Monday, 27 April 2015

Fallen women and suicide in the 19th century

1/ "Was suicide a female malady?":
"Women were fictionalized and mythologized much as were monsters in Victorian England. [...] For the most part, fictions about women and suicide became more prevalent and seemed more credible than did facts. The facts themselves were clear: throughout the nineteenth century women consistently had a suicide rate lower than that of men [...] Despite all evidence to the contrary, most Victorians believed what they wished to believe about the frequency of female suicide.
In the main they did so because they wanted and expected suicide, like madness, to be a "female malady." (See Showalter, 1985.) Since women were statistically over-represented among the mentally ill — primarily because in Victorian England they were more often confined to "homes" for the insane and were more easily countable than were men — they were generally thought to be more vulnerable to madness. The reasoning for linking women and suicide went something like this: more women are confined for insanity than men and suicide is a result of insanity; therefore more women should commit suicide than men (see Lewes, 52-78). Or else it went like this: woman is a lesser man, a weaker being, both physically and mentally. Resisting suicide takes willpower and courage; therefore women should fall victim to suicidal impulses far more readily than should men. Unless the weaker sex were to be credited with unwanted strength, the fact that women killed themselves less frequently than men required considerable explaining. Such was the price of retaining the displacement of self-destruction to women in a patriarchal society that was dedicated to championing male mental and physical superiority and to rationalizing sexual differences..."

"Throughout the century, men's explanations for the discrepancy between statistics and expectations centered on what was presumed to be the female disposition. In 1857, writing for the Westminster Review, George Henry Lewes attributed the cause for the lower suicide rate among women to women's "greater timidity" and to "their greater power of passive endurance, both of bodily and mental pain" (71). Lewes was echoed in 1880 by a writer for Blackwood's who asserted that women were "habitually better behaved and quieter; they have more obedience, more resignation, and a stronger directing sentiment of duty.... They possess precisely dispositions of temperament and teaching which best withhold from voluntary death" (727).
At century's end, men like S.A.K. Strahan and Havelock Ellis made less generous conjectures about the female temperament and suicide than had Lewes. Strahan believed that women were weaker contenders in the struggle for existence and therefore less prone to its aftereffects — like suicide. For him, their lower suicide rate depended upon woman's "lack of courage and her natural repugnance to personal violence and disfigurement" (179). Female ignobility, not nobility, marked his suppositions. Ellis's similar judgments hinged less on the rate than on the means of suicide. Referring to what he called the "passive" methods of suicide (drowning, for example), Ellis found women temperamentally irresolute in opting for means that required both less preparation and less gore. More violent forms of suicide offended "against women's sense of propriety and their intense horror of making a mess" and reflected their fear of public scrutiny after they were dead. "If it were possible to find an easy method of suicide by which the body could be entirely disposed of," said Ellis, "there would probably be a considerable increase of suicides among women" (335).
Inherent in these observations is an absurd prejudice in favor of bloodier suicides as being braver and therefore more manly..."

"Many believed with De Quincey that "there is no man who in his heart would not reverence a woman that chose to die rather than to be dishonoured" (VIII, 399). But deserted women who committed suicide did so not only out of bereavement, Many were seduced as well as abandoned. They killed themselves rather than face the shame of "falling," for fallen women immediately gained new willpower in Victorian eyes. Sinful creatures now considered responsible for their own destinies, they became blameable for their wrong choices (see Mitchell, p. x). If they lived on, as most did both in Victorian literature and in actuality, they might either become prostitutes or else atone for their sin through good works, through death-in-life, or through some untimely demise."

Can't say if this essay helps or interferes with my reading of Thomas Hood's poem "Bridge of Sighs", but it certainly tells a lot about Victorian society. Reminds me of Gloria Steinem's essay "If Men Could Menstruate", in which she argues that men see menstruation as filthy and disgusting only because it's women that menstruate, and that everything would be totally different if the situation were reversed, similar to the way men in Victorian society said that women were weaker and one would need courage to resist suicide, and yet, seeing the statistics which showed that fewer women actually committed suicide, changed their theory by saying that because women were weaker and inferior, they were afraid of suicide, especially painful methods. 

2/ "Atwood and Tolstoy"- A Handmaid's Tale and Anna Karenina:
"... You wouldn’t think the two had much in common, would you? A 19th century Russian novel about adultery, and a twentieth century feminist depiction of a chilling dystopia, but in both cases it’s all about the women. In both novels the reader is obliged to watch a woman struggling against the impossible constraints of a society that not only forces her take the blame for all desire, but makes her a criminal in her own eyes for her sexuality.
[...] And this link between a 19th century Russian male author and a modern day Canadian feminist troubled me. Why must women always be represented as needing to pay for their desires? Why are women always the ones represented as having the dangerous desires in the first place? Are there never any men in novels who lose their heads for love and suffer? Surely in reality men must love with the same intensity and scandalous vibrancy as women? I wracked my brains to think of famous novels in which men suffered for love and could only come up with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and Proust’s depiction of the relationship between Marcel and Albertine. Yet in both instances there is something narcissistic about the man’s role, something suggestive of his extraordinary capacity for feeling, something that ennobles him rather than disgraces him. His is not a shameful self-sacrifice to love..."

This makes me think of a topic I intended to write about: heartbreaks in fiction. I think of 3 cases in which the emotional anguish is so great and extreme it becomes physical- Kitty in Anna Karenina, Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Caroline Helstone (twice) in Shirley.
The 1st 2 have been compared here:
"Tolstoy and Austen, with their keen skills of observation, must have seen how impossible or rare it is for emotional anguish to lead so directly to recognizable physical illnesses."
"The challenge before the writer is then this: they must describe grief of unusual intensity without ever defining the precise nature of the grief. Illness — a state of simply not being well, being removed in a definite way from happiness, health, and general wellness — presents a solution to this."
Regarding Kitty, her breakdown doesn't result from the heartbreak alone. A disappointment in love doesn't lead to something that serious. It's a combination of: disillusionment, collapse of all dreams and intentions, realisation that she has made the wrong decision (she loses both, especially because Levin, when rejected, feels rebuffed and backs out completely), feeling of humiliation (not dancing at a ball is a huge problem- she refuses everyone for Vronsky and is forgotten by him), feeling of betrayal (Anna, perfectly aware of Kitty's feeling for Vronsky, still takes him away from her, acting like Oblonsky without knowing it), pain (which she cannot share with anyone, which worsens the anguish), despair... Kitty's young, and the excitement she has for the ball and for Vronsky and the image of a future with him is so great that the moment everything collapses, she collapses.
Regarding Caroline Helstone, again there are numerous factors: she has unrequited love, feels estranged from the Moores, has difficulty in accepting Robert's sudden change, feels neglected within her own house, notices a parallel between herself and her aunt Mary Cave, despairs, suffers from loneliness, finds herself misunderstood and her voice unheard, feels useless, sees her wishes to work disregarded, perceives the injustices against other women around her, thinks of her own life as meaningless, etc. That's the 1st time. The 2nd time, it's the same reasons, plus Caroline's belief that Robert and Shirley are in love and will marry, which means that if before there's a little hope, it's now all gone.
That is, if we insist on rationalising "illnesses of the heart".
Jane Austen doesn't show Marianne the same love and sympathy Tolstoy and Charlotte Bronte have for their characters. Contrast Marianne Dashwood with Jane Bennett and Anne Elliot. Of course in Marianne's case, besides disappointment and pain there are shock, humiliation and betrayal, but we can feel that Jane Austen sees the illness as also caused by Marianne's emotional tendencies, foolishness and inability to compose herself.
Speaking of these heartbreaks, I mean to say that the depiction of these sicknesses doesn't mean that women are weak, frail and vulnerable in love and particularly susceptible to collapses. There are other factors involved, which contribute to and exacerbate the pain. The same goes for the suicides. Litlove asks "Are there never any men in novels who lose their heads for love and suffer? Surely in reality men must love with the same intensity and scandalous vibrancy as women?", but women's feelings and sensibilities are 1 thing, there are lots of reasons, lots of other factors that cannot and should not be disregarded. Even today in democratic countries, in some aspects gender inequality still exists. I cannot say anything about The Handmaid's Tale, which I haven't read, but in Anna Karenina, it's clear that society shares part of the blame. Compare Anna and Oblonsky. Compare Anna and Vronsky.
Needless to say, the suggestion that Tolstoy punishes Anna, I always find distasteful.
As to the question about male characters who suffer in love, I can think of Charles Bovary, who dies heartbroken, and Vronsky, who after Anna's death becomes so devastated that he chooses a passive way of killing himself. Other examples can be Heathcliff, Gatsby and Pip- the fact that they don't commit suicide doesn't mean that their suffering isn't great or destructive. 

3/ "Why does Anna have to die?":
3 novels of adultery: Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Cousin Bazilio:
"... The way each woman dies is interesting in its own different way. Gustave Flaubert gets Emma Bovary to drink poison out of despair after her mounting debts, which she contracted during her illicit affairs, threaten to expose her infidelity to her husband, Charles; alone, unable to obtain money from her former lover, Rodolphe, who disdainfully turns his back on her, she dies a slow, agonising death lying in bed. As she expires a blind beggar sings a dirty song outsider her bedroom window. It’s a tragic novel, allegedly. But this juxtaposition of the tragic and the profane say much about Flaubert’s intentions with this novel.
Anna Karenina dies because, after developing a severe depression, she develops a paranoid jealousy of her lover, Vronsky, and fear of becoming alone if he abandons her; this contributes to constant irritations at Vronksy and fights with him, which only increases her delusions that he’s planning to abandon her for another woman. An irrational urge to punish him incites her to kill herself. If realism were an important criterion, I would put Anna’s motivation below Emma’s. I don’t use the word irrational lightly for Anna for even Tolstoy has difficulty explaining what truly motivates her and eventually stops at a wall that doesn’t allow him to go any deeper into her thoughts. As a character says in All the Names, a José Saramago novel I’ve just finished re-reading, perhaps suicide can’t be explained. But I find Emma’s fear of social embarrassment, of losing face, more convincing..."

Himadri's comment:
"... Anna's motives are never clear: indeed, the uncertainty of characters' motives, even - or rather especially - to the characters themselves, seems to me among the novel's central themes: none of these characters can come close to understanding themselves; they are driven by forces beyond their control, and also beyond their comprehension. Near the start of her liaison with Vronsky, Anna seems almost deliberately to misunderstand Karenin; towards the end, she seems, again almost deliberately, to misunderstand Vronsky. She misunderstands Karenin seemingly to convince herself that her husband is an unfeeling automaton (which he isn't), because she wouldn't be able to bear the thought that she was betraying a man capable of feeling hurt; but by the end, she misunderstands Vronsky in such a way as to cause herself maximum mental anguish. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Anna is - perhaps unconsciously, perhaps partly consciously - punishing herself. But her motives are too complex, too mysterious, even to herself. Tolstoy takes us as far as it is possible to go into her mind, but, as you say, beyond a point we hit a wall: human motivations are too profound, too complex, ever to be fully understood..."

Again, if we insist on rationalising... 
Anna's motives may not be as clear as Emma's, and perhaps one may argue that her suicide isn't as necessary as Emma's (whatever that means), but I should note that Anna does what she does not only because society condemns her for the adultery and makes her an outcast, and not only because she's a woman, but also because of the kind of person she is. She overthinks, exaggerates everything, complicates her own problems. Part of this is good, showing that she has a conscience, cannot lie and cannot live a double life like the hypocrites around her. Part of it is bad, because she complicates everything but at the same time doesn't want to face reality (in this she resembles Emma), therefore places herself in a situation where she, kept away from her son and rejected by society, has nobody and nothing but Vronsky and all of her life and concerns now evolve around him. At the same time, her situation is precarious and uncertain, because she's not married to Vronsky and he can leave her for someone else any time. Under such circumstances, people become more possessive and clingy and paranoid, so it's the uncertainty of it all, exacerbated by the ennui, that makes Anna become paranoid, torment herself and suffocate Vronsky, and finally makes her terminate her own life. The feeling that life is meaningless makes it worse, as Anna starts to doubt, and feels that living with the person she loves cannot bring her true happiness. All of these feelings accumulate and all of these steps add up to the final moment. Anna, as anyone can see, can be very irrational and unstable. Before death she uses some kind of drugs, probably opium- that also contributes to her decision. 
One can say that Anna could find a way out and didn't have to die, but then that means she has to be a different of person, whereas this is the way she is- she thinks too much and torments herself and tends to be unstable. If not, she wouldn't trap herself that way, make herself depend entirely on another person. The factors that drive her to suicide would be jealousy, shame, disappointment and the feeling that she is lost and her life is meaningless and she has nobody, also the feeling that she leaves everything for Vronsky and is betrayed by him (though she isn't). And self-doubt, self-loathing. 
So no, I cannot see how a writer may choose not to let Anna kill herself. Unless she's a different character. 

1 comment:

  1. Heartbreak doesn't lead to physical illness alone (well, unless it stresses you out A LOT and the combined effects over 30 years might decrease your lifespan, but that's another story). But I can tell from personal experience that depression, while it may not directly cause an illness, can exacerbate an existing infection or condition. I once recovered from food poisoning. A year later, I had developed depression and a pretty bad case of acid reflux. It turned out that my food poisoning had made my stomach more vulnerable, but it only came into full force when I got stressed out. To be honest, it wasn't heartbreak, but I guess the same principle applies.

    Women are always subject to norms, even more so than men. That is our bane. I agree with you that Anna's suicide is believable. Anna is an active, passionate person, who needs love and attention. She is very aware of image, even if she thinks lowly of society hypocrites. Even in Part 1, it is implied that she's not just into people's wholesome values. She may diss Countess Lydia Ivanovna's religious hypocrisy but Anna likes fashionable society - which can be superficial and immoral, even if she justifies it by claiming she wants enlightened society.