Suicide Girls: Archetypal Females Choosing the Final Slumber

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 11:  Helen Morton...

As I think about some of the most famous female characters in literature and drama, I am struck by how many of them wind up taking their own lives: Antigone, Jocasta (Antigone’s mother), Eurydice (Antigone’s aunt)—and that’s just one ancient Greek storyline. If you throw Shakespeare into the mix, the list gets even longer: Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Portia, Cleopatra…et. al.

Moving into the modern era, the body count grows: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Edna Pontilier, Joan Gilling (from Sylvia Plath’s The Belle Jar—and later, Plath herself). Even the character Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet) from the box office blockbuster film Titanic contemplates throwing herself off the back of the ship until Jack Dawson steps in to save her.

So why is it that so many heroines choose to consign themselves to oblivion (or as Hamlet describes it, “the undiscovered country”)? Statistically, more women than men attempt suicide. However, men are much more successful at it than women, often because they choose methods that are more violent. (In the U.S., for instance, male death rates due to suicide are at least four times greater than those for women. In other countries, such as Lithuania and Russia, the male to female ratio is five to one.) If men take their own lives more often, why are female suicides so disproportionately represented in stories and on screen?

To answer these questions, it may be helpful to examine the topic historically. In Classical myths, for example, women typically commit suicide for the following reasons: abandonment, grief, unrequited love, shame, rape, incest, madness, self-sacrifice, fear, and frustration. (Paradoxically, this last category seems to apply to immortals only; both the Sirens and the Sphinx leap to their deaths after Odysseus and Oedipus overcome their powers.) The methods these women use to do themselves in include hanging, drowning, jumping to their deaths, stabbing, leaping into fire, drinking poison, and or even being swallowed by the earth.

Victorian female characters often end their lives for similar reasons, and like today, they usually choose more passive means than their male counterparts, such as drinking poison or drowning. Even in modern stories, suicidal female characters will usually opt for a bottle of pills or a razor blade rather than jumping in front of a train or reaching into the gun cabinet.

Regardless of their methods, the women who choose the path of suicide seem to fall into two main categories: those who are downright delusional and those whose suicide is an act of desperation or defiance because they feel backed into a corner in some way. Ophelia and Lady Macbeth are clearly in the delusional camp (although some would argue that Ophelia’s delusion is the result of feeling trapped by male expectations). Others, like Edna Pontilier, feel so trapped by the male power-brokers in their world that they see death as their only way out. The doomed wife, April Wheeler, from the book Revolutionary Road definitely falls into this category.

Then there are those particular characters (some would say the statistical majority of women who attempt to take their own lives) who use suicide as a way of drawing attention to themselves—the proverbial “cry for help.” Susanna Kaysen (Wynonna Ryder’s character in the film Girl Interrupted) is a prime example of this, as is Charlotte Bronte’s character, Mary Cave (from the novel Shirley) who dies of starvation for love. Are these women desperate? Delusional? Or are there different psychological issues at work here?

Through the ages, critics have argued that some suicidal women demonstrate their own brand of heroism by becoming the ultimate masters of their fates. In certain cases this may be true, such as the two female leads in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Inglourious Basterds (Shoshana, who embarks on a suicide mission, and Bridget von Hammersmark, a screen actress who understands the inherent risks associated with wartime espionage). However, whether or not other types of suicides are considered acts of courage or cowardice is as much a reflection of the audiences’ sensibilities as it is the characters’. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why writers have historically included suicidal women in their narratives. Not only does it reflect a disturbing reality of society, it also brings about powerful dramatic tension—a staple of good storytelling.

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.

Comments

  1. I really don’t mean to be rude, but throughout reading this piece (which raised an interesting point, by the way) I thought the writing made me think of an English essay more than a blog post. So, I wasn’t very surprised to find out the author was an English teacher!

    I’m not saying it’s too boring, should be shortened or that all blog posts should be written in a similar style, but still, in a blog about writing, I’d expect a different style.

    • Not rude at all – but an interesting observation. This is a group blog where most of the members are part of the same writing group. We all have different goals in the group, and different styles. I’m the only one with “blogging experience” (such as it is) so this is also a bit of discovery for all of us in finding topics, voice, etc.

      In some ways it is learning to write in yet another style – blogs. But something to chat about at our next writing group. Thank you!

  2. Scott Shields says:

    Blog style? What exactly is blog style? Is it possible to tackle an issue like female suicide in 140 characters or less? (Would we really want to?) From my perspective, blogs are an avenue to explore ideas and initiate conversations. Since there are as many different styles as there are people, you’re likely to encounter a host of voices out there on the information highway.