“Ah! it is but a little thing, death!” Not so little, Emma, but something that great writers of every generation have discussed and described at length, parsing and probing at the idea of death in all its many forms. For us, of all deaths in literature, suicides are often the most affecting, whether there is precise internal monologue or abject mystery surrounding the character’s intentions. Of course, we definitely do not endorse suicide in the real world, but in fiction, suicides can be beautiful, strange, and unbearably affecting, which are all things we love in literature. Many of the best works of literature include this kind of particular death, and so we scoured our shelves for the most notable suicides, choosing them based on the beauty of the prose, the strangeness of the circumstances, or the singular mindset of the character. Click through to see our list of ten spectacular suicides in literature, and let us know which of your favorites we’ve missed in the comments!
Ophelia, Hamlet, William Shakespeare
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.
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.