The action takes place in Wetzlar, Germany, in 1772.
The Bailiff sits in his garden, teaching his children Christmas carols. Johann and Schmidt enter and tease him about singing such songs in July. Werther arrives to take the Bailiff's eldest daighter, Charlotte, to a party. He falls in love with her at first sight. After the two have left for the ball, ALbert, her fiancé, returns from a trip and is dissapointed that Charlotte is out. Werther and Charlotte come back; Werther tells her he wishes he could stay with her always. After the Bailiff announces ALbert's return, Charlotte reveals to Werther her promise to her dying mother that she'd marry Albert. Werther despairs.
In the town square three months after the marriage of Charlotte and Albert, Werther sees the couple walking toward the church and reflects on the love he has lost. Albert greets Werther affectionately and tells him he understand his feelings for Charlotte. When Charlotte comes out of the church, Werther reminds her of his love. Charlotte coldly responds that she is now married and asks him to avoid her until Christmas Eve. As Werther runs off, Albert can see that the young man is still in love with his wife.
On Christmas Eve, Charlotte sits alone reading Werther's letters, realizing sorrowfully how much she cares for him.
Werther enters, trembling, and tells her he would rather die than be away from her another hour. He reads her a despairing poem that makes her cry and concludes that her response means she loves him. He throws himself at her feet, pleading, and takes her in his arms. Charlotte flees. Werther leaves, declaring he will end his life. Albert enters; he knows Werther has been there. A note comes from Werther, asking if Albert will loan him his pistols. Charlotte is terried, but Albert coldly tells her to give the pistols to the messenger. Charlotte does, then runs through the snow to Werther's house. Charlotte finds Werther lying by his desk with a bullet in his head. She tells him she has always loved him. He asks her to bury him beneath the linden trees near the church.
As Werther breathes his last, the children outside sing Christmas carols.