Edgar Wibeau's father left Edgar when he was five. After Edgar's death at the age of 17, his father wants to know who Edgar was and therefore starts interviewing people who knew Edgar.
Edgar grew up at his mother's during the DDR-era. He was a very good pupil and son. After an argument with his apprenticeship supervisor Flemming, he starts doing whatever he feels like and leaves his hometown of Mittenberg together with his friend Willi and an moves to Berlin.
Willi soon returns to Mittenberg; Edgar, however, stays. He lives in an abandoned alcove next to a Kindergarten. A 20 year old girl named Charlie (Charlotte) works there and Edgar falls in love. Charlie and her fiancé, Dieter, make Edgar think a lot, they absorb the workings of his mind. Charlie never knows what Edgar wants. Edgar's sole person to speak about his sorrows is Willi, to whom Edgar sends music tapes with quotations from Goethe's classic, that match his own situations.
Once haphazardly found, the book about Werther (often called "Old Werther" by Edgar) becomes his verbal weapon to solve inconvenient situations. The young rebel isn't successful as an artist and thinks that he's underestimated by the people a bit.
He starts working as a house painter. His co-workers Addi and Zaremba dream of a revolutionary invention, a nebula-free paint duster, but fail putting their plan into practice. Edgar secretly tries to build the machine by himself at his alcove. As soon as he tries out his prototype for the first time, he gets killed by the voltage. Whether this death was intentional or not is left for the reader to decide.
Originally, Plenzdorf wanted the protagonist to kill himself, but suicide wasn't a tolerated theme in the GDR.
In the beginning of the plot Edgar is already dead. The story begins shortly after the publishing of the death notices, when the father visits the mother's flat, where she Edgar raised without a husband. The father tries to find out more about Edgar, to "get to know" him. He talks to Willi, Charlie, Addi. Although Edgar is already dead, he makes long monologues on the things his friends mention - but only the reader can hear him. Edgar illustrates his inner feelings by quoting Goethe on music tapes to Willi.
Edgar Wibeau: Edgar is the main character. He calls himself an underestimated genius, a 17-year-old descended from the Huguenots who runs away after injuring his apprenticeship taskmaster. Actually Edgar is already dead, but he still talks about everything and everyone like when he lived. He's a wannabe artist who becomes a house painter after being refused by the school of arts. He was a honest child (didn't participate in tricks) and a good pupil, because his mother raised him like that after his father left the family when Edgar was 6. He becomes a typical rebel that doesn’t acquiesce anything and doesn’t accept advice from other people. He’s in love with Charlie, but doesn’t suffer a lot of sorrows because of her - he has no chance to gain her and he knows it. Despite his seemingly good and intellectual mind, it is obvious that Edgar is still a bit childish and has a lack of experience.
Charlie: Charlie never knows what she should think about Edgar. She fails in recognizing his character. She likes Edgar, but not his lifestyle. She’s a "strong" woman, who cannot easily be abused or be played by others (even her fiancé Dieter couldn't). Sometimes the reader thinks that Charlie wanted to two-time Dieter with Edgar, but she only kisses Edgar. She’s attractive looking, intelligent and friendly, but also ignorant, argumentative, arrogant. She’s an ambivalent figure.
Dieter: Dieter is a boring middle-class guy. He’s arrogant and egocentric, but maybe an adorable buddy. He lives with distinctive rules and guidelines that he needs to structure his life. His "charm" impresses, and it works to keep Charlie. Edgar and Dieter would probably manage to get along with each other - if there wasn’t a girl like Charlie between them.
Father: Edgar‘s father isn’t very young anymore. He is rather rich, lives in a penthouse together with his young girlfriend. He left his wife and son and doesn’t again care about his son until he is dead. But he doesn’t seem to regret it.
Mother: Mother Wibeau didn’t care about Edgar very much, but demanded a lot from him - he had to be honest, become a model student. She probably was sick about Edgar’s escape from Mittenberg. Although she loves Edgar and supports him as much as possible, after Edgar runs away, she seemingly doesn't care about him - but wants Willi to tell her about Edgar’s whereabouts.
Adolf (Addi): The chief of the group of the house painters. Pretty choleric, but a good man. Edgar describes him as a „Steher“ (stander, standing man, a man who stands upright). Probably „Steher“ is Edgars most powerful word of accolade. Although Addi and Edgar have a lot of arguments, they get along with each other. After Edgar gets kicked out of the group, it gnaws at Adolf’s conscience that still persists after Edgar’s death.
Zaremba: Edgar admires Zaremba, particularly because of him being – despite his age – fit and active. The house painter is very diplomatic and often solves arguments by singing communist songs loudly.
Willi: Willi is Edgar‘s old youth friend, the only person he has still contact to. The „betrayal“ with Edgar‘s mother is comprehensible. The reader doesn’t learn much about Willi. They communicate via the Werther-tapes