The importance of female suicide in Chopin and Plath
Female suicide has long been a romanticised and fetishised phenomenon in the Eastern and Western worlds. Female suicide is always interpretative: in the Eastern world, historically, it has been appropriate for women to commit suicide in order to “save face”, while in the Western world female suicide is often read as an attempt to escape from patriarchal institutions of gendered oppression. Yet individual motives do not always map neatly onto cultural trends, and in that sense female suicide remains beyond the reach of unequivocal understanding. Perhaps this is the reason for the urge to depict female voluntary death in works of art and literature, to express the confusion and, at times, the fatal allure of such an act, while at the same time registering it as something important, an importance that lies in issues of gender. There are many famous literary women who have taken their own lives in a symbolic gesture – of protest, of liberation, of escape. Why do they do this, and what does this act of sacrifice achieve? For all our attempts to discover the unwritten meaning of female literary suicide, at times we become so preoccupied with the violence of the death, the motive, method and cultural context of the act itself that the woman who makes this bold statement is lost in a myriad of discussions relating to what she has done but not to whom she is. This essay looks at two famous literary suicides – that of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and of the personae of the poems of Sylvia Plath – and attempts to recover the woman’s identity in the discussion of suicide, explain why female suicide as a gendered phenomenon is important, and discover if the reclamation of autonomy in literary suicide is ever truly possible.