- Introduction to "Suicidal Romanticism:Origins and Influences"
The essays in this issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination broaden the important conversation on suicide by providing newly recovered ways of thinking about it in relation to Romantic-era cultural forces, the prehistory of these ways of thinking, and their lasting effects.1 What marks this issue as unique amongst recent works on suicide is its breadth: it explores literature on suicide by men and women and in a range of genres from poetry to fiction to drama, and, while the main focus is on the Romantic period, it also makes reference to works on suicide from the Classical to the Modern period. Some unexpected writers are shown to be significant contributors to the concept of Romantic suicide, too; these include William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Maria Edgeworth, Thomas Herbert Lister, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Tennessee Williams. Moreover, the topic of suicide is paired with unusual forms and subjects here, including: the silver fork novel of the late-Romantic period; the Modern drama; religious enthusiasm; infanticide; incest; and interracial marriage. What the contributors to this issue demonstrate through these wide-ranging treatments is that the power—perhaps even the shock-value—of Romantic suicide made it a useful tool for a range of authors writing on vastly disparate topics. While many critical treatments of Romantic suicide have demonstrated how the topic was used as a political tool—to discuss human rights and protest slavery, gender inequality, and the confines of marriage for women2—several of the essays in this issue reveal the unexpected uses to which the topic was put in the literature of the period.
The subject of suicide was of great official and popular concern to the British, who believed that they were uniquely afflicted with the propensity to kill themselves. However, the symbolic import of suicide was hotly contested in various texts of the Romantic era. For instance, in the Neoclassical mode and in some radical literature, suicide was lauded as heroic. It was also a popular element in the sometimes vapid, tear-jerking literature of Sensibility and tales of celebrity suicides, such as that of the young poet, Thomas Chatterton. In Gothic novels, such as James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, self-killers represent horror [End Page v] and utter sinfulness, and yet many other writers, following Robert Burton's influential Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, attribute suicidality to extreme religious devotion. Suicide could also convey revolution, the defiance of tyranny, and a defense of one's existential and bodily autonomy—all key characteristics of Romanticism as it has traditionally been defined. Nevertheless, by the end of the period, the legal understanding of suicide was linked almost invariably to victimhood, rather than to resistance: English courts found suicides to have been insane in over 97% of cases, a view that dominates today's understanding of suicide (Marsh 93). Given the various significances of suicide in the period, then, this issue does not make an attempt to flatten out these meanings into a single message, but, rather, it explores the subtleties and depths of the meanings of Romantic suicide, even as it considers the concepts—including ones from other eras—that shaped it, and those it helped to shape.
In a sense, to focus on the influences and origins of ideas about suicide in Romantic-era texts, the theme of this issue of Studies in Literary Imagination is to search for the history of—even an explanation for—what is largely considered to be aberrant, unnatural, and perhaps what divides us from our fellow animals. In From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-killing in Classical Antiquity, Anton van Hooff asks, "Is man really placing himself outside nature by laying hands upon himself?" (10). Van Hooff goes on to relate Aristotle's tale of "a Scythian horse-breeder [who] tried to have a young stallion mate with its mother. The animal refused, but later it was cheated when the mare's head had been covered. Discovering the truth, it jumped into an abyss" (10). Aristotle's story implies that suicide is, indeed, natural—but it also implies that the incest taboo...