meeting with a young man known simply as V. V is a recent academy graduate who is well-schooled and, like Werther, hopes for more elevated conversation than the locals are capable of providing. Though V. is the kind of society Werther hoped for at the beginning of his letter, Werther finds himself indifferent to V.’s interests and unwilling to engage in his banter. V. makes no further appearances in the novel, and Werther quickly moves on from recounting their meeting to describing a handful of other local eccentrics with whom he’s interacted.
In his new home, Werther is an intellectual: a rare thing. His singular position in the town allows him to make observations (and judgements) without being challenged. So while Werther’s snub of V may initially seem odd, it’s really just that he doesn’t want the competition. Outside voices would only serve to lessen the importance he attaches to his own voice.
Themes
Self-Absorption of Youth Theme Icon
Werther’s next letter to Wilhelm, dated May 22, opens with a long and philosophical treatise on the meaning of life. Werther sees that most men do only as much as necessary to survive. They eat to avoid starvation and drink to avoid dehydration. Werther thinks that men would be happier if they were to recognize their lives to be no more than this. But they don’t. They assign meaning to their life that can never be realized, and they are miserable for it. Children, by comparison, live simply by their desires. Their greatest joy consists of breaking into the sweets cupboard without being caught. The happiest of men, though, Werther strangely suggests, are those who recognize that they can end their struggle for existence whenever they choose: ostensibly through suicide.
It’s surprising that Werther, who has spent so much of his life learning things from books, quickly advocates abandoning such learning in favor of a simpler, seemingly more honest life. Again, though, Werther does this without any real consideration of the advantages that his book learning (itself a product of his social class) afford him. While Werther will never know hunger, in the simpler life that he seeks to idealize, the ability to eat is often contingent on the ability to work. This is also the earliest moment in which Werther alludes to suicide.
Themes
The Heart vs. The Mind Theme Icon
Upper Class and Lower Class Theme Icon
Suicide Theme Icon
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