Suicide Girls: Archetypal Females Choosing the Final Slumber


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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I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar (Archetypal Women “Fighting the Man”)

Jeanne d' Arc, by Eugene Thirion (1876). Late ...
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They are the women we admire: strong, intelligent, determined, resourceful. To their opponents, they are gadflies. To the oppressed, they are cherished protectors. They stand alone against the world—and often pay the price for it. These feminine crusaders spend their days fighting the powers that be in order to bring about change, and stories of their exploits abound.

Two of the earliest examples of civil disobedience in literature involve crusading women: Esther and Antigone. Both of these ladies put their lives at risk by openly defying their kings’ laws for religious reason; Esther desires to save her fellow Israelites from annihilation, whereas Antigone feels that she is obligated by the gods to put her brother’s soul at peace. So in a time when women had very little real political power, they used the only means at their disposal to affect change—namely, themselves. A comic take on this approach is when Aristophanes’ heroine, Lysistrata, urges the housewives of the Athens to withhold sex from their husbands in order to force the men of the city to make peace with Sparta.

History is replete with examples of courageous women working to sway the affairs of men. The French maiden, Joan of Arc, and the ancient Hebrew prophetess, Debra, lead their respective armies to victory. Likewise, the legendary Celtic warrior queen, Boudica, dies trying to drive the Roman legions from her homeland. England’s Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her early reign battling the power-brokers who questioned the legitimacy of her succession. (She survived more than twenty assassination attempts).

In more recent years, figures like Harriet Tubman and Corrie ten Boom show how far women are willing to go to rescue the oppressed and the persecuted. Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks were arrested for their political and ideological stances, and the Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues to receive death threats because of her outspoken criticism of the Islamic treatment of women.

Aside from history and literature, crusading women are also a regular staple at the movies. Sally Field’s portrayal of Norma Rae (an Alabama textile worker fighting to form a union) and Edna Spalding (the matriarch in the film Places in the Heart who struggles to keep the bank from foreclosing on her family’s cotton farm after her husband’s death) provide inspiring examples of women who do battle against the system. And who could forget Erin Brockovich’s real-life experiences fighting corporate greed?

A question remains, however, regarding a particular category of crusaders who are reflected in the classical character mentioned earlier, Antigone. Antigone fights “the man” (her uncle/king) and is vindicated by the gods for her actions. Yet in the end, she takes her own life. Is this act heroic? What about other suicidal heroines who follow Antigone’s path, such as Ophelia, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, or Edna Pontellier? Are their deaths courageous or cowardly? Perhaps that is a topic for another day.

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