A fictional, unnamed editor introduces The Sorrows of Young Werther, presenting the novel as a nonfictional compilation of all the material he has been able to discover of the sad story of “poor Werther.” The opening is short and assertive: the editor takes it on faith that the novel will have a great emotional effect on its reader, and that Werther’s spirit and character will engender both love and admiration. He hopes that the reader will find a friend in Werther when no other friends present themselves.
Werther’s narrative begins with a letter written to his friend Wilhelm. In it, Werther describes how happy he is in the small, unnamed town where he has recently settled. While Werther finds the town proper to be unlikable, the countryside—especially its trees—is idyllic, and he sees it as though encountering nature for the first time. By the writing of his next letter, some six days later, the place possesses him utterly. In his contentment, he admits that he has neglected his studies—books have begun to seem insufficient in comparison to the beauty around him. In the letter that follows, Werther instructs Wilhelm not to send the books from home that he’d originally requested; he won’t be needing them.
Already smitten with the beauty of his new home, Werther finds himself at ease among the townsfolk, as well. He expresses remorse for the way men of his social status look down on peasant life and he paints a portrait for Wilhelm of a nearly pristine way of living—peasants live simply and close to the earth, he claims. Just as Werther begins to lose his book learning, so too does he lose some of his higher social graces. He finds himself sitting around hearths and joking, or dancing in an unrefined way. Yet, if he manages not to think about how improper these actions are, he enjoys himself heartily. In his next letter, he openly admits that he finds peasant life to be superior to his own.
Several days later, Werther stumbles upon the town of Wahlheim, about an hour from his home. It agrees with him much more readily than the rural town in which he presently resides. In Wahlheim, there is an inn where Werther can read comfortably and sip coffee, and nearby are country scenes that he can sketch. Both reading and drawing were skills Werther had hitherto put aside in favor of simply absorbing nature, but Wahlheim seems to inspire Werther to return to these pastimes. He begins to feel that the place might offer an acceptable middle-ground between his learned, highbrow ways and the simpler peasant life he has come to adore.
After sending a letter describing the doomed love of a Farmer Lad for his employer, the Widow, Werther goes silent for two weeks. His next letter to Wilhelm confesses that he has failed to write because he met a woman in Wahlheim, Lotte, whom he calls “perfection itself” and for whom even the word angel is insufficient. He gushes to Wilhelm about her, struggling to find words, and he even pauses mid-letter to go and visit her.
Werther describes to Wilhelm how he met Lotte. En route to an outdoor country ball, Werther’s companions stopped to pick her up. Before Werther met her, however, Lotte’s Aunt warned him that he must not fall in love with Lotte, as she is engaged to Albert. Werther ignores this advice and goes into the house to retrieve Lotte, where he meets her siblings and finally Lotte herself. He’s instantly smitten. At the dance, he jealously seeks her arm for each round, and finds a kind of rapture in her willingness to allow it. As Werther’s emotional fervor builds, a storm appears outside; the couple admire the strange beauty of springtime storms, both remembering the same poem.
What follows is a whirlwind of letters to Wilhelm highlighting Werther’s increasing infatuation with, and ultimately love for, Lotte. He travels to Wahlheim daily, pausing only when Lotte’s visits to her dying friend Mrs. M. prevent it. Werther’s initial belief that Wahlheim might afford him some of his old, educated life in a country setting proves groundless; he is idle once more, unless he is helping Lotte with her siblings, or visiting the Vicar of S. and his Wife to discuss the church’s grove of walnut trees. While Albert, Lotte’s fiancé is out of town on business, Werther becomes increasingly possessive of Lotte, remarking to Wilhelm about the pangs he feels when Lotte looks at others during carriage rides or during conversation. Werther’s jealousy becomes a crisis, as apparent in his letters to Wilhelm growing shorter and more distracted. Wilhelm’s responses, gleaned from Werther’s rebuttals to them, seem focused on providing Werther with distractions from Lotte. He asks about Werther’s drawing and suggests that Werther might find gainful work with an Ambassador. Werther does not take these suggestions.
When Albert finally returns, Werther finds him to be a man worthy of much esteem, and he compliments Albert’s treatment of Lotte. Because of this, Werther resolves to abandon his pursuit of Lotte and stay away from Wahlheim, though his despair is palpable and his behavior turns to mania, which frightens Lotte and puts Albert off. Realizing this, Werther instead seeks out Lotte whenever she is alone. Over time, his letters make it clear that he has decided not to leave after all, instead prolonging the untenable situation by trying to befriend Albert. He and Albert have a lengthy and passionate debate on the morality of suicide, and Werther argues that suicide is a valid option for some people. In fact, he believes that suicide can sometimes be no more escapable than death from a fever might be. This statement shocks and disturbs Albert.
In the months following Albert’s arrival, Werther’s letters become increasingly long, dramatic, and philosophical. He becomes absorbed with self-pity and mired in thoughts of death and pain, ranting endlessly to Wilhelm about his foolishness and helplessness. In one moment he resolves to leave, but in the next he is certain that he might continue on forever. Finally, a discussion regarding Lotte’s Mother and her untimely death so shakes Werther that he decides follow through on Wilhelm’s suggestion to flee Wahlheim and find employment at the court of the Ambassador.
Though Werther has some growing pains at court, he generally finds the work tolerable. The ambassador proves a difficult man to work for, but Werther nevertheless finds a friend in Count C., who advises him in how best to deal with the ambassador. He befriends Miss von B., a local aristocrat whom he imagines might become a romantic interest. Indeed, Werther seems on the verge of shaking Lotte’s ghost when, seemingly out of nowhere, he writes to her. Thereafter his mania is restored and his work becomes unbearable. He desires to flee again, an impulse greatly magnified after receiving word from Albert that he and Lotte have finally married.
After Werther is humiliated at a party by the Count’s noble friends who find Werther too low-born to mingle with them, Werther resigns his job. For a while he travels, but he ultimately returns to Wahlheim and to Lotte. He finds the world there at odds with his memories of it. The Farmer Lad has been let go by the Widow he loves because he tried to rape her, but Werther sympathizes with the Lad rather than the Widow. Noting that the Widow has taken on a new servant, and remembering his feelings towards Albert, Werther wonders how the new servant must make the Farmer Lad feel. The trees so beloved by the Vicar and his wife have been cut down, and with them the memories that Werther and Lotte made there.
One day, Werther meets a man named Heinrich, who turns out to be quite insane. The next day Werther reports that Heinrich was driven to madness by unrequited love for Lotte, though he makes no mention of how he’s learned this information, and it seems suspect. Instead, the mania of his own letters approaches madness. Soon, the editor is forced to intercede in the narrative, filling in the gaps left by Werther’s scant letters. The Farmer Lad killed the Widow, and Werther defended the boy’s actions vehemently to Albert. Albert was so aghast at this that he broke with Werther and demanded that Lotte do the same. Then a storm ravaged Wahlheim, bringing with it a flood that laid waste to many of Werther’s favorite spots.
Lotte, for her part, rejects Albert’s call to abandon Werther, but she does attempt to lessen their time together and she has to ask him to control himself often. During their final visit, Werther reads from his own translations of Ossian, and both he and Lotte weep for the beauty of the story and their own ruined friendship. When Werther forces kisses upon Lotte, the spell is broken, and she banishes him from her home. He flees, resolving to end his life. After writing a letter to Lotte to be delivered after his death, he prepares for the act by borrowing Albert’s pistols. He shoots himself that night and dies from his wounds the following day. The novel ends with the iconic line “No priest attended him.”