What does it mean to be Insane? Discovering the Appreciation of Life from Suicide:
“Veronika Decides to Die” by Paulo Coelho

[(Essay dated June 10, 2010) In the following criticism of Paulo Coelho’s “Veronika Decides to Die,” G.G. analyzes the perspectives and pasts of the different characters which contribute to the common question raised throughout the story: what does it mean to be crazy?” G.G. also analyzes the main character’s changes from the beginning of the story to the end, which signify her new appreciation of life.]

“’Is this a prison?’” she asked the nurse, who had stopped reading and was now watching her every movement. ‘No, it’s a mental hospital.’ ‘But I’m not crazy.’ The woman laughed. ‘That’s what they all say.’ ‘All right then, I am crazy, but what does that mean?’ The woman told Veronika not to stay too long on her feet, and sent her back to bed. ‘What does it mean to be crazy?’ insisted Veronika,” (Coelho 31).

Brazilian International best-selling author Paulo Coelho reveals a story a young maiden who ironically discovers to appreciate life after her own failed attempt at suicide in “Veronika Decides to Die.” After being admitted to a mental hospital known as Villete, Coelho addresses the difficult transition from loathing life to loving life. He also emphasizes a common question throughout the novel: “what does it mean to be crazy?” Coelho illustrates the answer through the perspectives of the patients and staff of Villete as well as society outside the mental hospital.

“She picked up the four packs of sleeping pills from her bedside table. Instead of crushing them and mixing them with water, she decided to take them one by one, because there is always a gap between intention and action, and she wanted to feel free to turn back halfway,” (1).

Before opening the cover of the book, Coelho has provided the knowledge the main character, Veronika, has chosen to commit suicide. However revealed on the first page alone, a subtle hint of Veronika’s weakness is evident within the first few lines. The fact that she chose to take the pills “one by one” since she wanted to be able to “turn back halfway” reveals a spark of fear within her, which contradicts her initial thoughts regarding suicide: “On November 11, 1997 Veronika decided that the moment to kill herself had—at last!—arrived,” (1).

Veronika is committing suicide because she feels as though her life is the same day after another. “It was best to put an end to everything now, while she was still brave and healthy enough to die,” (24). This quote appears to justify her reason for suicide, the irony weighing on being “healthy enough to die.” She puts on a front as though she is confident about ending her life—but Coelho reveals otherwise. While waiting for her death to arrive, Veronika begins to ponder about how the world would continue on, even after her demise. She began to delve into specifics: how long she waited to receive the pills just because she felt as though that method of death “suited her feminine nature” and other methods, such as slashing her wrists, would trouble the nuns whom she rents from, because they would have to clean up the blood. Jumping from a high building would trouble her parents because “they would get used to their daughter’s death eventually. But it must be impossible to forget a shattered skull,” (3).

“…Suicide demands people think of themselves first, then others,” (3).

Veronika states this, but it reeks of irony because she is not thinking of herself first—she is thinking of others’ reactions to her suicide and even chooses a non-grotesque method of taking her life away, so that it wouldn’t be too hard on those left to clean up her mess. If she was truly suicidal, she would be thinking of herself first and not care about others’ reactions and what will follow her death.

“’Anyone who lives in her own world is crazy. Like schizophrenics, psychopaths, maniacs. I mean people, who are different from others,’” (33).

Although befriending a patient at Villete known as Zedka, the first days of Veronika’s journey in the hospital prove to be upsetting. She is an outcast because everyone knows she only has days to live (as a result of the pill’s effects on her heart) and they do not wish to bother getting to know her well. At this point, Veronika still desires to die and to end her prolonged suffering of having to wait for her death to occur. Her encounter with the Fraternity, a group of past patients that remain in Villete even though they had been “cured from their craziness,” causes Veronika’s appreciation for life to spark. Because she knows that she can be herself at Villete, she slaps a member of the Fraternity who picked on her for loitering around their group. This action signifies a will to live: if Veronika was solely concerned with the arrival of her death, the Fraternity’s words wouldn’t have mattered to her and she would have continued on waiting. But because she physically struck back, it demonstrated the beginning of a will to exist.

Veronika also encounters a patient known as Mari, who was also a member of the Fraternity. Mari revealed that like other Fraternity members, she too was “cured” of her insanity, but wished to remain at Villete because society and her family would only make her life miserable since they couldn’t comprehend the complexity of her situation: her panic attacks. She explains to Veronika that it was her fault that her life was so monotonous and dull. She tells her that there are countless reasons to live and to go out and experience all she could experience, to see how far she can take herself.

Veronika takes this advice and begins to play the piano at Villete. She attracts a schizophrenic named Eduard to her piano music. She had always dreamed of playing as a child: “no one makes a living playing the piano, my love,” (94). This along with the fact that her future husband could show her off at parties was the reason why Veronika’s mom felt she could not take up piano as a job, but only as a minor hobby. A life changing moment is when she decides follow Mari’s advice of seeing how far she take herself and masturbates in front of Eduard. This is the epitome of the appreciation of life Veronika soon realizes. From letting out all her emotion and allowing herself to behave animalistic and experience rushes of pleasure as much as she could, she began to appreciate life, and doing so, began to fear her anticipated death.

Eduard, who apathetically observed Veronika’s masturbation, finally began to talk to Veronika, even though he was silent to everyone in Villete. He too, realized the will to live in her eyes and it gave him determination as well. Veronika continued to experience near-death moments as a result of Dr. Igor’s medication. However, these moments provided her with instances of fearing death and longing for an escape.

Finally, Dr. Igor tells her she is cured of Vitriol, what he claims is the cause of insanity, since it is the bitterness one feels about life. He concludes this hypothesis because the medication he has been administering to Veronika had caused her the near-death moments, which although painful at the time, made her realize she appreciate life and wanted to survive.

In a short amount of time, Veronika went from a person who was trying to kill herself to someone who discovered to love life and continue living, just from experiencing the different perspectives of “insanity” at Villete. She realized she was responsible for not allowing herself to experience the most she possibly could in life and in the end, she was redeemed by her own journey of appreciating life.

As mentioned previously, there was an idea that was commonly brought up in Veronika’s story: what “being crazy” actually meant. Initially, the question was first brought up during the wait for her death to arrive after taking the pills: “In a world where everyone struggles to survive whatever the cost, how could one judge those people who decide to die?” (14). From these words, it is clear that Veronika does not consider herself to be crazy and dislikes those who judge or scorn those who chose death over life.

The author himself, Paulo Coelho also adds his own commentary to Veronika’s story by adding himself in as an actual character, who in the past, had also been confined to a mental hospital at a young age because he was shy and desired to be an artist: “a perfect recipe for ending up a social outcast and dying in poverty,” (17). He felt as though he had an “intimate knowledge of the world of the mental hospital—the treatments, the relationships between doctors and patients, the comfort and anxieties of living in a place liked that,” (17). His contribution to the story signifies the disapproval to those who do not understand “insanity” and dismiss mental hospitals and its patients with stereotypes and false judgments.

“’On the other hand,’ Zedka continued, pretending not have heard the remark, ‘you have Einstein, saying that there was no time or space, just a combination of the two. Or Columbus, insisting that on the other side of the world lay not an abyss but a continent. Or Edmund Hillary, convinced that a man could reach the top of Everest. Or the Beatles, who created an entirely different sort of music and dressed like people from another time. Those people—and thousands of others—all lived in their own world.’” (33).

A fellow mental patient, Zedka, provides her opinion on the argument of what it means to be crazy when she first meets Veronika, who like all first time mental patients, denies her craziness. Evidently, she names all famous scientists and people who are renowned now, but during their time of talent and existence, were thought to be “crazy.” Zedka’s argument is completely logical. The reason she has been admitted to Villete was because she became depressed over a man overseas who did not exist and gradually isolated herself from her family. Coelho describes Zedka’s “craziness” simply as an “impossible love.” Through the explanation of “impossible love,” it justifies that the act of yearning isn’t “insanity”—everyone yearns for something whether it is for a special person or to travel all their lives.

An additional opinion on insanity is depicted through a perspective of a group of mental patients known as the Fraternity. They can come and leave Villete as they please, because they choose to remain in the hospital. Sometimes, it meant faking their insanity to annual inspectors in order to remain at the hospital because they didn’t want to be released back to society—where they would not be able to be themselves. “Imagine a place where people pretend to be crazy in order to exactly what they want,” (40). This quote exemplifies the fact that The Fraternity would rather fake their insanity to remain at Villete than to be back at their home in the real world because they cannot face the ignorance of society and at Villete, they can be themselves.

The final example of society’s perception of insanity rests in the reason why a “schizophrenic,” Eduard, was admitted to Villete: simply because he did not wish to follow in his father’s footsteps in becoming an ambassador and instead wishing to be a painter. “He had thought that he could just give up and follow his father’s advice, but he had advanced too far in his work; he had crossed the abyss that separates a man from his dream, and now there was no going back,” (191). This moment defines the misunderstanding of “insanity” due to the correlation of “craziness” and one’s opinion of what is “wrong.” Eduard’s parents felt that painting was obscure and that something was wrong with him for wanting to continue in that occupation. They placed an unforgivable strain on Eduard with a decision to choose between them or art.

Aside from the mental patients themselves, the doctors and nurses at Villete reflect a somewhat experimental feeling towards their clients, treating them as though they were all merely guinea pigs. Veronika describes how she could sense that an apprentice of the doctor took pleasure in telling her she had only days to live: “During her life Veronika had noticed that a lot of people she knew would talk about the horrors in other people’s lives as if they were genuinely trying to help them, but the truth was that they took pleasure in the suffering of others, because that made them believe they were happy and that life had been generous to them. She hated that kind of person, and she wasn’t going to give the young man an opportunity to take advantage of her state in order to mask his frustrations,” (29).

Another example experimental use of Villete clients was Dr. Igor, the main doctor of the institution. At the end of the story, it is revealed that Dr. Igor has been giving Veronika medication that would cause to experience feelings that mimicked those feelings of being near-death, so that she would essentially “fear death,” and eventually develop a greater appreciation of life. His belief was that appreciation life would clear one of Vitriol, or the cause of depression and insanity as a result of bitterness towards life. His use of Veronika as a part of his research highlighted the misunderstandings of the “insane” and how those misunderstandings are enacted due to corruption, in this case, a doctor who toyed with a patient’s health for his own research purposes.

“’…Do you remember the first question I ever asked you?’ ‘Yes, you asked me if I knew what being crazy meant.’ ‘Exactly. This time I’m not going to tell you a story. I’ll just say that 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.’ (62).

Zedka’s reiterates Coelho’s thesis of how everyone is insane in their own way. It concludes that even though people deny that they do not relate to those in mental hospitals or scorn them, they are secretly crazy in their own way, whether it is an obsession of a hobby or passion towards a certain issue.

Veronika Decides to Die is a very personal story that details the journey of a young girl who can appreciate life now from her past attempt at suicide and the moments in Villete that made her reach out for life once more. Coelho providing his commentary through his own character in the story along with other characters representing the opinions of those who are ignorant and confuse craziness with what the believe is wrong , illustrates the underlying theme of “what it means to be crazy.”

“Come on, let’s go. Crazy people do crazy things,” (194).

(G.G. 2010)

The Battle of Good versus Evil: Human Control and Choice of the Ability to Evade or Submit to Temptation: “The Devil and Miss Prym” by Paulo Coelho

[(Essay dated June 9, 2010) In the following criticism of Paulo Coelho’s “The Devil and Miss Prym, G.G. analyzes through the changes in the behaviors and personalities of the story’s characters and their temptations they experience, the author conveys the message that human beings can essentially choose whether to resist or give in to temptation.]

“It was all a matter of control. And choice. Nothing more and nothing less,” (Coelho 201).

The Devil and Miss Prym by Brazilian International best-selling author Paulo Coelho is a moral tale that through a story of a stranger who travels to an isolated village and approaches a young woman, echoes the archetype of Good vs. Evil. However, the tale uncovers the fact that people have the self-control and choice of whether to submit to temptation or evade it. Coelho does so by taking us through the temptations the stranger, the young woman, and the small village that they all at first given into, and then overcome.

“’You’re wrong. I know I live in paradise and I’ve read the Bible and I’m not going to make the same mistake as Eve, who wasn’t contented with her lot,’” (11).

The tale’s first and the main temptation is conjured at the moment the stranger offers Chantal, a young woman of the village of Viscos, a proposition that involves either her town committing a murder in exchange for his gold or they can resist temptation and ignore his request. The point of his deal was his search for whether humans were essentially Good or Evil. It is obvious that at first, Chantal rejects the fact that she or her town would ever fall into such a trap. She believed in Viscos and the good of the people to never commit an act of murder as a result of avarice. She agrees to the test and to tell the townspeople of the stranger’s proposal.

“That was what Viscos was like: a half empty cigarette packet had its owner, the button lost off a jacket had to be kept until someone came asking for it, every penny in change had to be handed over, there was never any rounding up the bill. It was a wretched place, in which everything was predictable, organized and reliable,” (28-29).

After having many nightmares and feeling the different presences of Good and Evil, Chantal starts to have conflicting beliefs about her town and herself. She begins to loathe Viscos and its predicable nature, and because of this, she loses credibility for her town. Being a hard, dedicated worker of the town, she feels as though she deserves the gold herself—not a town of drones who do the same thing all the time.

“She had realized there that there were two things that prevented us from achieving our dreams: believing them to be impossible or seeing those dreams made possible by some sudden turn of the wheel fortune, when you least expected it. For at that moment, all our fears suddenly surface: the fear of setting off along a road heading who knows where, the fear of a life full of new challenges, the fear of losing forever everything that is familiar. People want to change everything and, at the time, want it all to remain the same,” (34).

The stranger, who buried the gold he promised to the Viscos if they committed an act of murder, left it in an area where Chantal could visit it. As a result of the temptation, she finds herself visiting it often and the more she uncovers the forbidden fruit from underneath the forest earth, the more Evil envelops her. In this passage, she begins to feel that Viscos is foolish because they live in fear of God: “They all lived in fear of God. They were all—herself included—cowards when the moment comes to change their fate,” (43). As Chantal feels more tempted to steal the stranger’s gold and leave Viscos, the more hatred she begins to feel towards the town as she is frustrated as to why she and the town won’t step out of their comfort zones to accept his offer to make the town a better place.

“It is always far easier to have faith in your own goodness than to confront others and fight for your rights. It is always easier to hear an insult and not retaliate than have the courage to fight back against someone stronger than yourself; we can always say we’re not hurt by the stones others throw at us, and it’s only at night—when we’re alone and out wife or our band or our school friend is asleep—that we can silently grieve over our own cowardice,” (44).

Although regarding Viscos and unknowingly Chantal herself, Coelho is reflecting on a call for those who sit back and don’t stand up for themselves. He explains that they have the choice to take action, but do not do so, because it isn’t easy.

“I lost the most precious thing a man can have: my faith in my fellow man,” (68).

The stranger explains to Chantal why he travels far and wide in search of whether people are Evil: because his wife and daughters were held captive by terrorists and eventually killed when he called the police. Although he is tempting the town of Viscos with his offer, Coelho reveals that he too is tempted—by vengeance. “’I am a man who walks the earth with a devil at his side; in order to drive him away or to accept him once and for all, I need to know the answers to certain questions,” (71). While Chantal is tempted to steal the gold and to escape Viscos and he too is tempted in wanting to get revenge, it provides an ominous feeling of the temptation that would soon be awaiting the town.

After telling Viscos of the proposition, like Chantal, they reject the idea that they would ever commit murder for the sake of benefiting their town. They outcast Chantal for ever believing their town would do such a thing. However, like Chantal as well, the town too experiences temptation. The villagers soon realize how much they could benefit from gold, such as insurance to the rest of their lives and their children’s lives as well as erecting new buildings to bring the town in more revenue. Coelho makes the town’s change of heart—from evasion to submission apparent in numerous ways.

First, the baker van, which distributed bread to the villagers, becomes a mechanic act to them. It is described as them just taking the bread and leaving to return home. The mechanical consumption of bread, signifying Eucharist, exemplifies how the village is drifting further away from God, that everything is just become a ritual lacking meaning. Then, the villagers along with the priest, mayor, and other important townspeople begin to meet frequently, discussing what to do with the proposition. Although not devout Christians, they begin to attend the priest’s masses and listen to the sermons about Job, who in the Bible, was a follower of God and experienced atrocities as a test of his devotion and the crucifixion of Christ, who sacrificed himself to save all people. Both Christ and Job prevailed however the people of Viscos begin interpreting their stories wrong. They perceive it as though they, Viscos, too are being tempted. However, they mistakenly correlate Christ’s sacrifice with the idea that it is alright for them to make sacrifices in order to keep their little town alive, in this case, sacrifices meaning a murder in exchange for the stranger’s gold. They begin to reason with who should be elected from Viscos as a sacrifice: the most insignificant person who will be murdered so that the town can receive the gold, the search the scapegoat in an attempt to justify their reasons to kill someone. They decide that an old woman named Berta would be the best candidate because her husband had passed away and she was the oldest. These misinterpretations and wrong applications of religion that the town is guilty of isn’t entitled to their sin. Coelho uses this as an example for all instances, past, present, and future involving miscommunications, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations of people that lead to tragedy.

The stranger realizes just as he predicted, Viscos was falling into temptation and that he concluded that all people were evil. Although Chantal was being tempted herself, she revealed to the stranger that he too was tempted, by vengeance: “’It isn’t the light you want to recover, it’s the certainty that there is only darkness,’” (80). Chantal makes him see that he isn’t on a quest to prevent tragedies, like his own, from happening again, but on a quest to confirm that there are other tragedies like his and to confirm all people are evil.
“’I’ll only say that Evil never brings Good,’” (144).
Since Berta was chosen to be sacrificed in exchange for the wealth to be brought onto the village, she was being taken from her home to be killed. Although the townspeople claim to be doing it on behalf of God and using the fact that Christ sacrificed himself to save the world, just as they were sacrificing her to save their town, ironically their roles are reversed. Berta appears to be a Christ figure, who assures them that Good will never come from Evil—that murder can never be justified. The townspeople act like those who nailed Christ to the cross. “’You were in paradise, but you didn’t recognize it. It’s the same with most people in this world, they seek suffering in the most joyous of places because they think they are unworthy of happiness,’” (178). Berta explains this fact to the misinformed priest and people of Viscos who claim that their town is now a hell, even though it hadn’t been all along until they became hungry with greed.

When the townspeople are about to murder Berta with shotguns, in a method so that no one would know whether they were the one who killed her, thus making them all fell “innocent,” Chantal accompanied by the stranger, speaks out to the people. “’…men often used to come to the village claiming to have a special powder that could turn lead into gold. They called themselves alchemists...Today you are trying to do the same thing: mixing lead with blood, certain that this will be transformed into the gold we women are holding. On the one hand, you’re absolutely right. On the other, the gold will slip through your fingers as quickly as it came,’” (192). Coelho echoes Berta’s words: that nothing Good will ever come from Evil, in this case, murdering Berta isn’t right and it won’t bring the town wealth. “Meanwhile, the noise of the first shotgun being disarmed was heard. ‘Trust me!’ the mayor shouted. ‘I’ll take the risk!’ But the only response was the same noise, then another, and the noises seemed to spread by contagion, until almost all the shotguns have been disarmed: since when would anyone believe in the promises of a politician?” (196). People begin to realize the sense in her words and resist the temptation as she exposed the greed of the town. She also revealed that they have the self-control and choice to resist temptation: there was nothing forcing them to sacrifice anything. This final moment exemplifies the moral Coelho illustrates through the different temptations and how each character dealt with theirs. Because they resisted, the stranger gives Chantal her promised gold.

Through the story of the Viscos, Coelho was able to reveal an important life lesson: that Evil is never justified. Through the different accounts of temptation within the story and the characters responses to them, he is able to express the fact that one can choose whether to give in or to resist temptation. He provides a call for readers to cease blaming everyone but themselves for giving into temptation and instead take charge of their life and choose to resist.

(G.G. 2010)