Ask a Book Question (#60): Suicide Notes

May 20, 2008 | 15 books mentioned 10 2 min read

Reese wrote in with this question:

I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.

One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.

And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.

  • Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone
  • Virgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)
  • Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and Juliet
  • Fanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardens
  • Anna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in Dubliners
  • Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”
  • The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)
  • The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate Chopin
  • Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire
  • Alice Munro’s “Comfort”
  • Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)
  • “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. Salinger

Ah, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Happy Reading!

[Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.

10 comments:

  1. Reading about the suicides of Dido and Anna Karenina are as close as I want to come to mental illness: you can feel the womens' minds closing off options, shrinking their entire world to the one irresistible urge. It's terrifying.

  2. In 'Norwegian wood' by the great Haruki Murakami, you can read about suicides to. A lot of the characters commit suicide in this novel, leaving you with an empy feeling full of questionsmarks…
    Just a tip

    regards,
    Nadia

  3. Garth also adds Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, another Salinger and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. And I believe Gretchen kills herself after Faust seduces her in Faust. You could also look at The Secret History by Donna Tartt. While it's much more about murder, suicide is figures.

  4. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf places the suicide of Septimus Warren in the midst of patriarchy at its "best" and "worst" — at its "best," (the quote marks suggest a needed interrogation of the term) marriage (directly and indirectly present in with Mrs. Dalloway during the day). At its worst, "war." An excellent novel connected with suicide occurring in The Waves. Woolf's own life presents a separate, related case.

    Mary Libertin
    Shippensburg University
    [email protected]

  5. And a few others: Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," an essay, seems like it might be right on the money. As does David Foster Wallace's "Good Old Neon." Go, Geoducks!

  6. literature and suicide go hand in hand…

    2) Madam Bovary

    3) I wouldn't call it a focus, but Hemingway's protagonist in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" contemplates suicide and arguably, commits it through his actions.

    Much on how you want to define suicide (e.g. does intentially letting yourself get killed, as in FWTBT, constitute a suicde – in literature, maybe yes if the character has spent some time thinking about it, who, in this case, uncannily, has a father who committed suicide.)

    and on that note, you might argue that Willy Loman committed suicide.

    4) Quentin's suicide in The Sound and the Fury.

    5) Paul Bowles' work has a suicidal motif.

    6) Camus' work I think has lots of ideas about suicide.

    If you want something more contemporary Etgar Keret has an innovative suicide in his latest collection of short stories.

    I deleted romeo and juliet, but I think there's even more suicide than listed here in the work of shakespeare, but I imagine that wouldn't be hard to find.

  7. Good write-up, but sketchy. A number of novels which can specifically be put in the sub-genre ‘suicide novels’ have been left out, the prominent among them is Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’

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