In a village outside Frankfurt on a July evening towards the end of the eighteenth century, a local magistrate and widower is teaching his children a carol in good time for Christmas. His friends Johann and Schmidt congratulate them and greet Sophie, the second daughter, who with her elder sister Charlotte is preparing for the evening’s ball. The little party disperses and a young stranger enters, Werther, a poet; pleased with the rural scene, he is enchanted by the sight of Charlotte looking after the large family to whom she acts as a young mother. Albert, her fiancé, now returns and with Sophie discusses his forthcoming wedding. Meanwhile Charlotte and Werther have developed a relationship that, sympathetic on her part, clearly amounts to love on his. It comes as a shock to him to learn that she is to be married to another.
On a Sunday three months later, when Charlotte and Albert are in a church and only the Bailli’s jovial friends are not, Werther returns to the village. He is now obsessed by his love and by the hopelessness of his position. Albert, observing his unhappy appearance, does his best to console him with the suggestion that he might marry Sophie, who is a cheerful as he is melancholy. When Werther and Charlotte meet, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear to her: she asks him not to try to see her again, at least until Christmas. The distraught manner of his departure makes it plain to Albert that Werther is still in love.
During his absence Werther has written frequently to Charlotte, who now, on the fateful Christmas Eve re-reads his letters. She knows now that she loves him too and though Sohpie tries to cheer her, she is full of foreboding. Werther arrives, takes in the once familiar scene, and recites a verse by the poet Ossian. The emotion overwhelms the both, but she regains her self-control and again dismisses him. Coming back home, Albert surmises what has happened, and when a message arrives from Werther requesting the loan of a pair of pistols he grimly obliges; but Charlotte hurries away in terror.
As she feared, Werther has shot himself and is dying when she arrives in his room. She confesses her love and kisses him for the first time. While Werther tells of his wish for a burial-ground nearby, the voices of children are heard outside the joys of Christmas.