Although the story unfolds mostly as a series of letters from one man to another, women play a central role in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe sometimes portrays them stereotypically as mothers, domestic servants, and wives or widows. At other times, though, he sketches women as intellectual equals, beings of tremendous resolve, and people of great emotional depth. But the work Goethe puts into creating varied and well-rounded female characters is lost on Werther himself, who instead views women merely as objects, often useful only as receptacles for his affection.
The primary object of Werther’s affections is, of course, Lotte. Yet, Lotte is no mere object. She is, instead, a fully-rounded character who takes on many roles. One of them is that of Werther’s good friend. In this capacity, Lotte looks to have fun with Werther and share ideas and thoughts with him the way that good friends do. Werther, however, seems blind to her desire for friendship. Instead, when he realizes that she has no intention of leaving Albert for him, he sees Lotte’s friendliness as evidence that she has led him on with the intent to hurt him—he even suggests that she has made a reprehensible habit of doing this to other men. The editor, however, shows Lotte to be utterly heartbroken by the situation and highlights the great trouble Lotte went through to try to save her friendship with Werther. Her struggle to be a friend underlines her full human agency—her ability to act and feel for herself, to stand up for herself and what she wants, and to see herself as someone equal to, and as complex as, Werther.
Another of Werther’s female “objects” is his own mother. He ignores her for most of the book, though he interacts with many other mothers, whom he sees as being mostly interchangeable. They’re vulnerable women attempting to raise small children alone, while their husbands are away on some errand. Werther enjoys telling Wilhelm about his compassion for them, and how he’s always sure to give them some money before sending them on their way. In turn, they praise him for his generosity, and that makes him feel good about himself. These women aren’t really people to Werther; they’re more like parrots trained to give compliments in exchange for treats. His own mother is nothing like them. She has a mysterious source of money, and she successfully raised Werther alone after his father died. Werther expresses concern that she will scold him for leaving his job and for his untoward behavior with Lotte, which shows his respect for her opinion and indicates that she may disapprove of his lifestyle. In addition, Werther finds himself often asking her for money. Since she doesn’t make him feel good about himself the way the other mothers do, he does his best to ignore her.
Werther also largely ignores another woman who nevertheless plays a central role in the book: the widow. Like Lotte, the widow is beset by a man who mistakes friendliness for romantic interest, and she, too, shows quite a bit of willpower and discipline in rejecting his advances. Furthermore, she’s a woman who hires a man to work for her in 1771, and she manages a wealthy household with aplomb, all of which certainly seems surprising and industrious. Yet, despite these obvious hints that the widow is something special, Werther doesn’t even bother to learn her name. He simply refers to her as the widow, making her marital status the most important thing about her. When the farmer lad tries to rape her, Werther never considers the trauma that the widow suffers—instead, he commiserates with the fate of her attempted rapist. In fact, Werther sympathizes so much with the farmer lad that he makes it a point never to see the widow in person, lest her actual physical appearance mar the picture the boy has painted of her in Werther’s imagination. Her complex, interesting existence, it seems, has less value to Werther than his idealization of her via the observations of her rapist.
Through these various (and shifting) presentations of women and femininity, Goethe subverts the idea that women can be neatly packaged into stereotypes. His female characters, even when they’re fulfilling conventional roles like motherhood, have all the complexity and range of his male ones. Werther, however, (perhaps because he is obsessed with himself and endowed with the overconfidence of youth), just can’t see that. Like Werther, the younger Goethe who experienced the love triangle that inspired The Sorrows of Young Werther lacked the good sense to befriend the woman who spurned his love but wanted his companionship. In his later life, Goethe—a celebrity among intellectuals—overcame this. He befriended many women, and considered those bonds among the most formative to his thought. His depictions here represent a sadness at the inability of his younger self to recognize how impoverished his views on women truly were.
Women Quotes in The Sorrows of Young Werther
I shall now try to see her too as soon as possible, or rather, on second thoughts, I shall avoid doing so. It is better for me to see her with the eyes of her lover; perhaps she would not appear to my own eyes as she does now, and why should I ruin the beautiful image I have?
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.
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.
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.
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.