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The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Related: German literature - German romanticism - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Romanticism - sensibility - sentimentalism - suicide

The Sorrows of Young Werther led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. Supposedly over 2,000 readers committed suicide after reading this book at the time. [May 2006]

The nature of copycat suicides suggests that it is a phenomenon that must have been with us since the development of civilization. One of the earliest known associations between the media and suicide arose from Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774. In that work the hero shoots himself after an ill-fated love, and shortly after its publication there were many reports of young men using the same method to commit suicide. This resulted in a ban of the book in several places. Hence the term "Werther effect", used in the technical literature to designate copycat suicides. [May 2006]


The Sorrows of Young Werther (German, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) is a loosely autobiographical novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, first published in 1774. A climactic scene prominently features Goethe's own German translation of a portion of James Macpherson's Ossian cycle of poems which had originally been presented as translations of ancient works, but then had been found to have been written by Macpherson.

It was Goethe's first major success, turning him from an unknown into a celebrated author practically overnight. Young men throughout Europe began to dress in the clothing described for Werther in the novel. It also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide.

The majority of the novel is presented as a collection of letters written by Werther, a young artist with a very sensitive and passionate temperament. In these letters, Werther gives a very intimate account of his stay in the fictive village Wahlheim (based on the town of Garbenheim, near Wetzlar), where he meets and falls 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. Despite the pain this causes Werther, he spends the next several months cultivating a close friendship with both of them. Every day serves as a torturing reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love, and after several failed attempts to break off his ties with her, Werther sees no other choice but to take his own life.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is mentioned in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Frankenstein's monster finds the book along with three others (Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Volney's The Ruins: Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and Milton's Paradise Lost) in a sack. He sees Werther's case as similar to his own. He, like Werther, was rejected by those he loved. This realization depressed the monster and, eventually, persuaded him to commit suicide. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorrows_of_Young_Werther [Sept 2005]

See also: Germany - literature - 1770s - romanticism

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