45 pages 1 hour read

Paulo Coelho

Veronika Decides To Die

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Veronika Decides to Die (1998) is a novel of ideas by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. The novel follows Veronika, a 24-year-old Slovenian woman who decides to die in 1997 because her perfectly normal world has left her apathetic toward life. After Veronika attempts suicide, she finds herself in a psychiatric hospital called Villete. Villete was established in the rift opened by the civil war in Yugoslavia to generate a profit from the issues of the upper classes, who distrust Slovenia’s socialized medicine. The head doctor of the facility, Dr. Igor, lies to Veronika and tells her that her suicide attempt has left her with a week to live. Igor is using Veronika in an unethical medical study to analyze what he calls “Vitriol,” which he believes leads people to develop mental health conditions.

Over the course of the week, Veronika rediscovers her love of life as death looms. She meets a myriad of people in Villete struggling with their own mental health conditions and falls in love with a man named Eduard. After the week, Veronika escapes Villete with a new lease on life. Veronika Decides to Die explores the human condition, a frequent analysis at the heart of Coelho’s work, through the themes of Death and Human Mortality, Finding Meaning in an Absurd World, and Sanity as Conformity to Normalcy.

Veronika Decides to Die was adapted into a 2009 film directed by Emily Young. Veronika Decides to Die is the second book of the three-part On the Seventh Day series. It is preceded by By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept (1994) and followed by The Devil and Miss Prym (2000). Each book is a standalone story that follows a character whose life is drastically reoriented over the course of a week. The name of the series is a biblical allusion to the seven days over which God created the universe; God supposedly rested on the seventh day, after creating the world the days prior.

This guide references the 2001 First Perennial HarperCollins edition of the novel, translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Content Warning: Veronika Decides to Die contains ableist and inaccurate portrayals of mental health, ableist language, medical abuse and malpractice, ambiguously consensual sexual content, and death by suicide and suicidal ideation.

Plot Summary

Veronika decides to die on November 11, 1997, at the age of 24. Veronika leads a socially acceptable middle-class life: Her parents put her through college and made sure she was well-educated; she has a respectable job, and she has a predictable routine. Veronika decides to die by suicide because she believes that her life will not get any better, nor will she find any meaning in her safe and dull routine. She also believes that old age only holds pain and suffering for her.

When Veronika’s attempt does not go as planned, she finds herself in Villete, a psychiatric hospital that caters to Ljubljana’s (Slovenia’s capital) wealthier citizens. The staff tell Veronika that her attempt has left her heart fatally weakened and she only has a week to live. In reality, Dr. Igor, the head doctor, is using Veronika in a highly unethical experiment. Dr. Igor believes that some as-yet undetected substance in the human body, called “Vitriol” or “bitterness,” causes people to develop mental health conditions. Igor believes this “Vitriol” is created in the body when a person becomes disconnected from meaningful living. He intends on shocking Veronika into loving life by threatening her with impending doom.

Veronika spends her week in Villete wrestling with her impending death. At first, she tries to attempt suicide again and meets Zedka, Mari, and Eduard. Zedka is in Villete for depression, Mari has panic attacks, and Eduard is schizophrenic. Each of the people that Veronika meets ended up in Villete after suppressing their true desires, and Villete acts as a reprieve from the pressures of the external world.

Toward the end of the week, Veronika rediscovers her love of the piano. She took lessons when she was a child at her mother’s behest and fell in love with the instrument. Veronika was a virtuoso and wanted to dedicate her life to pursuing music. Veronika’s mother, however, believed that being a pianist was only good for conversations in polite society and attracting a husband. Veronika’s mother convinced her to give up the piano and pursue a more orthodox life. Veronika’s rediscovered love of the piano and her blossoming relationship with Eduard help her appreciate life just before she is slated to “die.”

Veronika’s tenacity is infectious and changes the dispositions of many of Villete’s residents. Both Mari and Zedka reconcile with their own unorthodox desires and decide to leave Villete for good to live a truly authentic life on the outside, despite what others may think. Dr. Igor believes this is the breakthrough he needs in his study of Vitriol as he sees his patients off.

On the night that Veronika is slated to “die,” Eduard talks to her for the first time and tells her his own story. Eduard and Veronika decide to escape Villete to celebrate her last night on Earth in the city. Much like Veronika, Eduard quashed his love for painting in order to be a well-heeled diplomat’s son; the cognitive dissonance between his desires and what he felt forced to do led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia and a permanent residence in Villete. Veronika and Eduard drink heavily and explore the city, finding a passion for life and for one another. Veronika falls asleep, drunk, in Eduard’s arms, believing she has died only to wake up perfectly healthy the next morning with her entire life ahead of her. Armed with Eduard’s love and her newfound perspective on life, Veronika decides to live.