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[Opinion] The Werther Effect

Posted February. 12, 2007 07:41,   


It is hard to find a greater novel than “The Sorrow of Young Werther” that talks about the agony of not being loved by someone as much as one loves. Goethe emerged as a star in the literary world at the young age of 25 thanks to this novel based on one of his friend’s and his disappointments in love. However, the suicide of the novel’s main character, Werther, after anguishing over his unachievable love, led to numerous copycat suicides. Some parts of Europe stopped publishing the novel as a consequence.

Werther in the novel chose to take his own life, but Goethe himself lived a long life. He died at 83. Goethe led a life full of energy and passion, tirelessly exploring life, the universe, politics, and women. Even excluding two marriages, he vigorously did literary work, dating many women at the same time. Germany’s leading pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer abhorred life and women all his life and almost fled to Frankfurt am Main in horror of cholera until he died at 72 years old. Living a life until the age of 72 was relatively rare by the standards of that time.

The “Werther effect” refers to the phenomenon in which copycat suicides increase after a celebrity commits suicide. This happened in Korea when actress Lee Eun-joo committed suicide back in February 2005. According to police statistics, in February 2005 a total of 738 people committed suicide, but in March after Lee’s suicide was given prominent coverage, the number of people who took their own lives soared to 1,313, a 1.78 times more than the previous month.

The “Werther effect” has again gained public attention following suicides by the singer Yooni and actress Chung Da-bin. Copycat suicides might not be just groundless fears as people experience confusion of values and have a strong mimetic desire.

Some say suicide is a social murder. This means a society with many suicides is not a healthy one. Korea, whose suicide rate is the highest among OECD members, seems to fall into this category. Last week, a judge ordered a defendant to shout the word “suicide (jasal in Korean) ” 10 times. The judge did so to let the defendant know the word “jasal” sounds like “salja (let’s live)” in Korean backwards. The American philosopher Emerson said, “Imitation is suicide,” but it is sad that people imitate suicide. We shouldn’t say that people in their 20s have lived enough.

Editorial Writer Chung Seong-hee, shchung@donga.com