[FOUNTAIN]Dark tragedy becomes cue for popularity“All is so quiet around me and so calm my soul. I thank you, God, for giving me this warmth, this energy in these final moments...I wish to be buried, Lotte, in these clothes, you have touched them, consecrated them...Lotte! Lotte! Farewell! Farewell!”
Leaving a farewell letter to Lotte, young Werther shot himself. “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is based on a true story. As a young man, Goethe met Charlotte at a dance party and fell in love with her. However, she was already engaged, and he had to give up on her. The suicide of Werther was inspired by Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, who also met Charlotte at the same party. He had also admired Charlotte and killed himself with a gun borrowed from Charlotte’s husband.
At age 25, young Goethe wrote the masterpiece in four weeks in sympathy for the man who had loved and been rejected by the same woman. The novel heads a German literature genre known as “strum und drang,” or “storm and stress.” As soon as the novel was published, all of Europe was taken by the tragic yet romantic story. Young Europeans fell into the so-called Werther syndrome. The brown boots, blue coat and yellow vest, which Werther had fashioned in the novel, sold briskly. Young men dressed like Werther and shot themselves with a gun. Sociologists called the phenomenon the “Werther Effect.”
The Werther Effect could sway the period because Europe was going through social changes. From a literary point of view, “strum und drang” romanticises emotion and intuition and criticizes the classicism of reason and logic. Young Werther was a free-spirited, uninhibited genius overwhelmed by his own emotions and deriding the logical decision. A suicide was praised as a virtue because it was an extreme form of expressing emotion. Socially and politically, “storm and stress” reflected the sense of alienation of the new citizen class rising against the existing aristocratic system. Werther, who was expelled from the aristocrats’ table, loathed the ruling class order.
The Supreme Prosecutors Office cited the Werther Effect to explain the two-fold increase in the number of suicides after popular actress Lee Eun-ju killed herself last month. Especially, youth suicide increased. Goethe tried to adapt to the existing order in his later years by serving as a chief minister of state at Weimar. When the “storm and stress” of his youth was combined with the experience and wisdom of the later years, Goethe could write the ultimate masterpiece, “Faust.”
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.