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Is This German Novel the Deadliest Book in History?

In 1774, 25-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther). He called his experience of writing the story of romantic heartbreak therapeutic, as he struggled with thoughts of suicide.

Inspired in part by the young Goethe’s sorrow over losing Charlotte Buff, an acquaintance who spurned him in favor 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 book was a best seller, sometimes referred to as the beginning of the Romantic movement. Over the next few decades it spawned merchandising opportunities, as young adult readers wanted to identify with Werther and his heartbreak. Sadly, that included some who took it far enough to commit suicide. But it's hard to know how many were triggered by the novel, how many would have taken their own lives anyway, or ultimately how many of these suicides there actually were. Goethe himself lived to the age of 82. Read about The Sorrows of Young Werther at Ozy. 


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