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”:
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;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
[Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]