Hamlet’s jilted lover Ophelia drowns in a stream surrounded by the flowers she had held in her arms. Though Ophelia’s death can be parsed as an accident, her growing madness and the fact that she was, as Gertrude says, “incapable of her own distress.” And as far as we’re concerned, Gertrude’s monologue about Ophelia’s drowning is one of the most beautiful descriptions of death in Shakespeare.
QUEEN GERTRUDE There is a willow grows aslant a brook, That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream; There with fantastic garlands did she come Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them: There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke; When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide; And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up: Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes; As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element: but long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death.
Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
In an extremely dramatic move only befitting the emotional mess that is Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train in her despair, mirroring the novel’s early depiction of a railway worker’s death by similar means. Though this may be a false image, we imagine one hand to her forehead and her skirts trailing behind her as she gracefully leaps to her doom.
“There,” she said to herself, looking into the shadow of the carriage, at the sand and coal dust which covered the sleepers– “there, in the very middle, and I will punish him and escape from everyone and from myself.” She tried to fling herself below the wheels of the first carriage as it reached her; but the red bag which she tried to drop out of her hand delayed her, and she was too late; she missed the moment. She had to wait for the next carriage. A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came upon her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second carriage. And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees. And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. “Where am I? What am I doing? What for?” She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. “Lord, forgive me all!” she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her. And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.
Cecilia Lisbon, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’ entire novel deserves to be on this list for its dreamy horror of five sisters killing themselves in the 1970s Michigan suburbs. But the death of the youngest, Cecilia, is the most brutal and distressing. Having failed to kill herself by cutting her wrists, she leaves her own party to throw herself from her bedroom window, landing impaled on the steel fence below.
Mrs. Lisbon said, “All right. Go up, then. We’ll have fun without you.” As soon as she had permission, Cecilia made for the stairs. She kept her face to the floor, moving in her personal oblivion, hersunflower eyes fixed on the predicament of her life we would never understand. She climbed the steps to the kitchen, closed the door behindher, and proceeded through the upstairs hallway. We could hear her feet right above us. Halfway up the staircase to the second floor her steps made no more noise, but it was only thirty seconds later that we heard the wet sound of her body falling onto the fence that ran alongside the house. First came the sound of wind, a rushing we decided later must have been caused by her wedding dress filling with air. This was brief. A human body falls fast.
Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
In life, Emma Bovary wished for romance, for intrigue, to escape the banalities of her provincial life as a doctor’s wife. Hoping to expire gracefully, she eats a bowl of arsenic, but is punished by hours of indelicate and public suffering before she finally dies. To us, the chilling strangeness in these passages comes from Emma’s continued lack of grip on reality, her insistence on the idea of something overwhelming the terrible fact of it.
“Ah! it is but a little thing, death!” she thought. “I shall fall asleep and all will be over.”
Edna Pontellier, The Awakening, Kate Chopin
This is the first suicide that many students experience in literature, and it is a strange and calm one: Edna simply walks into the water. We imagine the reality of drowning yourself would be much messier, but Chopin’s version is a relief, a cool compress against the pains of Edna’s psyche in beautiful, fluttering prose.
The water of the Gulf stretched out before her, gleaming with the million lights of the sun. The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude. All along the white beach, up and down, there was no living thing in sight. A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water. Edna had found her old bathing suit still hanging, faded, upon its accustomed peg. She put it on, leaving her clothing in the bath-house. But when she was there beside the sea, absolutely alone, she cast the unpleasant, pricking garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her. How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! how delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known. The foamy wavelets curled up to her white feet, and coiled like serpents about her ankles. She walked out. The water was chill, but she walked on. The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace. She went on and on. She remembered the night she swam far out, and recalled the terror that seized her at the fear of being unable to regain the shore. She did not look back now, but went on and on, thinking of the blue-grass meadow that she had traversed when a little child, believing that it had no beginning and no end. Her arms and legs were growing tired. She thought of Léonce and the children. They were a part of her life. But they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul. How Mademoiselle Reisz would have laughed, perhaps sneered, if she knew! “And you call yourself an artist! What pretensions, Madame! The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.” Exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her. “Good-by — because I love you.” He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand. Perhaps Doctor Mandelet would have understood if she had seen him — but it was too late; the shore was far behind her, and her strength was gone. She looked into the distance, and the old terror flamed up for an instant, then sank again. Edna heard her father’s voice and her sister Margaret’s. She heard the barking of an old dog that was chained to the sycamore tree. The spurs of the cavalry officer clanged as he walked across the porch. There was the hum of bees, and the musky odor of pinks filled the air.
Lily Bart, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
Another contested suicide, we’ve always held that Lily’s overdose wasn’t something the planned exactly, but let happen. Wharton’s description of death, disguised as a passage about simply falling asleep, is deft and heartbreaking, but the real tragedy, of course, is that as Lily dies, the man she loves is rushing to her side to ask her to marry him.
She did not, in truth, consider the question very closely —the physical craving for sleep was her only sustained sensation. Her mind shrank from the glare of thought as instinctively as eyes contract in a blaze of light— darkness, darkness was what she must have at any cost. She raised herself in bed and swallowed the contents of the glass; then she blew out her candle and lay down. She lay very still, waiting with a sensuous pleasure for the first effects of the soporific. She knew in advance what form they would take—the gradual cessation of the inner throb, the soft approach of passiveness, as though an invisible hand made magic passes over her in the darkness. The very slowness and hesitancy of the effect increased its fascination: it was delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of unconsciousness. Tonight the drug seemed to work more slowly than usual: each passionate pulse had to be stilled in turn, and it was long before she felt them dropping into abeyance, like sentinels falling asleep at their posts. But gradually the sense of complete subjugation came over her, and she wondered languidly what had made her feel so uneasy and excited. She saw now that there was nothing to be excited about—she had returned to her normal view of life. Tomorrow would not be so difficult after all: she felt sure that she would have the strength to meet it. She did not quite remember what it was that she had been afraid to meet, but the uncertainty no longer troubled her. She had been unhappy, and now she was happy —she had felt herself alone, and now the sense of loneliness had vanished.
Septimus Warren Smith, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Another example of defenestration, Septimus is a veteran of World War I suffering from PTSD, who cannot bear society a moment longer. This death is notable for its apparent casualness, a rejection of the world without a real desire to die. Woolf said once that in the original draft of Mrs. Dalloway, it was Clarissa herself that committed suicide, and called Septimus her “double.”
Getting up rather unsteadily, hopping indeed from foot to foot, he considered Mrs. Filmer’s nice clean bread knife with “Bread” carved on the handle. Ah, but one mustn’t spoil that. The gas fire? But it was too late now. Holmes was coming. Razors he might have got, but Rezia, who always did that sort of thing, had packed them. There remained only the window, the large Bloomsbury-lodging house window, the tiresome, the troublesome, and rather melodramatic business of opening the window and throwing himself out. It was their idea of tragedy, not his or Rezia’s (for she was with him). Holmes and Bradshaw like that sort of thing. (He sat on the sill.) But he would wait till the very last moment. He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings — what did THEY want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.
James O. Incandeza, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
In one of the most bizarre and terrifying fictional suicides we can think of, James O. Incandeza, the famed director known to his children as ‘Himself,’ customizes the family’s microwave oven to allow himself to commit suicide with it. The scene is never shown, but we learn of it through two of his sons’ detached discussions on the matter.
‘I didn’t even think a microwave oven would go on unless the door was closed. What with microwaves oscillating all over, inside. I thought there was like a refrigerator-light or Read-Only-tab-like device.’ ‘You seem to be forgetting the technical ingenuity of the person we’re talking about.’ ‘And you were totally shocked and traumatized. He was asphyxuated, irradiated, and/or burnt.’ ‘As we later reconstructed the scene, he’d used a wide-bit drill and small hacksaw to make a head-sized hole in the oven door, then when he’d gotten his head in he’d carefully packed the extra space around his neck with wadded-up aluminum foil.’ ‘Sounds kid of ad hoc and jerry-rigged and haphazard.’ ‘Everybody’s a critic. This wasn’t an aesthetic endeavor.’ ‘…’
Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Oh, Romeo and Juliet. As a certain sassy gay friend once said, what, what, what are you doing? This needless double suicide, another classic that many people read early on in life, is an epic reminder to think for a while before you take drastic measures. At least long enough for the other person to wake up from their fake poison.
Ah, dear Juliet, Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe That unsubstantial death is amorous, And that the lean abhorred monster keeps Thee here in dark to be his paramour? For fear of that, I still will stay with thee; And never from this palace of dim night Depart again: here, here will I remain With worms that are thy chamber-maids; O, here Will I set up my everlasting rest, And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss A dateless bargain to engrossing death! Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide! Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark! Here’s to my love!
O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
Go, get thee hence, for I will not away. Exit FRIAR LAURENCE What’s here? a cup, closed in my true love’s hand? Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end: O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop To help me after? I will kiss thy lips; Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, To make die with a restorative. Kisses him Thy lips are warm.
[Within] Lead, boy: which way?
Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! Snatching ROMEO’s dagger This is thy sheath; Stabs herself there rust, and let me die. Falls on ROMEO’s body, and dies
Inspector Javert, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Maybe we’re influenced by the drama of the musical, but for us, Javert’s suicide has everything: hellfire, despair, darkness, mundanity. He was driven to it by the terrifying idea that men can change, and that good and evil are not black and white but a spectrum, which for a man dependent on his morality for his own sense of himself was simply impossible to bear.
The wall of the quay, abrupt, confused, mingled with the vapors, instantly concealed from sight, produced the effect of an escarpment of the infinite. Nothing was to be seen, but the hostile chill of the water and the stale odor of the wet stones could be felt. A fierce breath rose from this abyss. The flood in the river, divined rather than perceived, the tragic whispering of the waves, the melancholy vastness of the arches of the bridge, the imaginable fall into that gloomy void, into all that shadow was full of horror. Javert remained motionless for several minutes, gazing at this opening of shadow; he considered the invisible with a fixity that resembled attention. The water roared. All at once he took off his hat and placed it on the edge of the quay. A moment later, a tall black figure, which a belated passer-by in the distance might have taken for a phantom, appeared erect upon the parapet of the quay, bent over towards the Seine, then drew itself up again, and fell straight down into the shadows; a dull splash followed; and the shadow alone was in the secret of the convulsions of that obscure form which had disappeared beneath the water.