From the moment it was published in 1774, the German novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werther) was a literary sensation, catapulting its author, a young lawyer named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to fame at the age of 25. The semi-autobiographical book, about a romantic protagonist who shoots himself over unrequited love, has been called the first modern best-seller and the first psychological novel, and it has influenced writers from Franz Kafka to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Thomas Mann. It’s also the basis for the recent production of Werther at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In his autobiography, Goethe claims that writing the novel had a therapeutic effect on his own thoughts of suicide as a young man. But if the story helped exorcise the author’s personal demons, he could never have predicted those it would ignite in many of his readers, sparking a second and more lethal, literary sensation.

Inspired in part by the young Goethe’s sorrow over losing Charlotte Buff, an acquaintance who spurned him in favour of another man, Young Werther, written almost entirely in letters, traces the tragic infatuation the protagonist forms for his own unattainable woman, also known as Charlotte (love needs no pseudonym!). After months of agony, the story, and Werther end when the brokenhearted lover pulls the trigger at midnight on Christmas Eve, proclaiming, “Charlotte, Charlotte! Farewell, farewell!” before committing what Germans sometimes call Liebestod (love-death)

The novel struck a chord with readers and exploded in popularity across Europe, and later America, calling forth what Thomas Carlyle labelled a “boundless delirium of extravagance” in the introduction to the 1827 English version. Young Wertherspawned a cottage industry of merchandise from engravings to painted china, even an “Eau de Werther” perfume. Napoleon himself was said to have read the book seven times. “I think the novel was so popular,” says Frank Furedi, a sociologist and the author of Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, “because it related so well to an emerging sensibility of estrangement and alienation from mainstream society — particularly among the younger generations.”

So powerful was the theme of thwarted love that heartsick young men took to wearing blue coats with yellow trousers and waistcoats in honour of their beloved protagonist. (Werther wears a blue coat the night he meets Charlotte and dies in full “dress costume.”) But imitation didn’t stop at Werther’s clothing: A rash of copycat suicides by the novel’s enthusiasts was soon reported in several European newspapers — with some distraught readers allegedly shooting themselves, while others jumped from buildings or into rivers.


Goethe 1774

First edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther.


Critics claimed the sympathetic Werther legitimized, even valorized, suicide. The year after the book’s publication, the theology faculty at the University of Leipzig successfully petitioned officials to ban it — and the Werther costume — on grounds of public safety. The novel was also banned in Italy and Denmark, the Catholic Bishop of Milan going so far as to buy up every available copy in his city. Later in his life, Goethe lamented the unfortunate effect his story had on those who “thought that they must transform poetry into reality,” and the French woman of letters, Madame de Staël, reportedly claimed Werther “had caused more suicides than the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Most media accounts of the copycat suicides, however, had been based on rumor and tended to repeat certain contrived elements, such as victims clutching their copy of the book close to their hearts as they took their own lives. “While there might have been one or two genuine Werther-influenced — not caused — suicides,” says Furedi, “most of the accounts were based on hearsay of secondhand stories. From a sociological standpoint, this is a clear illustration of an urban legend.”

Exaggerated or not in the case of Young Werther, the phenomenon of copycat suicides is unfortunately very real. In 1974, a University of California San Diego sociologist named David Phillips found that suicides in Britain and the U.S. between 1947 and 1968 increased after a suicide story ran in local newspapers, a contagion he termed “the Werther effect,” after Goethe’s novel. Subsequent research has confirmed that well-publicized cases of apparent suicide are significantly linked to subsequent suicides, with the prevalence of such copycat suicides being four times higher in young adults than other age groups. Some speculate, for example, that Marilyn Monroe’s apparent overdose in 1962 temporarily raised suicide rates by as much as 12 percent.

As with so many literary-induced harms, real or imagined, the actions of Werther enthusiasts largely ignored the full message of their beloved text. Goethe’s account of Werther’s suicide is anything but an endorsement — rather it is an almost clinical description of a half-botched attempt. A servant finds the young man six hours later in a pool of blood with a bullet hole in his forehead, with his life “not yet quite extinct.” Werther continues to breathe for six more long hours, and his death and ultimate conveyance to his grave are wholly unromantic. “The body was carried by labourers,” the novel concludes. “No priest attended.”



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