Read at your own risk.
When wielded correctly, literature is a powerful weapon. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s masterpiece, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the horrors of Chicago’s meatpacking district and led to the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. And in the late 18th century, a German novel about unrequited love caused an upswing in suicides across continental Europe.
“The Sorrows of Young Werther”
Published in 1774, “The Sorrows of Young Werther” or “Die Leiden des jungen Werther” is considered the world’s first psychological novel. The bestseller, penned by a 25-year-old German named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is a semi-autobiographical account of a failed romance.
The novel is framed as a collection of letters written by a man named Werther to his friend Wilhelm. While staying in a fictional German village, Werther falls in love with a young woman named Charlotte, who is betrothed to Albert, a man 11 years her senior. Werther befriends the couple, but unrequited love makes him miserable and he soon flees to Weimar.
Upon his return, he discovers Charlotte and Albert have married. On Christmas Eve, overwhelmed and desperate, Werther borrows two pistols from Albert and shoots himself. Much like his romantic life, the suicide attempt ends badly and Werther takes over 12 hours to die.
The sorrows of young Goethe
A writer, scholar, visual artist, amateur scientist and statesman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a man of many talents. “Young Werther” is not his most celebrated effort — that distinction belongs to the play “Faust,” a tragedy in two parts — but it is the work that launched his career as a literary celebrity.
Goethe penned his debut novel in a six-week stretch of writing following a bad breakup; a few years earlier, Goethe had met and fallen in love with a woman named Charlotte Buff. She rejected his advances and instead married an art collector and diplomat. In 1722, Karl Jerusalem — a philosopher and acquaintance of Goethe’s — shot himself with a pistol borrowed from the fiancé of a woman who did not love him back. Goethe combined these two separate incidents to form the foundation for “Young Werther’s” storyline.
“Young Werther’s” themes of romantic disillusionment and subsequent tragedy attracted a bevy of admirers, with fans including literary heroes like Franz Kafka, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jane Austen and Thomas Mann. References to the story became popular in English literature — in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein,” the monster learns to read using Goethe’s famed text. In 1798, Napoleon took “Young Werther” with him on his expedition to invade Egypt; in 1808, he told Goethe that he read the book seven times.
In true capitalist fashion, retailers seized on the popularity of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and made a mint selling everything from Werther china to Werther-inspired perfume. The book even influenced sartorial decisions of the day: In the novel’s climactic scene, Werther dresses in a blue coat, with a yellow waistcoat and trousers. This outfit became very popular amongst young men of a certain age and the entire court of Weimar donned the costume to greet Goethe when he visited in 1775.
In his autobiography, Goethe states that writing the novel helped quell his youthful thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately for his admirers, reading the book did not have the same effect. After “Young Werther” debuted, several European newspapers published articles detailing suicides supposedly inspired by Werther’s own “liebestod,” or “love-death.” These copycat self-murders prompted officials at the University of Leipzig to ban the book in the name of public safety. Italy and Denmark also prohibited sales; the Catholic Bishop of Milan was so panicked by the rash of suicides that he personally hunted down and purchased every available copy in the city.
In fact, sociologists believe suicide is culturally contagious; in 1974, sociologist David P. Phillips of the University of California at San Diego coined a name for the phenomenon: the Werther Effect.
Still, some say the number of suicides caused by Goethe’s book is exaggerated. Frank Furedi, an emeritus professor of sociology from the University of Kent, argues, “While there might have been one or two genuine Werther-influenced — not caused — suicides, most of the accounts were based on hearsay of secondhand stories.”
“The Sorrows of Young Werther” propelled Goethe into the literary elite, but the author soon came to resent the book and felt personally responsible for the trouble it caused. He said, “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…”
Consider this a cautionary tale: Not all books provide a blueprint for how to live life. Some are just meant for reading.