Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther

When this book was published in 1774, it inspired a mass cult of feelings (and reputedly a few suicides) and made its author one of the first literary celebrities. It is a story of a tormented young man whose fixation on an inaccessible woman culminates in tragedy may be read as a celebration of unfettered emotion or as a mercilessly accurate portrait of a man whose dedication to pure feeling turns him into a monster.–From Goodreads

The Sorrows of Young Werther struck a nerve with a large number of individuals. Werther wrote “…I read a poet from primitive times, and it seems as if I were looking into my own heart. I have to endure so much! Have people before me been so miserable?” (Goethe, 1774/2004, p. 105). After reading Werther’s story, many others seem to have felt the same way.In George Howe Colt’s November of the Soul, the impact of his text is described. Men throughout Europe began dressing like Werther, wearing blue tailcoats and yellow waistcoats, imitating his speech, and some even copying his suicide. Those whose suicides were linked to the book became known as Wertherites, suicidal melancholy termed Wertherism. Sociologist David Phillips dubbed the phenomenon of copycat suicides the “Werther effect.” Emile Durkheim believed that the suicides that took place were not so much as extra suicides as suicides that were sped up. He said that those who killed themselves after reading the book would have done so sooner or later anyway. Regardless, the book was banned in Leipzig and Copenhagen. When an Italian translation was published in Milan, the Catholic clergy bought and destroyed every copy (Colt, 2006).

Goethe himself worried about the impact of his novel, saying “My friends…thought that they must transform poetry into reality, imitate a novel like this in real life and, in any case, shoot themselves; and what occurred at first among a few took place later among the general public…” (Goethe, quoted in Rose, 1929, xxiv). It is questionable whether or not an epidemic of copycat suicides took place. De Ron, a Swedish public health advocate, said, “On case is no case, two is one too many and three cases is an epidemic” (Thorson & Oberg, 2003, p. 71). Thorson and Oberg (2003) said that only using De Ron’s definition did an epidemic take place. Continued research on the “Werther effect” in contemporary media yields mixed results.

Also noticeable in many books, but particularly in this one, is Joiner’s theory of an acquired ability to enact suicide. Werther shoots himself on top of his right eye, the same location in which he previously pretended to shoot himself. Joiner suggested that overcoming the instinct for self-preservation is difficult, but that people can become “fearless, pain-tolerant, and knowledgeable about dangerous behaviors” through “an array of provocative experiences” (Joiner, 2005, p. 47). Many people have feelings of wanting to die, but comparatively few follow through with their desire. People who actually kill themselves typically have a certain degree of practice beforehand. Werther previously put a gun to his head and repeatedly defended the act of suicide, preparing himself for the physical and moral doubts that might have prevented the act had he not previously confronted them.

Quotable Quotes from The Sorrows of Young Werther

“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.”

“No one is willing to believe that adults too, like children, wander about this earth in a daze and, like children, do not know where they come from or where they are going, act as rarely as they do according to genuine motives, and are as thoroughly governed as they are by biscuits and cake and the rod.”

“The affairs of the world are no more than so much trickery, and a man who toils for money or honour or whatever else in deference to the wishes of others, rather than because his own desire or needs lead him to do so, will always be a fool.”

One Response to "Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther"

  • “The Sorrows of Young Mike” recently published as a parody of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe. I loved the aspects that were touched on in the updated version. John Zelazny, the writer of the parody, is in no way hiding from the original and makes this very clear. It is a marvelously done parody and takes on similar themes of class, religion and suicide. I love the way both books reflect on each other and think everyone interested in Werther should check out “The Sorrows of Young Mike.”

    1 Jonathan Ashleigh said this (April 8, 2015 at 8:40 PM)