An unnamed narrator directly addresses the reader, introducing them to Werther, an individual worthy of their love, admiration, and sympathy.
Werther writes to a friend, Wilhelm, from a nobleman’s estate in which his family has some managerial involvement. Werther praises the solitary peace and tranquility of his surroundings. An artist by inclination, he closely observes and is inspired by the beauty of the trees, sunlight, streams, and insects around him, and feels that he’s become a better artist than ever before. In this setting, Werther feels the nearness of God, and he views the setting as paradise. He makes daily visits to a fountain fed by natural springs, where he watches the comings and goings of the townspeople, imagines the spot when it was once a center of commerce, and feels a kinship with the past. Werther vehemently declines his friend’s offer to send books. He regards reading as overstimulating and only makes an exception for the calming poetry of Homer. Werther confesses that his unpredictable moods sometimes rapidly change between extremes of happiness and sadness and that he indulges his temperament like a sick child, a confession Werther asks his friend not to repeat as he knows people would not approve.
Werther characterizes his social life as full of short-lived acquaintances. As a gentleman, he encounters suspicion when he is friendly with the local townspeople, who interpret his interest in their daily lives as ridicule. Werther sees that they scratch out a meager existence with continuous labor, expend their energies simply surviving, feel imprisoned by their circumstances, and lack a sense of purpose that gives their lives meaning and focus. He enjoys losing himself in their simple pleasures like eating, drinking, and dancing but misses the intellectual stimulation of educated people. Werther receives a visit from V—, a recent university graduate, who heard about Werther’s art pursuits. V— attempts to draw Werther into erudite conversation about various art theories, but Werther doesn’t engage. Later, Werther tells Wilhelm he intends to accept an invitation from a district judge who has retired from public service with his nine children following the death of his wife.
Werther moves to Walheim, having found a small cottage with an idyllic view of a valley. He likes to sit outside the small inn with his coffee and read Homer’s epic poetry. One afternoon, he comes upon a four-year-old boy and his six-month-old brother sitting on the ground in the otherwise deserted square, and Werther sketches the scene realistically. He judges the drawing true to life and interesting, a result of working within the rules of form. But Werther also feels that acceptable isn’t the same as faithful to an ideal, and he blames pragmatism for the loss of true inspired creativity.
After two hours, the mother returns and explains to Werther that the four-year-old was babysitting the infant. Werther finds that the mother’s approach to living each day at a time relaxes him, and he begins visiting them, bringing snacks and pennies for the boys. On another occasion, Werther talks with a young peasant man who tells Werther of his love for a young widow. The devotion, passion, and respect with which the man describes his love touches Werther, who longs to have such an experience. Werther craves to meet this special woman but decides instead to preserve the image he has formed through the man’s eyes. Werther believes the picture in his imagination surpasses the reality.
Werther explains to Wilhelm his two-week silence: He has met the perfect woman and is in a state of infatuation. Werther tells Wilhelm that he had accepted an invitation to a country ball and had offered his hand to an agreeable woman from his neighborhood. He arranged a carriage for his date, his date’s aunt, and Charlotte, the daughter of S—, the district judge he had been invited to visit. On the way to pick up Charlotte, his date and her aunt warn him not to fall in love with Charlotte because she’s engaged to a wealthy and respectable man.
Werther, his date, and her aunt arrive at Charlotte’s home to find her giving dinner to six of her eight brothers and sisters. Charlotte has a natural gift for mothering, and the elegant maternal picture touches Werther. On the way to the ball, the group discusses books, and Charlotte impresses Werther with her intelligence and zest for life. Werther and Charlotte dance euphorically, matching each other step for step. Werther finds their partnership so serendipitous that he later tells Wilhelm that henceforth he regards waltzing as an intimate act. Werther and Charlotte’s enjoyment of each other draws notice from a lady who admonishes Charlotte by wagging a finger and saying the name “Albert” twice. Werther becomes flustered when Charlotte explains that Albert is her fiancé. Charlotte gives Werther permission to call on her as a friend.
Werther lives a little over a mile from Charlotte’s home, and he visits her daily, unable to bear being apart from her. He enthusiastically roughhouses with Charlotte’s siblings and tells them stories. One day, he accompanies her on a visit to the aging vicar. The clergyman’s beautiful daughter, Frederica, and her boyfriend, Herr Schmidt, join them. Schmidt becomes jealous of the attention Werther pays to Frederica and turns gloomy and irritable. Werther berates Schmidt for his behavior, in turn drawing Charlotte’s reproof that he should rein in his overactive sensitivity. On another occasion, Werther impulsively picks up Charlotte’s little sister, Jane, and gives her a big kiss on the cheek, frightening her and making her cry. Charlotte gently reprimands Werther and takes Jane to the fountain, where she tells the child that the miraculous water will wash off the impurities from contact with Werther’s beard. Werther takes no offense, admiring Charlotte’s creativity.
Werther, Charlotte, and several friends gather in town. Before the ladies’ carriage departs, Werther stands apart from the others, gazing at Charlotte, desperate to make eye contact. She only looks at two of the friends, W. Seldstadt and Andran, who are laughing and conversing. Werther realizes his feelings of rejection are childish. He complains about people asking him if he likes Charlotte. The question flusters him because in his mind, to know her is to worship her.
Werther searches for evidence of Charlotte’s reciprocal feelings for him, and when she talks affectionately of her fiancé, he feels insecure. The slightest inadvertent contact—her touch, her breath—overwhelms Werther. The little tunes Charlotte plays on the piano to lighten her mood relieve the suicidal thoughts Werther sometimes harbors over her engagement to Albert. Werther declines Wilhelm’s proposal of a job to be an attaché to the ambassador. Werther admits he has neglected his drawing to the extent that his technique has worsened. He doesn’t trust himself to complete his portrait of Charlotte beyond a sketch of her profile. Charlotte asks Werther to do odd jobs for their family, which he relishes as excuses to pay her a visit. He compares her attraction for him to the magnetic field of a lodestone.
Albert arrives in Walheim permanently, and Werther likes and respects him. In temperament they are opposites, Albert coolheaded and Werther impetuous, but they form a friendship around their shared interests in Charlotte and the children. Werther recognizes the need to end his intense attachment to Charlotte now that Albert is on the scene. Wilhelm presents two choices: Pursue Charlotte to the fulfillment of your hopes or accept her unavailability before it destroys you. Werther pictures Wilhelm’s second choice as amputating an arm to save a life or a mercy killing in the case of a terminal illness.
Albert treats Werther not as a competitor but as a good friend and part of the family. One day while the two are conversing in Albert’s office, Werther puts Albert’s unloaded pistol to his forehead, horrifying Albert. They debate the morality of suicide, with Albert calling the act a premeditated crime or an act of insanity and Werther arguing for exigent circumstances. Werther uses the case of a woman who drowned herself when abandoned by her lover by way of analogy that suicide is a mortal infirmity of the mind like a terminal illness. He makes a case for suicide as a remedy for existential despair beyond the limits of what the rational mind can process.
Werther continues his regular visits to Charlotte and the children. He has become part of the household, a favorite of the children, who eagerly request his storytelling, monitoring his narrative details to ensure that he stays true to his original. With Charlotte’s approaching marriage, the life Werther shares with her will end, and the impending loss moves him increasingly to despair of future happiness. On his solitary walks, he dimly recalls the ecstatic feeling he experienced in the spring of being one with a beneficent God’s creation, yet now he perceives the universe as a devouring monster.
For his birthday on August 28, Albert and Charlotte give him a set of Homer volumes for his walks and a pink ribbon that Charlotte wore the first time Werther met her. Werther spends his days and nights dreaming of Charlotte and sees no end to his misery except death. He resolves to leave Walheim. On September 10, Werther makes what he intends to be his last visit to Albert and Charlotte. Charlotte relives her mother’s last moments, and she and Albert tearfully pledge to honor her dying wish that they should be happy together in marriage. Werther leaves without telling them that he won’t be back for the foreseeable future.
Werther relocates from the country to the court when he takes the position as an attaché to the ambassador, an elderly career bureaucrat who nitpicks Werther’s work and complains about his personality. Meeting people in the course of his diplomatic duties to the count gives Werther an objective appreciation of his own abilities, and he enjoys the intellectual competition to make meaningful contributions. Count C— takes an interest in Werther, who in turn esteems the count. Their affable working relationship irks the ambassador, who denigrates the count as lacking a formal higher education. However, Werther defends the count as a self-made man with innate intelligence that he uses to good advantage to get things done. Werther rails against the emphasis on class rank among the people who surround the count and criticizes their constant social climbing as a petty waste of time. He believes the measure of people’s worth should be their own success. Werther begins seeing Miss B—, who resides with her aunt, a widow; both are of noble lineage. In a January 20 letter to Charlotte, Werther says that Miss B— knows Charlotte, and they talk of her often. He asks if Albert and she are married.
Winter weather turns dreary with icy conditions. Werther increasingly loses patience with the people he associates with. He criticizes the ambassador, who registers a complaint against Werther at court, and Werther is reprimanded. Werther contemplates resigning until the count sends him a supportive letter commending his work ethic while suggesting he tone down his impulsiveness. On February 20, Werther replies to a letter from Albert with news that he and Charlotte have married. He explains that he still feels a part of their lives and ends the letter expressing his longing that Charlotte will not forget him.
Werther’s disregard of class rank inadvertently creates a scandal in the court. Werther dines at the count’s home on a day the nobles are set to assemble there in the evening. As Werther and the count adjourn from dinner to the reception hall, they continue to converse with Colonel B—. Werther is oblivious to the soirée about to start, to which he is neither invited nor welcome because of his lower-class status. Nobles begin to arrive, showing irritation at his presence. Werther attributes the nobles’ behavior to their typical snobbery but delays his departure to say a formal goodbye to his host, the count.
At this point, the count’s friend Miss B— arrives, and Werther happily begins to make conversation with her. Werther feels puzzled when she rebuffs him, but rather than taking the hint, he stays in hopes that she will recover her good graces. Werther observes the arrival of the nobles Baron F— and Chancellor N—, but still he lingers, making conversation among his acquaintances. A tide of whispered outrage spreads among the guests, and Madame S— addresses their complaint to the count. The count takes Werther aside, ruefully reminds him of the social norms, and asks him to leave. Werther apologizes for his inattention to protocol and makes a humorous remark to cover the awkward moment. He hastens back to his lodging, where a friend tells him that news of Werther being thrown out of the assembly by the count is all over the town.
Werther finds himself ostracized over the previous night’s indiscretion. He encounters Miss B— on a walk, and she berates him for his impertinence that tarnished her reputation. She recounts her aunt’s disapproval and predicts the persecution that those seeking to put him in his place will be meting out, making the point that they will see such punishment as poetic justice for the supercilious attitude he exhibits. Werther wishes one of these detractors would confront him directly so he could vent his fury.
In a state of agitation, Werther thinks of murdering someone or committing suicide. In his letter dated March 24, Werther relates to Wilhelm that he has tendered his resignation without consulting him, since he knows Wilhelm and his family will urge him to stay on the career path they arranged. On April 19, Werther writes that the court accepted his resignation and that he’s relieved his mother didn't intervene on his behalf. Werther adds that as one of the crown princes invited him to stay the spring with him and gave him a stipend, he no longer needs the money he requested his mother to send. Werther tells Wilhelm he will keep him informed of his career plans.
On his way to stay with the prince, Werther stops at the place where he was born. He compares his former hopes and dreams with his current situation and concludes that he has only disappointments and failure to show for his life. Werther joins the prince’s court at his hunting lodge, and in his May 25 letter he reveals to Wilhelm his true motivation: Werther wants the crown prince—a general—to help him get a prestigious appointment in the army. The prince does not approve, however, and convinces Werther to abandon the plan. Werther’s drawings continue to improve. He becomes tired of the prince’s stodgy thinking and grows restless without intellectual stimulation. In his July 18 letter, he tells Wilhelm that he only finds interest in the thought of being near Charlotte again.
Werther, having returned to Walheim, reconnects with the mother whose sons he had sketched the previous year. When he learns that the baby died, he becomes speechless with sorrow and can only interact with one of her children, giving him a gift. Revisiting the places he associates with Charlotte, Werther feels like a ghost returning to find its beautiful home in ruins. He fantasizes about being Charlotte’s husband, convinced he is her true soulmate, angry that Charlotte dares to love another. In his September 4 letter, Werther compares himself to a tree undergoing the change of seasons, its leaves yellowing and dropping. He encounters the young peasant man whose love and devotion for the woman he served was such an inspiration the previous year. The young man tells Werther that he met his ruin after his passion overcame his respect and he forced himself upon her. In the resulting scandal, the young man lost his position and the woman. Werther sympathizes with the man, seeing parallels in his own relationship with Charlotte.
Charlotte writes a love letter to Albert, who is traveling on business. However, the letter misses Albert and comes to be read by Werther. When Werther tells Charlotte he imagined the letter being written to him, she becomes very upset, and Werther realizes that he overstepped his boundaries. He replaces clothing he wore on his first dance with Charlotte with a new coat exactly like it and wonders why he doesn’t like the new coat as much. He visits Charlotte, who innocently demonstrates how a canary she has trained to kiss her will eat from her own mouth, agitating Werther with the provocative display. A few days later, he complains to Wilhelm about the chopping down of walnut trees that he loved. He explains that the old vicar whom he and Charlotte used to visit died and the new vicar’s wife found the trees a nuisance. The generations-spanning trees that once created a beautiful arbor that lifted everyone’s spirits now lie on the ground waiting to be disposed of.
Werther comments to Wilhelm that Albert doesn’t show the degree of happiness that Werther would expect being married to Charlotte. Werther discovers a new literary passion in the epic poem Ossian, a collection of purported mythic tales of conflict, joy, and grief similar to Homer’s Iliad. Werther finds resonances of his own mental states in the supercharged landscapes and tragic events. He fantasizes about himself as a heroic knight mercifully taking up his sword to set his dying soul free from the emptiness of life without Charlotte.
A week later, an experience at Charlotte’s home forces him to face the reality of how people treat death and dying. Surrounded by the mundane artifacts of daily life—pens, papers, clothing, furniture—he overhears Charlotte and her friend discuss various acquaintances in stages of declining health, and Werther wonders if they would miss him if he were to die. Without Charlotte, he feels that he has nothing to live for. Werther longs to touch her, hold her, and embrace her, which he characterizes as a basic human instinct and a wholesome desire, like children touching everything they see. He concludes that no one ever can know what another person feels.
Werther now often goes to sleep at night hoping not to wake up and feels disappointed in the morning when he does. He understands that his malaise has no objective cause. Werther’s depression worsens until everything he formerly enjoyed holds no interest for him. Charlotte notices that he has begun drinking excessively. When she asks him to show moderation for her sake, he takes offense that she doesn’t realize that she constantly occupies his thoughts. Wilhelm advises Werther to take solace in religion, but Werther replies that God has forsaken him.
Werther senses that Charlotte’s attitude toward him has changed. Aware of Werther’s suffering, Charlotte pities him and worries about his health. He fantasizes about kissing her but feels paralyzed with indecision. On a walk, he encounters Henry, a delusional man looking for flowers in the dead of winter in an attempt to return to happier times. Soon, Henry’s mother joins them and explains that Henry, while seemingly calm now, once spent a year chained down in an insane asylum, completely deranged. Werther, shaken by her story, gives her some money to express his sympathy. He envies Henry’s ability to create an alternate reality full of flowers. Werther’s letters to Wilhelm contain prayers to God to give him back some joy in life.
Albert knows the unfortunate Henry as a former secretary to Charlotte’s father; Henry was dismissed when he developed a crush on Charlotte and he subsequently went mad. Werther feels shaken by the parallel with his own situation. A few days later, while visiting with Charlotte and listening to her play piano, Werther fixates on her wedding ring and starts crying. Charlotte immediately begins to play his favorite melody, which has never before failed to cheer him. This time, however, he becomes agitated and tells her to stop. Charlotte takes a long look at him, tells him that he is ill, and asks him to leave and pull himself together. Werther departs the premises in a frenzy of pain. His next letter to Wilhelm two days later describes how Charlotte’s dark eyes fill his vision when his eyes are closed, like a bottomless abyss. He feels that his future seems hopeless.
A new narrator writes an epilogue that weaves together a forensic investigation and Werther’s own notes and letters from December 6 to his death on December 22. Werther’s deepening depression manifests as instability, anxiety, animosity, and paranoia. He pushes through mental exhaustion to continue to visit Charlotte, even though he knows that he disrupts their lives. Werther develops an antipathy toward Albert, who friends testify remains the same man Werther had enjoyed and respected from their first meeting. Werther believes that Albert has lost interest in Charlotte, that he prioritizes his other involvements over his marriage, and that he wants Werther out of their lives.
An incident occurs that brings the tensions to a resolution. Werther learns that the young peasant man who was fired after displaying passion toward his mistress, the man for whom Werther expressed much sympathy in his September 4 letter, killed the servant who had replaced him. When Werther asks the man why he did such a thing, the man confesses that if he couldn’t marry her, no one would. Werther so identifies with the young peasant man that he composes a defense on the spot and vigorously advocates for the man’s acquittal and release. Albert sides with the judge, who rejects the argument as subverting justice and due legal process. Albert asks Charlotte to end her friendship with Werther, but she refuses to do so. Albert no longer talks about Werther with her.
Werther writes Wilhelm that he feels possessed by demons and that he wanders at night. A rapid thaw has flooded the valley, and Werther excitedly considers throwing himself into the river’s raging torrent to end his life. He makes a rational decision that the time is not yet right, however. Three days later, he writes to Wilhelm that for the first time, he fantasizes about making passionate love to Charlotte and decides it would be best if he were gone.
The narrator comments that Werther at this point begins planning to end his life. In a December 20 letter to Wilhelm, Werther accepts Wilhelm’s proposal to come to Walheim and take Werther to his home, but he asks him to delay his arrival for two weeks. Werther ends the letter with an apology to his mother for all the trouble he has caused her and a prayer for God to bless Wilhelm. After writing the letter, Werther visits Charlotte, who tries to limit contact with him to show her solidarity with Albert. He becomes agitated when she makes it clear he is only to visit when invited. Charlotte begs him to find someone else to love so that they can maintain a friendship.
Werther writes his last letter to Charlotte, set to be delivered to her after his death. After Charlotte’s ultimatum the day before, he realized the hopelessness of their relationship and secretly resolves to kill himself. The narrator picks up the thread. Werther wraps up all of his business and, while Albert is out of town, visits Charlotte uninvited. Charlotte fails to send him away, so she asks him to read from Ossian. As they both recognize their own doomed relationship in the tragic tale, they weep, embrace, and share a passionate kiss. Suddenly ashamed, Charlotte locks herself in an adjoining room. The next day, Werther adds to his final letter to Charlotte, asking her for forgiveness. Meanwhile, Charlotte experiences a mix of strong emotions. One night soon after, using a pistol he borrowed from Albert, Werther shoots himself in the head. He dies from his injuries the following day. At 11 that evening, laborers inter Werther’s body in a grave that he had requested, unattended by mourners or any religious ceremony.