The Sorrows of Young Werther BY Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Goethe’s first real success came actually as a novelist and his The Sorrows of Young Werther was every bit The Catcher in the Rye of its day. Both books are still in print, are available in dozens of languages and their influence is undeniable; both created controversies when they were first published and both have been banned; the protagonists in both books are preoccupied with the innocence of children, are mentally unstable and have difficulties fitting in with the establishment; both books challenge traditional Christian values; both books involve suicides; both books have been referenced by other authors (Frankenstein’s monster read Young Werther even); both books have been called “the greatest book of all time”[2] and both have caused people to die – including Frankenstein’s monster.[3]

The book acquired infamy though for a different reason. I mentioned at the start that both The Catcher in the Rye and The Sorrows of Young Werther were responsible for people dying. Let me now explain. Numerous murders have been speculated to be connected to the The Catcher in the Rye, arguably the most well known being Mark David Chapman's shooting of John Lennon but there were others. With Goethe’s novella it was as you might have guessed suicides in fact the term ‘Werther effect’ derives from the book. It was coined in 1974 by the sociologist David Phillips to describe imitative suicidal behaviour transmitted via the mass media. This was the reason The Sorrows of Young Werther was originally banned, but even before that there was talk. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine (Roman Catholics still consider it a mortal sin) and suicides were denied a Christian burial. Goethe’s book proved deeply controversial upon its publication for, on the face of it, it appeared to both condone and glorify suicide. Perhaps this was why it was published anonymously at first. Goethe was born into a Lutheran family – Lutheran’s were far more tolerant of suicide[19] yet they still condemned the novel as immoral. Although still nominally a Christian when he wrote Werther by 1782, he was describing himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian."[20]

Although there is little concrete evidence to back it up, romantic legend has it that The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a rash of suicides across Europe. Young men and women were taking their own lives with copies of Goethe’s novel in their pockets. In a similar fashion a copy of Emilia Galotti was found by Werther’s deathbed.[21] Although love is a central theme Lessing's work comprises an attack against the nobility and its powers which suggests that there might be more to his death than meets the eye.

Suicides numbering as high as 2000 have been quoted following the rise of the cult of Werther although this may be something of an exaggeration. Certainly for a while Jerusalem's grave became a place of pilgrimage for the more devout readers of Werther. The book was unquestionably seen as dangerous by the censors of Leipzig who banned the novel. It received the same treatment in Denmark and Italy. Although Goethe did not consider himself personally responsible for the rumoured suicide outbreak, he did later write:

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.[22]

He also added a poem to the first page of editions after 1778 in which the ghost of Werther warns the reader not to follow his example:
Dearest reader, cry for him, love him,
Save his reputation before he is destroyed;
Look! The eyes of his escaped soul are speaking to you:
"Be a dignified man and do not follow my footsteps."