The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther Book One: May 4-13, 1771 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The text proper opens with a letter from Werther to someone he refers to as his “dear friend” (later, this character is revealed to be Wilhelm). The letter tells of Werther’s great joy to be away from home, despite being away from this friend. Werther mentions Leonore, a young woman with whose emotions he has recently toyed. While he claims to regret Leonore’s heartbreak, he seems at the same time indifferent towards it. Instead, he focuses on the idyllic beauty of his new home.
Despite the editor’s assurances that the reader will like Werther, this first look at Werther shows him to be an emotionally reckless, even insensitive, young man. He’s far too absorbed in his own feelings to understand the pain he’s caused Leonore. In addition, his indifference seems related to the fact that Leonore is a woman, someone he believes to be incapable of emotional depth.
Themes
Self-Absorption of Youth Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
That home is a rural area outside of a small town. Werther dislikes the town proper, but quickly falls in love with the rural area around it. He enjoys the trees especially, and he attributes the property’s natural beauty to the gardening skill of its previous owner, Count von M. Everything appears to him to be the prettiest, most serene thing he’s ever witnessed.
It’s especially telling that Werther thinks that the natural beauty of his new home is a product of aristocratic design. That’s the way things are meant to be, in his world: the upper class manages the world, and the lower class enjoys the beautiful results.
Themes
Upper Class and Lower Class Theme Icon
All of the beauty around him ends up distracting Werther from things he used to enjoy, such as reading books and drawing. He playfully expresses concern about this to Wilhelm, yet he seems content in his new lackadaisical lifestyle. He loves simply wandering the countryside, which evokes in him grand thoughts about God and creation. Stumbling on a spring during his travels, he says that it has enraptured him as though he were Melusine, a figure from medieval literature. Werther enjoys sitting and watching this spring as the girls of the town come and go, fetching water. He enjoys it so much that he devotes an entire letter to Wilhelm about it.
A strong parallel begins here between the themes of heart and mind and upper/lower class. The upper classes are planners and intellects, while the lower classes simply feel things. Increasingly, as Werther embraces the emotions that nature makes him feel, he finds himself rejecting intellectual pursuits like reading. He also begins to idealize the kind of peasant work he sees the women doing (though, of course, fetching water is a grueling task).
Themes
The Heart vs. The Mind Theme Icon
Upper Class and Lower Class Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
The next letter opens with Werther responding to Wilhelm, who has asked if he ought to forward Werther’s books to him. It’s an idea that Werther doesn’t even pretend to entertain: he no longer has a desire for books or book learning. He only wishes to read Homer. Reading Homer in that locale places a calm over his otherwise restless heart.
Though Werther often says he’s reading Homer, he only ever references The Odyssey, which is the story of a man forced into exile by the gods for his stunning vanity. Goethe here begins to suggest parallels between Odyssseus’ vanity and Werther’s intellectual pretensions.
Themes
The Heart vs. The Mind Theme Icon
Self-Absorption of Youth Theme Icon
Get the entire Sorrows of Young Werther LitChart as a printable PDF.
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