Friday, May 9, 2008

Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther

I won't write out a whole summary of this text, but a couple notes of interest about Goethe's epistolary novel:

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.

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