The art of dying: suicide in the works of Kate Chopin and Sylvia Plath.

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Gentry, Deborah
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Middle Tennessee State University
Although the representation of suicide is commonplace in literature, few studies have explicitly dealt with the meaning of suicide in the works of women writers. Margaret Higonnet classifies representations of suicide as "masculine" or "feminine," and finds that since the Romantic age, literary suicides have been feminized. Masculine suicides are those where the characters, male or female, choose to die as an heroic act of protest against individual or social wrongs, while feminine suicides are the result of mental illness. Chapter I applies Higonnet's theories and those of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar concerning the division of women literary figures into angels or monsters to representative literary suicides of nineteenth century.
Chapter II examines the suicide of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin, a novel that is often misunderstood by critics who read it using the Romantic paradigm. Chopin breaks that paradigm, presenting Edna's suicide as heroic.
Chapters III and IV examine two works by Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar and Ariel. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood survives her suicide attempt and is able to reconstruct her personality. However, the novel is thinly disguised autobiography, and approximately ten years later, Plath herself had a relapse and committed suicide. In the year before her death she wrote some of her greatest poems, published posthumously as Ariel. While Plath's life and work fit more easily into the paradigm of feminine suicide than that of Chopin, many poems in Ariel portray the female speaker as a rebel against the tyranny of patriarchy. Chapter IV concludes with an extensive analysis of Plath's last poem, "Edge" which portrays the suicide of the speaker as a calm and heroic act in keeping with the tone set by Chopin in The Awakening.
The Conclusion, Chapter V, explores the need that women have for self-actualization within the framework of love, marriage, and motherhood. Historically, those institutions have precluded women's self-actualization and have demanded from women a degree of unselfishness that is unnatural and harmful. Artists such as Chopin and Plath are stating that women should not have to die in order to live.