The book made Goethe one of the first true international literary celebrities. Toward the end of his life, a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any young man's tour of Europe.
The majority of The Sorrows of Young Werther is presented as a collection of letters written by Werther, a young artist of highly sensitive and passionate temperament, and sent to his friend Wilhelm.
In these letters, Werther gives a very intimate account of his stay in the fictional village of Wahlheim (based on the town of Garbenheim, near Wetzlar). He is enchanted by the simple ways of the peasants there. He meets and falls instantly in love with Lotte, a beautiful young girl who is taking care of her siblings following the death of their mother. Lotte is, however, already engaged to a man named Albert, who is in fact 11 years her senior.
Despite the pain this causes Werther, he spends the next few months cultivating a close friendship with both of them. His pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend on the day when the entire aristocratic set normally meets there. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther's recitation of a portion of ''Ossian."
Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them—Lotte, Albert, or Werther himself—had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else or seriously consider committing murder, Werther sees no other choice but to take his own life. After composing a farewell letter (to be found after he commits suicide), he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretense that he is going "on a journey." Lotte receives the request with great emotion and sends the pistols. Werther then shoots himself in the head, but doesn't expire until 12 hours after he has shot himself. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral was not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.
The parallels between this incident and the novel are evident. Charlotte Buff, like her counterpart in the novel, was the daughter of a widowed official and had many siblings. Goethe, like Werther, often found it difficult to complete work. Both Goethe and Werther celebrated their birthdays on August 28 and both left Charlotte on September 10. However, the novel also depicts a number of events that have close parallels to the life of Goethe's friend Jerusalem who, like Werther, committed suicide. Goethe was told that the motive for the deed was unrequited love for another man's wife. Jerusalem had also gone on long moonlight walks that reflected his sad mood and had also borrowed pistols to carry out his suicide.
Goethe distanced himself from The Sorrows of Young Werther in his later years. He regretted his fame and making his youthful love of Charlotte Buff public knowledge. He wrote Werther at the age of twenty-four and yet, most of his visitors in his old age had read only this book of his and knew him mainly only from this work, despite his many others.
Goethe described his distaste for the book, writing that even if Werther had been a brother he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by the vengeful ghost. Nevertheless, Goethe acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther could exert on those forlorn young lovers who discovered it. In 1821, he commented to his secretary, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."
The "Werther Fever" was watched with concern by the authorities and fellow authors. One of the latter, Friedrich Nicolai, decided to create a satiric—and happier—ending called Die Freuden des jungen Werthers ("The Joys of Young Werther"), in which Albert, having realized what Werther is up to, had loaded chicken blood into the pistol, thereby foiling Werther's suicide, and happily concedes Lotte to him. And after some initial difficulties, Werther sheds his passionate youthful side and reintegrates himself into society as a respectable citizen.
Goethe, however, was not pleased with this version and started a literary war with Nicolai (which lasted all his life) by writing a poem titled "Nicolai auf Werthers Grabe" in which Nicolai spits on Werther's grave, thus desecrating the memory of Werther from which Goethe had distanced himself in the meantime (as he had from the Sturm und Drang). This was continued in his collection of short and critical poems, the Xenies, and his play Faust.
A major scene in the novel prominently features Goethe's own German translation of a portion of James Macpherson's Ossian cycle of poems, which were originally presented as translations of ancient works, and were later found to have been written by Macpherson.