Death Unmanned

Gail Holst-Warhaft, Cornell University
Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 2005), 275-282.

This essay critiques Carolyn Heilbrun’s choice of suicide and looks to Amanda Cross, her novel Honest Doubt (2000), and the nonfictional The Last Gift of Time (1997) for clues about Heilbrun’s reasons. While acknowledging that the cause of suicide is never simple, this essay presents no apology for it. Arguing with Heilbrun’s defense of its rationality, the essay explains why suicide has rarely achieved social acceptance and casts the reasons for suicide ferreted out from Heilbrun’s fictional work as self-contradictory, irrational, and non-feminist. In the novels, there is a series of disturbing contradictions, as Heilbrun tells her readers to forget the past yet wants her children to miss her; loves and feels loved by her husband yet thinks him unlikely to mourn her death—at the same time she cannot bear the thought of grieving for him. Reevaluating the story of Antigone—whose tragedy Heilbrun took as the occasion for the novel, The Theban Mysteries (1971)—this essay argues that, from a civic perspective, the Athenian audience found heroes like Antigone tragic in their desire to control their fate, combined with a lack of concern for what comes after or for those around them. In closing, the essay stresses that suicide may, for some, be a wished-for ending, but in the event, death by one’s own hand is a desperate and surprisingly difficult business, unlike anything one might hope for.

This article is part of a special issue of personal and scholarly reflections on the life of Carolyn Heilbrun.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]