The Origin of the Werther Effect

Media coverage of suicide is now well known to have a significant influence on suicide epidemiology. This influence is supposed to result from two opposite effects, the Werther and the Papageno effect (to know more about Papageno, click here).

The “Werther effect” refers to the increase of suicide rates following the publication of a suicide story, just as it happened after the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther (original title Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in 1774. The publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther had several effects: at the individual level, it turned 24-years old Goethe into a celebrated author. From a socio-cultural standpoint, it started the phenomenon known as the “Werther Fever”. The Werther Fever encompassed harmless behaviors, such as having young European men adopting Werther’s clothing style, as well as life-threatening ones, leading to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an autobiographic novel, and is considered the most important manifesto of the Sturm und Drang, a literary movement developed in Germany between 1770 and 1785, which preannouced and influenced the later Romantic movement. The Sturm und Drang movement included eminent authors such as Schiller and Klinger, and had as main topic the exaltation of the primordial and authentic human being spirit, ruled by the restless search for an absolute freedom, and intolerant to any constriction. These characteristics were developed by the young German writers in contrast to the French Neoclassicism and its rules, which were considered retrictive and mortifying for the Artist.

In the context of this cultural movement, Goethe developed the theme of the human incapacity to control passions and of the consequent social discomfort, bringing to life one of the most famous characters of world literature: Young Werther.

The plot is well known: the novel, throughout the letters collected by his friend Wilhelm and the fake Editor’s notes, narrates about Werther, a young artist of passionate and sensitive temperament. He moves to the fictional village of Walheim in order to arrange some business and dedicate himself to Classical studies. One night, during a party, he is introduced to a young beautiful woman, Charlotte, who is engaged to Albert, eleven year her senior. Despite knowing about Charlotte’s condition, Werther falls in love with her, cultivating a close and suffering friendship. His sorrow eventually becomes so unbearable that he is forced to leave Walheim for Weimar at an embassy. But for such a spontaneous and passionate personality, as Werther’s, it is impossible to fit the sterile and cold environment typical of the high society classes, therefore he decides to go back home. However, also there the young man can’t find peace: he is assaulted by nostalgia and memories of Walheim. The sudden news of Albert and Charlotte’s marriage further destabilizes him. Disheartened and growing more and more sullen everyday, Werther decides to return to Walheim, but this time his passion for the young woman is no longer concealed and becomes so clear that Charlotte herself, despite her attachement, asks him to be less demanding. One night, while Albert is absent, Werther impulsively kisses Charlotte, misunderstanding her feelings.  She, out of pity for her friend, and respecting her husband, decides that Werther must not visit her so frequently. This event is devastating for him, so after composing a farewell letter to be found after his death, he writes to Albert asking for his two guns, on the pretext that he is going “on a journey”. Werther then shoots himself in the head, but does not die until twelve hours later.

The disruptive effect of this work in late 17th century literature is due to its main character tragic end. This novel outlined a new character: the sensitive and passionate Hero. A man governed by instincts, who prefers indulging to his emotions rather than repressing them, a man who, because of this, experiences difficulties in his attempt of fitting into society. Werther loves nature, admires childhood spontaneity, and lazing into an ideal, unattainable and impossible love. In the novel, Werther’s character is counterposed to his alter-ego Albert: the bourgeois man, strong, rational, positive, but limited.

This two characters compare themselves one to the other also debating about suicide. In Albert’s opinion suicide is a sign of weakness and insanity; on the other hand, the Hero of Passions thinks that suicide discloses the absolute catharsis, a demonstration of the heroic courage proper of great men. Suicide is described by Werther as a proof of the strength of human being, who, oppressed by life unhappiness, is eventually able to perform a last titanic action, just like people rising up against a tyrant; like the man who succeeds in saving his belongings from his burning house; or like the warrior who is left alone on the battle field, but still fights against many enemies.

It seems like the sensitive Werther is trying to get the chance to demonstrate his belonging to this heroic slice of humanity. He was informed about Charlotte’s engagement even before knowing her, but still conscious of the impossibility of their love, chooses to indulge in his passion. The whole novel describes Werther’s descent into the abyss of depression, fostered by a feeling he can not avoid. Goethe tells his readers the already written destiny of his Hero, who has no other chance but the definitive escape from inevitable pain of his sensitive soul.

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Thanks to Matteo Savin

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