Date of Degree
Richard A. Kaye
Literature in English, British Isles
suicide, modernism, psychoanalysis, death drive, sociology, England
Suicide is integral to the history of British literature, and yet the subject has yielded scant scholarly attention. This study attempts to partially rectify the absence by identifying a transformation in English suicide discourse between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I argue that, informed by both rationalism and cause-and-effect reasoning, Victorian literature—including poems, triple-decker novels, broadsheets, and sermons—largely conceived of suicide as a public phenomenon. The action, rather than the actor, is the object of study, and as a result what Andrew Bennett calls “the phenomenology, the lived experience … of suicide” is abandoned in favor of social concerns. Suicide means what it means to others. Thus, in the Victorian novel, voluntary death generally serves as a function of the narrative rather than its subject. Think, for example, of Bertha Mason, whose jump from Thornfield Hall liberates Rochester to marry Jane and Jane from her unruly double; or of Mirah Lapidoth, whose attempted suicide forces Daniel Deronda “to take part in the battle of the world.” I argue that, at the end of the century, Jude the Obscure indicts such rationalism with its child suicide: Father Time kills his siblings and himself “Because we are too meny,” an explanation that is functionally irrefutable.
The modernist writer, then, reconciles with the absence Thomas Hardy reveals: the facts are barren. Suicide cannot produce first-person testimony, and as a result all narratives—psychological, sociological, historical, fictional—must imaginatively fill in the gap to assemble a coherent etiology. Borrowing from Barbara Leckie, I argue that suicide becomes the exemplary modernist act due to the questions it raises about objective truth, narrative causality, and the nature of witnessing; authors like John Galsworthy, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf interrogate the epistemological doubt its raises through a series of tropes central to the modernist project: non-linearity, unreliable narration, textual fragmentation, and narrative irresolution.
Finally, I examine the origins of suicidology, a discipline that emerges in the late nineteenth century and attempts to codify scientific knowledge of suicide. I argue that early suicidologists like Enrico Morselli and Émile Durkheim fail to investigate the lived experience of voluntary death because it cannot be measured by their tools; the upshot is an egregiously incomplete view of suicide, one that denies a voice to the subject because they are not present to contribute evidence. I propose that Sigmund Freud’s interdisciplinary approach better reconciles scientific and humanistic views on suicide and conclude with an exploration of D.H. Lawrence’s relationship to the death drive, a creation-through-destruction concept that has its origins in the work of the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein. In his preference for “blood knowledge” over “mental knowledge”—embodied fictionally by the suicide of Gerald Crich in Women in Love—Lawrence not only chronicles his variation of Spielrein and Freud’s death drive but advocates for it as well. What Freud saw as pathology, Lawrence saw as salvation. Rejecting the rationalism of modernity, Lawrence viewed suicide as a gesture toward spiritual rebirth.
Botwick, Aaron, "The Leap and the Gap: Writing Suicide in Modernist Britain" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.
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