Werther is a young, educated, middle-class gentleman setting out to earn a living and make his mark on the world. His family expects him to get a job, and his friend, Wilhelm, networks with his contacts to find opportunities in government service. Werther nurtures a desire to be an artist, a pastime that doesn't pay the bills but suits his keen powers of observation and imagination. Werther leaves home in the spring of 1771 and writes letters to Wilhelm over a twenty-month period as he travels.
As Werther intersects with the world, he paints a picture of the monotony of daily existence relieved by the lofty beauty of the natural world. In nature’s vistas, he finds relief from his own introspective, melancholy thoughts. At an estate his family manages, Werther befriends the local townspeople and feels especially drawn to children. The people there lead simple lives, however, and he misses the intellectual stimulation he enjoys from the educated classes.
After Werther relocates to Walheim, he meets Charlotte, the beautiful daughter of a local district judge. Charlotte’s mother has recently died, leaving behind nine children. On her deathbed, the mother entrusted the children to Charlotte’s care and gave her blessing to Charlotte’s engagement to Albert, a successful businessman. Albert is traveling on business when Werther and Charlotte dance the night away at a ball. Werther finds a kindred spirit in Charlotte and falls madly in love with her. He visits daily and develops a close relationship with Charlotte’s siblings, who enjoy his roughhousing and storytelling. Charlotte doesn’t reconsider her commitment to marrying Albert, and Werther respects the boundaries of their friendship. However, due to Werther’s frustrated longing for a closer relationship and a recognition that he has no future with her, his infatuation with Charlotte slowly becomes an obsession. When Werther begins having suicidal thoughts, he realizes he must break from the vicious cycle.
In the fall, Werther relocates from the country to the court when he takes a position as an attaché to an ambassador. Werther invests himself in his work, but he finds himself at odds with court culture. The emphasis on class rank among the people who surround the count disgusts Werther, who judges the worth of people, whether peasant or noble, based on their accomplishments. Soon, Werther’s promising start in government service begins to unravel. His dismissive criticism of petty social climbing blows back on him. When Werther fails to observe strict class protocols at the count’s home, the resulting ostracism among his friends and associates causes him to resign his commission. A nobleman sponsors Werther with a stipend to stay awhile with him while he considers his future. He counsels Werther against joining the army, and Werther abandons that career path and passes his time improving his drawing skills.
Werther’s melancholic thoughts turn once again to Charlotte, whom he still loves despite the news he received in February of 1772 that Charlotte and Albert married. He returns to Walheim hoping to recapture some of the optimism and energy he felt there. Instead, life’s difficulties press in on him. A child whom he once drew and cared about has died. The beautiful old walnut trees in the square have been cut down. Werther often visits Charlotte, but their platonic relationship drives him increasingly into a suicidal depression.
Werther’s behavior becomes increasingly unstable. When he mounts a manic defense of a confessed murderer, Albert wants no more to do with him. Albert’s request that Charlotte terminate all contact with Werther forces her to confront her complex feelings for Werther. On December 20, she tells Werther that he may only visit when invited, trying to set boundaries that would allow the friendship she values so much to continue while still showing solidarity with Albert. She invites Werther to join their family’s Christmas Eve celebration, and she assumes he will abide by her wishes. Charlotte tells Albert she has the situation under control, and he leaves on an overnight business trip the next morning.
Werther, however, has already planned to take his life, and he disregards Charlotte’s instructions, arriving unannounced the next evening during Albert’s absence. Charlotte hastily tries to summon friends to join them, but in the meantime, she suggests that he read to her from his translation of Ossian, an epic poem that describes a hero’s death. Charlotte understands that Werther intends to end his life. The tragic events depicted in the poetry create an emotionally charged picture of their doomed love affair, and they exchange a passionate kiss for the first time. Overcome with grief for Werther and horror at her betrayal of Albert, Charlotte locks herself in an adjoining room until Werther leaves.
Werther’s joy at realizing Charlotte does love him only confirms his plan to end his life rather than live without her. He embraces death as a sacrifice for their marriage. Werther calmly wraps up his affairs and writes letters to Wilhelm and Charlotte, and the next day he shoots himself with a pistol he borrowed from Albert. He survives the head wound for twelve hours before succumbing to the brain injury from the bullet entering his skull. Local field hands inter his body in a grave that Werther had specified, unattended by any mourners or clergy.