Veronika Decides To Die Summary

Paulo Coelho

Veronika Decides To Die

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Veronika Decides To Die Summary

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Veronika Decides to Die is a 1998 novel by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho. It follows the story of a 24-year-old woman’s attempted suicide and stay at a mental hospital.

The novel takes place in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a few years after the break up of Yugoslavia. Veronika is a young librarian with a good life that she nonetheless finds unfulfilling. Though she has a job, friends and family, she feels nothing but apathy toward her life and feels no great draw toward the kind of life that is expected of her. She feels powerless to change her life and feels that things will only get worse as she ages, so makes a relatively passionless decision to end her life in order to find “freedom.” As she waits for the pills to take hold, she reads an article asking, “Where is Slovenia?” (in a meta stroke, the article is stated as being written by Coelho) and decides to write a letter to the editor, justifying her suicide as a reaction to the article’s belittlement of her home country.

Her suicide attempt fails, however, and she awakens in an infamous mental institution called Villete. Her doctor, Igor, tells her that she has damaged her heart so much that she only has a few days to live, which she is expected to live out in the institution. Though initially disappointed by her unsuccessful suicide, as the days continue she finds herself experiencing life more fully than ever before, as she has nothing to do lose. Her actions are uninhibited by other’s opinions and expectations.

While at the institution she meets a number of patients with varied experiences with “madness.” She questions the nature of insanity as she gets to know them. Mari, a wife, mother, and successful lawyer, was treated for intense panic attacks. Though Dr. Igor told her that she could return home, Mari said she wanted to stay to give her husband time to recover for the months of stress prior to her institutionalization. As she, cured of her symptoms, gets ready to leave and resume her life, a colleague tells her that she was being forced to resign. She begs him to let her return, stating “I have lived with two sorts of people: those who have no chance of ever going back into the society and those who are completely cured but who prefer to pretend to be mad rather than face up life’s responsibilities. I want and need to learn myself again, have to convince myself that I’m capable of taking my own decisions.” He remains firm, and she loses her job. Mere days later, a lawyer visits her and informs her that her husband is seeking a divorce. Devastated, she lies and tells Dr. Igor that her symptoms have returned and asks to stay. Though he knows she is lying, he agrees, and Mari becomes exactly the type of reality-avoiding patient she begged her colleague to spare her from embodying.

Another patient, Eduard, is getting treated for schizophrenia. Born to a rich and powerful Yugoslavian ambassador, Eduard was raised to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, after an accident and a stay in a hospital he developed an ambition to paint. His father strongly disapproved, and pushed him to continue his path toward becoming a diplomat. Afraid to further disappoint him, Eduard buried his dream of painting and followed his father’s wishes. However, in the wake of this decision Eduard loses his grip on reality and becomes diagnosed with schizophrenia and ends up at Villete.

As Veronika interacts with these patients, she discovers versions of herself that she didn’t know existed, and that she finds much more compelling and satisfying than her old self. She finds herself playing the piano again, a former passion that she had abandoned, and her sonata attracts Eduard, with whom she falls in love as she never has before.

Zedka, getting treatment for depression, outright states upon meeting Veronika that geniuses such as Einstein and Columbus were thought to be crazy, though they merely “lived in their own worlds.” She is being treated for an obsession over a former lover. Though married with children, she became fixated on tracking him down, and was convinced he was seeking her as well. She directly expresses the novel’s doubts about the nature of madness, stating: ‘…insanity is the inability to communicate your ideas. It’s as if you were in a foreign country, able to see and understand everything that’s going on around you but incapable of explaining what you need to know or of being helped, because you don’t understand the language they speak there.’ ‘We’ve all felt that.’ And all of us, one way or another, are insane.’

As Veronika approaches her final 24 hours, she finds herself reinvigorated by life and tells Dr. Igor she desires to leave the institution in her final hours to see Ljubljana castle and “…give [herself] to one man, to the city, to life and, finally, to death.” However, it is revealed that Veronika was not in fact dying, but that Dr. Igor merely told her that she was in order to attempt to shock her into appreciating her life. The novel concludes with Veronika and Eduard celebrating their life and future together.

Much of the novel is based on the author’s own experiences in mental institutions. As a young man, Coelho was himself institutionalized by his parents three times by age sixteen due to their inability to control him and to attempt to dissuade him from becoming a writer.

A character-driven analysis on the nature of sanity and our society’s pressures to conform, Veronika Decides to Die showcases one woman’s journey toward carving out a meaningful life away from ingrained societal expectations.