The Supple Suitor: Death, Women, Feminism, and (Assisted or Unassisted) Suicide

Sandra M. GilbertUniversity of California, Davis
Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 2005), 247-255.

This essay pursues women writers’ often fatal attraction to death. From Emily Dickinson to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, women poets have often imagined death as multiply and richly seductive. This essay outlines four general types of textual representation of suicide, naming these the “erotic,” “sacrificial,” “self-loathing,” and “mimetic” or “competitive.” These classifications necessarily also intertwine, thickening the seductive suicidal net. This paper moves from poetry’s persistent Charon, the “supple suitor,” to the current social struggle over assisted suicide, to which women are far more likely than men to fall victim. In the framework of the suicide plot this essay outlines, such a choice seems not much more than an accession to cultural proscriptions, which lurk beneath apparently rational choices. While choice has, for feminists, nearly invariably positive associations, revolutionary suicide may be nothing more than that old bug bear, the slippery slope. Against such a choice, this essay counsels readers to look at the work of disabled activists on the “Not Dead Yet” website and advises us to consider the sorrow so many suicides leave behind.

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]