Suicide in Literature

Suicide is the act of deliberatly killing oneself, and comes from the latin sui (se) caederes (to kill). From the antiquity to the modern literature, it has always been a means for the author to express extreme feelings in his characters : desperate love, great depression, excruciating pain or dishonor. But these reasons have evolved throughout the whole history of written works, parallel with the shifts in ideas, literary movements and social changes. As a matter of fact, people do not commit suicide for the same grounds in the Greek tragedies and in the 19-th century romantic novels, and Antigone is not Mrs. Bovary.

Hence are the historical and social backgrounds crucial to understand every aspects of self-sacrifice and voluntary death in literature. This paper will focus on suicide through literary examples, with a non-exhaustive historical perpective and aims at studying the relationship between the changes in societies and the approach of the ‘voluntary death’ in literature. Does this approach radically vary from one era to another or is it possible to find a guideline throughout the history of literature ? The earliest most significant evocation of the theme of self-killing can be found in the Ancient Greek and Roman literature.

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This part will reveal the ambivalence of the conception of suicide in societies of the Antiquity. The Antiquity had in fact a very particular conception of suicide, which is at the opposite of the modern idea of suicide caused by sorrow and lack of harmony with the world (as it can be seen in romantic literature). So it is conceivable to assert that the Ancients killed themselves to avoid a greater pain. Suicide was a way to escape to old age, to pain, to social or political decline. According to Elise Garrison, many ancient suicidal victims, « [were] determined to regain lost honor and restore equilibrium to society » (Garrison, 1991 ).

It is very unlikely to find in the Greek or the Roman history caused by the impossibility of finding happiness. Therefore, novelists, playwrights and poets highly praise suicide in their work and describe these acts with great respect, giving them the value of an example. Even if suicide was a crucial issue on which every philosophical school had its opinion, it is possible to say that « there was a certain fascination about self-chosen death » (Nock, 1952 ) and it was often considered as an heroic act of free will.

Most of the time, suicide in Antiquity has generated feelings and descriptions in concordance with the stoic philosophy, and beyond the variety of the situations, suicide depicted by Ancient authors are always the sign of a « greatness of soul ». True and genuine courage was defined by the Greek authors : the science of what is bearable and was it is not. This implies that there are unbearable evils, deemed dreadful by the courageous man (or woman) and which he (or she) refuses to face. Nevertheless, the following literary example brings new element to this definition.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, a civil war in Thebes opposed two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices. Creon, who is the new ruler of Thebes, has decided that Polyneices will not be buried and exposed to public shame, whereas Eteocles will be honored as a war hero. Antigone can’t stand the fact that one of her brother will lie unburied, at the mercy of worms, and she decides to bury him anyway. She faces Creon’s wrath ; as a punishment he choses to bury her alive in a cave, but she finally hangs herself. The example of Sophocles’ Antigone is relevant to understand the ambivalent meaning of suicide during the Antiquity.

Many authors and specialists described the character of Antigone as a paragon of rebellion and individual will : « [Antigone became] the symbol of the resistance to tyranny and presents herself as autonomos » (Lacan, 1986 ). This example reveals the ambivalence of the conception of suicide in societies of the Antiquity. Antigone defies the law of Creon, the ruler of Thebes and thus jeopardize the whole equilibrium of the social cohesion. She stands alone, against a wobbling power (embodied by her uncle), against the rules of the polis, and represents the superiority of the unwritten laws, which are the laws of the heart and the soul.

Be that as it may, this extremely stubborn behaviour of hers can be assimilated to the greatest Greek sin, that is to say the lack of humility, the hubris. The fact that hubris is a sin reveals that maybe the suicide of Antigone does not symbolize the typical form of « voluntary death » highly appreciated by the authors of this era. Contesting the rules of the polis, Antigone turns her suicide into an act of disagreement of the formal authority. So this is not the suicide per se which is valued by the novelists and the poets, it is more the reasons behind the suicide.

In the Ancient Roman world, under patriotism, heroism, honor or other virtues, the main reason to depict suicide was to celebrate the greatness of Rome. The literature has to be edifying and the suicide should be an exemplum, an exhaltation of the noble virtues. The political power used the literature to spread its ideas of greatness and self-sacrifice, in accordance to the stoicism. The particular situation of the Greek tragedy Antigone appears clearly, and could be a more modern form of suicide than those usually praised in the Ancient literature of Rome and Athenes.

Nonetheless, the fact those societies did not considered suicide as a sin (contrary to the catholic religion) greatly influenced the content of the literary works of this era. Antiquity and the idea of self-sacrifice out of love, desperate feelings or unsatisfying existence seem to be foreign. This conception is rather modern and mainly finds its roots in the Romantic Era, an intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe.

It is useful to see the origine of this movement in the German Sturm und Drang (« Storm and Urge »), which proposes an artistic vision opposed to the rational congruity of the Enlightenment. The authors wanted to give violent expressions to extreme emotions, sensibility and subjectivity, and echoed the social upheavals in America and in Europe’s societies . Knowledge, science and rationalism were the key values of the Age of Enlightenment, as a reaction romantic thinkers praised imagination, irrationalism and intuition.