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Books: Thoughts on the Notion of Fictional Suicide By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet

Tuesday March 28, 2006

In the 1950s, Albert Camus famously wrote, “There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”  

The answer to this question, he admitted, changes constantly throughout life, depending on what is happening to a person. Such as? Even traumatic suffering —physical (pain of terminal illness), psychological (discrimination and persecution), or economic (hunger and homelessness)—doesn’t necessarily lead to suicide. Nevertheless, fiction tends to stick to these immediate triggers rather than to tackle any broad philosophical speculation.  

Suicide to end physical suffering or to achieve what we now call “death with dignity” seldom occurs in fiction. The only example I can think of is the syphilitic son in Ibsen’s Ghosts, who demands that his mother help him die before he sinks into dementia. The more frequent cause is psychic shock, as when Ophelia’s lover rejects her, then kills her father. 

Classic literature and drama, fantasizing historical figures, emphasized suicide for honor. The great general fell on his sword, cheating his victorious enemy of the opportunity to torture and dismember him, then festoon the town gates with his body parts. Slightly lesser people might also choose a suicide of honor, like the wife in Shakespeare’s poem “The Rape of Lucretia,” whose suicide regains both her and her husband’s honor.  

The suicide of remorse seems more human, though sometimes it is corrupted by petty emotions like plain old jealousy. Shakespeare’s Othello, declaiming “Say that I loved, not wisely, but too well,” sounds like the despairing drunk on the late-night news who shoots his ex-wife, his children, and himself “because I love her.” Contrast that with the pitiable suicide of Lady Macbeth, tortured by her role in turning her husband into a killing machine. 

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons gave us an even broader example of suicidal remorse, in the factory owner who faces up to the fact that his profiteering on making faulty parts caused the death of untold numbers of soldiers, and, indirectly, that of his own son. One suicide in modern fiction takes the remorse of an innocent ordinary person to a level worthy of the great Greek tragedies. 

In William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Sophie accompanies her mad lover into suicide as the only way to atone for the sin she committed—against her will—in the Nazi death camp. 

Fictional suicide also recognizes the more common tribulations of ordinary, middle-class people. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, and Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier (The Awakening) were three well-married women, who, having won the best place open to them, struggled to get out of it. Yet, each stepped off the narrow path of conformity only to find herself on the edge of an abyss she could not bridge. Ditto for Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (House of Mirth), who defeats her own best efforts even to achieve a rich, unhappy marriage. Their solutions?—a speeding train, arsenic, a late-night swim seaward, an overdose. 

When I first read these four novels, I was impatient with these women. I wanted them to live up to their aspirations, shape up, hang in there, march “to the beat of a different drummer” on “the road less taken.” And so on. In other words—I was young. 

Some 20th century fiction gives us the suicide of honor as understood (and misunderstood) by more humble characters. One of these is the suicide of Little Jude Fawley, the son of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Jude, the father, doesn’t even know of his son’s existence until Jude Jr. lands (from Australia) on Jude and Susan’s doorstep. After Little Jude’s arrival, Susan gives birth to two more children, while the family sinks deeper and deeper into poverty, to the very edge of homelessness. 

When Jude learns that Susan is pregnant yet again, he is astonished at these hapless adults, who don’t seem to know any more than he does about how or why they keep acquiring more mouths to feed. But he loves them, and wants them to survive, so he “solves” their problem by killing the two infants and himself, because, as his suicide note says, “we were too many.” 

When I first read Jude the Obscure I experienced a shock of recognition. All his life, my father (who never read novels) told, over and over again, the story of his arrival with his mother from Italy to join the father he hardly remembered, in a rocky mountain mining town that was worse than what they had left. Less than a year after his arrival, he came home from school one day to find his mother lying in bed with a new-born infant. 

My father burst into tears of outrage and despair: “We don’t even have enough to eat, and you go out and buy a baby!” In all the critical and psychological writings on the “pathology” of “strange” Little Jude, I have never read anything about the trauma suffered‚ throughout history, world-wide—by countless impoverished children, battered by irrational forces of nature and socio/economic abuses that no one can or will explain to them. 

Another obscure immigrant is the middle-aged father of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. In Bohemia, Mr. Shimerda had been a respected artisan, a reader, a musician, an honorable, amiable man who not only married the coarse, mean servant girl he had impregnated (instead of just paying her off, as she and everyone else would have preferred) but allowed her to nag him into going to America where their children (three or four of them by then) might have better chances. In a sod hut on the bleak plains of Nebraska, Mr. Shimerda’s violin sits mute in its case. 

No one has any use for his music or his craftsman skills or his love of poetry, and he has neither the skills nor the capital for farming. He has nothing but his beloved daughter. Antonía combines the physical endurance of her mother with the sensitivity of her father; she might just make it in this raw, unforgiving country—if no useless burden weighs her down. As the second ruthless Nebraska winter closes in on them, he cleans and dresses himself for burial, then quietly goes out to the barn and shoots himself. 

Mr. Shimerda’s death punctures the myth of the hardy pioneer, heroically taming the land, while incidentally driving out or killing indigenous people. His is the bitter reality for many in the masses of poor castoffs who made up the second wave (1840-1920) from Europe, the simultaneous waves from Asia—and far too many in the repeated waves that continue to cross and recross our southern border.  

Unlike the death of Little Jude, Mr. Shimerda’s suicide succeeds as a heroic sacrifice. In later years, as Antonía endures and prospers, she feels “closer to him, all the time” inspired by the spirit of her father—not hindered by the burden of this loving but depressed, displaced parent. But, if Shimerda’s suicide is Antonía’s gain, Cather seems to say, his death is our incalculable loss—how to measure the cost to a country that, until very recently had little use for a poor immigrant who played the violin but couldn’t last three hours behind a horse-driven plow? (My grandfather, I was told, had a fine singing voice and played many instruments, but I never heard them; by the time I was born, all music in him had been suffocated by silicosis.) 

I searched my memory in vain for a “suicide bomber” in fiction, a character who chooses death as part of what s/he believes is a purposeful social, political, or religious act of violence—an “honorable” murder/suicide. Even the martyrs in our religious myths are non-violent. (Samson? By the time he pulled down the Philistine temple, he didn’t have much of a life to throw away.) 

Maybe I was being too literal about protest suicide? An act of violence committed by a character who has about a 2 percent chance of escaping alive is actually a protest suicide. Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas (Native Son) may not know consciously that his murder of a white woman is a murder/suicide protest against racism, but Wright made sure that we readers know it. 

Russell Banks’ fictionalized John Brown (Cloudsplitter) challenges the standard image of Brown as a madman and forces us to ask ourselves, who is mad, the people who find slave-owning tolerable, or the man driven to become a violent, live-or-die instrument of God’s judgment on this horror? 

Getting back to Camus, his play The Just Assassins gives us a young ill-suited would-be assassin of the Russian Tsar. He and his idealistic allies know that none of them are unlikely to survive this “just” and “necessary” act. And, speaking of pre-revolutionary Russia, the novels of Turgenev (Fathers and Sons, Rudin, On the Eve, Virgin Soil) give us portraits of suicide-bombers-in-the-making, who come close to a profile of present-day suicide bombers. 

According to non-fiction being written about these people, they are young, highly educated, accomplished members of the privileged classes; the women among them often have been gang-raped by foreign occupiers. Some are Arabs born in Europe, who feel segregated, shut out of positions equal to their training. The word “honor” occurs frequently in their suicide notes to family (as it did in notes by Japanese Kamikaze pilots during World War II).  

In other words, they resemble the ancient literary tradition of suicide by members of the leadership class, to retain or regain honor against a foreign enemy—like the defeated general or the violated Lucretia. They are educated and idealistic like Camus’ home-grown Just Assassins and our own American Weathermen of the 1960-70s. However, unlike those privileged white Americans (whose idealism held a component of deluded arrogance), these mostly non-western terrorists feel humiliated, dominated, and despised by an alien people, as Wright’s Bigger Thomas did. 

Somewhere, some fiction writer is probing the souls of these current suicidal warriors, stripping away layers of stereotype to show us a deeper reality than we can get in the horrors of the daily news. Maybe someone like Camus, who, while he completely rejected revolutionary violence (incurring the wrath of Sartre and the intellectual French Left) managed to portray the complete humanity and self-sacrificial “honor” of his “Just Assassins.”