Although treated as a taboo, criminal or demonic subject, the theme of suicide (or as termed in Elizabethan times, ‘self-murder’) in literature is as old as literature itself. Shakespeare, for instance, seems to have been fond of suicide in his tragedies; Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
In different works of literature across the world and across time, character suicide(s) has been used as a symbol of love, despair and hopelessness, defiance or depression. Literary suicides have however stepped out of the borders of texts and caused controversy in real life, proving that literature does not exist in isolation and that suicide is indeed a sensitive matter – for both writers and readers.
But has suicide been glorified in literary works? And the lingering question then is; how should suicide, an undeniable reflection of reality, be presented in literature? Is suicide an innocent portrayal of reality or do these representations have an impact on society? Professor Jeffrey Berman, the writer of Surviving Literary Suicide, seems to think that representation does have an impact on society. He wrote the book after investigations into his students’ reactions to suicidal themes in literature over a period of over 20 years.
Regarding Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’, Professor Berman argues that 'the fact is that Edna's triumph over a patriarchal society comes with her awakening to her true self, not her renunciation of life.' He further contends that it sends a wrong signal as it feeds the romanticisation of suicide, not just in literature but in real life, especially on emotionally vulnerable readers.
In the cases of writers who take their own lives after writing about suicidal themes in their literary works, are the suicidal characters or themes a depiction of their own turmoil? Take writers like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Anne Sexton, who succumbed to suicide, and even those who did not attempt suicide, like Gustave Flaubert and Kate Chopin.
Berman writes that writing about suicide influenced the writers' emotional states, a contestable statement. It seems to me that some of these characterisations might be inspired by the writers’ experiences while some are merely innocent literary presentations.
The Werther effect: Can suicide be inspired?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, considered one of the greatest German literary figures, published a later to become controversial novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), in 1774. The novel seemed to create such an impression on young men at the time that they would mimic the main character, Werther’s mannerisms. Some started mimicking the novel’s ending, taking their own lives, just as the main character does when the woman he loves rejects him.
According to the researcher David Phillips, who coined the term, “Werther Effect”, ‘suicides and similar accidents are often seen to increase after a suicide has been well-covered by the media.’ This denotes that writing suicidal characters has the potential to impact the same in some readers. Although there are no studies directly linking real-life suicides to literary suicides, it is important for us to probe this assertion.
Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ caused quite a stir after its publication due to Edna’s suicide at the end of the novel. The novel mirrors Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’, in which the main character, Emma, also dies by suicide. Both Emma and Edna are dissatisfied with their domestic lives and the texts offer a persuasion that marriage and children are limiting women’s emancipation, driving them to suicide. Similarly, Anna in Anna Karenina dies by suicide to escape her unhappiness and family woes.
From these texts, we question, are their suicides justifiable or preventable? Are their suicides failures on their part or the society’s? Or, are the suicides triumphs, and if yes, who gets to claim the triumph? Is suicide a show of strength; an ‘awakening’? By killing themselves, are they heroes? Are their deaths ‘punishments’ for living the way they choose and making the choices they make? What are the psychological workings that prompt them to alienate themselves from the social order to which they belong and drive them to this tragic end? Are they justified to find ‘a way out’ of their existential woes? Besides suicide, what options do they have, if any?
Setting out to inquire if they are right or wrong would be futile if we do not examine their emotional state, the societies from which they are drawn, and most importantly their ‘why’. But what we are interested in is, what feelings do their suicides evoke in the readers? How do these women characters influence women’s perceptions of marriage and child rearing?
Teen suicides and romanticisation of love
The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists suicide as the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds in low and middle-income countries (Kenya included). Although there are varied causes of suicide, ranging from mental health issues to societal and personal challenges, it is undeniable that oftentimes, suicide has been presented in a persuasive manner.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which is served as the staple text to be devoured by high schoolers in many parts of the world raises some great concerns in this regard. So much so that critics have called for its abolition from classrooms. Surely, two lovesick teenagers who take their own lives because they ‘can’t live without each other’ is, more than anything, irresponsible if not a dangerous romanticisation of love. More importantly, when teenagers read this play, what do they get out of it? In what ways does it influence their approach to love and relationships?
Locally, although there exists no data on teen suicides in Kenya and their causes, there have been numerous cases of teenagers taking their own lives and the reasons reported range from heartbreaks to love triangles to ‘I can’t live without him or her’. Shouldn’t this shock us to action? However, this is in no way a victim-shaming approach or a failure to be emphatic, just an honest and objective interrogation.
As WHO rightly points out, suicide is a global epidemic, and it should not be romanticised. What better place to start than in literature? World-changing literature has oftentimes concerned itself with the quest for life’s meaning. Suicide has hence been offered as a rational means of escape for those who cannot find meaning in life.
With a more realistic, responsible, sensitive, yet empathic presentation in literature, especially in young adult literature, perhaps the presently increasing rates of suicides could be averted. Teachers, parents and guardians also need to play a critical role in honestly unpacking the topic of suicide and its implications for their children and students. But they can only do this if they educate themselves. Indeed, with a better holistic healthcare system in which mental wellness is treated just as important as physical wellness, most suicides are preventable.
This article was first published in BookNews (a Kenya Publishers Association Publication) issue no. 5, Sept-Dec, 2022.