Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther is reported to have inspired an epidemic of imitative suicides. It is likely that many of the victims also imitated the incompetence of Werther's self-slaughter - an act worthier of the Three Stooges than of a latter-day Hamlet. The clock strikes twelve and with the forlorn cry 'Lotte! Lotte! Farewell! Farewell!' Goethe's romantic hero shoots himself in the head. Six hours later a servant comes in to find his master in a pool of blood, but still breathing. It is not until noon that Werther dies. His mistake was to shoot himself with a low-velocity pistol 'above the right eye'. The ball's impact was absorbed by the boniest part of the skull, an area which human evolution has specifically fortified against missile attack. Had Werther devoted his last hours to reading anatomy rather than Lessing's Emilia Galotti, he would have known to shoot himself through the right eye, or up through his open mouth. Literature might have been poorer by an operatic gesture but a lot of young men would have been spared needless agony. An equally famous suicide in literature is similarly botched. Emma Bovary steals arsenic from the pharmacist's locked cupboard with the vague sense that as a rat poison it must be fast and certain. The result is a day-long agony during which she vomits blood and screams curses at the poison she has injudiciously taken. Emma would have done better with a pint of laudanum - as easily come by in a 19th-century chemist shop as milk.
LRB 13 February 1992 | PDF Download