Suicide As A Means To End A Disease, Not A Literary Statement
Suicide is not an uncommon end to a writer’s life. A quick Wikipedia search will give you a well-organized, alphabetized list of writers who have committed suicide, including (but obviously not limited to):
- Gertrude Bell (travel writer; overdose – 1926, age 57)
- Yuri Abramov (poet; self-disembowelment- 1927, age 32)
- Harry Crosby (poet; self-inflicted gunshot to the head- 1929, age 31)
- Virginia Woolf (novelist, etc; drowning -1941, age 59)
- Jochen Klepper (poet, journalist, etc; gas – 1942, age 39)
- Ernest Hemingway (novelist, etc; self-inflicted gunshot to the head- 1961, age 61)
- John Kennedy Toole (novelist; gas – 1969, age 31)
- Arthur Adamov (playwright; overdose – 1970, age 62)
- Jerzy Kosinski (novelist; self-suffocation- 1991, age 57)
- Sarah Kane (playwright; hanging- 1999, age 28)
- Spalding Gray (playwright, screenwriter, etc; possibly/probably jumped off Staten Island Ferry – 2004, age 62)
- Hunter S. Thompson (journalist, etc; self-inflicted gunshot to the head- 2005, age 67)
And then the two biggies for me (and for this essay):
- Sylvia Plath (poet, novelist; gas – 1963, age 30)
- David Foster Wallace (novelist, essayist, etc; hanging – 2008, age 46)
A decent list, just the tip of the 280+ listed on Wikipedia, and nothing compared to the inevitable amount of unpublished writers that have killed themselves. Curiously, for Wikipedia’s “Writers by cause of death” index, only three are listed: Execution, Murder, and Suicide. A list of writers who died of cancer would have been helpful to make my point, but cancer isn’t romantic or interesting enough to be indexed.
With the notable exceptions of Plath and Wallace, most of the writers listed here and on that Wikipedia’s page can have their work talked of without their suicide brought into play. Even the more famous ones (Hemingway, Woolf) can be discussed without bringing it up, at least in my experience.And, if you ask me, this is how it should be done. Because here’s another list of writers who have pretty widely-read works whose deaths tend to not make it into discussion:
- Shakespeare (everything important; probably a fever – 1616, age 52)
- Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, etc; possibly Hodgkin’s lymphoma – 1817, age 41)
- Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre, etc; died in childbirth – 1855, age 38)
- Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, etc; died in his sleep – 1864, age 59)
- Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, etc; stroke – 1870, age 58)
- Louisa May Alcott (Little Women, etc; possibly mercury poisoning – 1888, age 55)
- Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc; heart attack – 1910, age 74)
- F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, etc; heart attack – 1940, age 44)
- John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, etc; heart failure – 1968, age 66)
- Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, etc; choked – 1983, age 71)
- William Golding (Lord of the Flies, etc; heart failure – 1993, age 81)
- William Styron (Sophie’s Choice, etc; pneumonia – 2006, age 81)
- Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, etc; lymphoma – 2008, age 66)
- J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, etc; old age – 2010, age 91)
I’ve never heard of anyone saying that Shakespeare wrote so well of the fevered passion between Romeo and Juliet because he was anticipating his own death by fever. Or that J.D. Salinger wrote his most famous work from the eyes of a teenager as a way to capture an age he knew he would live so far beyond. Suicide is a form of death, usually the end result of a disease, just as a heart attack is a form of death, usually the end result of a disease.
So why in some cases, especially Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace, is a writer’s work colored and sometimes even overshadowed by their cause of death, just because it was suicide? There’s the idea that suicide is preventable, and that they did it to themselves. That’s true of course, but no more true than saying many car accidents are preventable, and someone killed after not wearing a seatbelt did it to themselves. There’s the fact that they wrote while suffering from the disease that killed them, with the disease seeping into their writing, Plath in particular. Which makes people want to look for “clues” as to “why” they killed themselves. A pretty natural reaction, I think. But a totally unnecessary one. Plath and Wallace killed themselves because they finally succumbed to the disease that had plagued them for years. End of story. Yes, Plath went through a seriously messy break-up. Yes, Wallace stopped taking and then switched anti-depressants with disastrous results. But people live through breakups and bad side effects from medicine. What killed them was depression. That’s what “made” them do it.
So if we move forward assuming there are no mysteries hidden in Plath’s or Wallace’s writing that will help anyone better understand their respective suicides, then the question of Why do we read their works through a suicide filter? becomes that much more pronounced. When The Pale King was published in 2011, a little less than three years after Wallace’s death, there were all kinds of literary murmurings about what would be found within the text. As it was his last major work published, people couldn’t help but wonder if certain why-based questions would be answered. Not everyone did this, of course, but enough didto bother me. We know alreadywhy Wallace died, so of course, nothing in The Pale King “explains” anything.
Plath’s writing is a little more blatant, what with writing The Bell Jar, about a young woman’s mental breakdown and poems like “Lady Lazarus” that describe Plath’s multiple major suicide attempts. There are important things to note about things like The Bell Jar and “Lady Lazarus,” though. For one, Plath was alive and well when she wrote these. For two, both Esther Greenwood, The Bell Jar’s protagonist, and the speaker in “Lady Lazarus” live through to the end of each piece, and one would assume beyond that. Esther Greenwood is heavily compared to Plath herself, as both had many of the same experiences. This was intentional, obviously, this writing from experience. But if we are to assume that Plath’s suicide is so closely related to her work, shouldn’t Esther have killed herself, preferably by putting her head inside her gas oven? You could argue that Plath didn’t see her own death in her future at the time that The Bell Jar was written, which very well may be true,  and that’s why Esther survived. But Plath wasn’t stupid; she knew how much of her own experience was poured into Esther’s, and the fact that The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym can be interpreted as Plath’s self-imposed separation of Esther Greenwood and Sylvia Plath. Taking that into consideration, I think it’s pretty lazy to think that the writing of The Bell Jar has anything to do with Plath’s suicide or vice versa, or that any connection can be made between the two.
David Foster Wallace’s writing is subtler than Sylvia Plath’s on the subject of depression – Plath wrote an entire novel about it and Wallace didn’t, for instance. I’ve never heard his greatness as a writer denied by anyone and if he were alive right this very second and The Pale King was published as a finished novel, I can’t imagine those opinions changing. And while I haven’t heard of his suicide negatively changing anyone’s opinions of his writings, it has certainly added something for many people. Sort of built him up as not just a great literary voice/figure, but as a tragic literary voice/figure, who died a preventable death too young. Before his death, his writing was treated the way any other writer’s work is treated. Now it tends to be treated as something almost holy and negative remarks about his work are akin to sacrilege. Though I didn’t know Wallace personally, I would imagine that this would drive him crazy. I know that while some incredible research went into some of his pieces, his natural intelligence and voice are in every single word he wrote, which leads me to believe that he was one of those people who wrote because he had to, because one can only keep in so many ideas and words before they have to come out. He wrote because he had things to say and he wanted people to read those things and respond to them, not necessarily pour over every word or apply Biblical qualities to them. His writing was not meant to be untouchable.
Some of this, I know, comes from the fact that his writing collection has ended now and so everything that was published is somehow precious. I understand this and feel this way, too; there are some pieces of Wallace’s writing that I’ve avoided just so that there are, to me, still new things that he’s written. And the reality of Wallace’s suicide makes it pretty hard, if not impossible, to try to read everything as if he were still alive, so I’m not suggesting that anyone do that. What I’m suggesting is that readers separate the life and death of the writer from the writer’s work. While Wallace’s death was, by the nature of the thing, an end to his writing, that’s not what was primarily ended – that, of course, was his life.
Wallace’s death was not a literary act, and should not be seen as such. Thinking that his suicide was anything other than the end of a life plagued by a disease is borderline insulting. As someone who has mentally been there, I can say with some certainty that Wallace wasn’t thinking about how what was about to happen was going to affect his bibliography the afternoon he hung himself. So why should everyone left behind think about it?
The fact is, suicide acted as the final punctuation mark on Wallace’s and Plath’s lives, but not their writing. They weren’t writers who committed suicide, they were and are writers.
 Footnotes as an obvious DFW homage.
 Plastic bag.
 Smith & Wesson handgun.
 In high school and college I studied different Hemingway and Woolf pieces without a single mention of their respective suicides. Which surprised me at the time, as Woolf especially can get pretty dark.
 Going to use this time to point out that a young James Woods is a dead ringer for a young JDS
 The average age of that list of death-by-suicide writers is 47 while the average age of this list of death-by-other-things writers is 57. So one could (maybe) argue that the suicides weren’t cutting their time down by much.
 Heart disease
 So last as to be published unfinished, even.
 That’s just publicly. How many people have read The Pale King and come across a certain line or passage that seemed to illuminate the seeming mystery being Wallace’s death and felt like they had discovered something about his mindset on the day he killed himself – but kept it to themselves?
 See above
 Also important to note: The Pale King is fiction.
 Though it should be noted that Plath’s death came a month after The Bell Jar’s first UK publication.
 Claims of overrated-ness, though, yes.
 See my aforementioned opinion of suicide as being more preventable than any other death.
 Not that Wallace was just any other writer. What I mean is that his writing was read, generally enjoyed, his writing was reviewed by critics, he was commissioned to write articles for magazines, etc etc. In short he was a regular writer but just also happened to be a genius – if that makes sense.
 Before he died, though, I did have this relatively great fantasy of meeting him. Wallace was from Philo, Illinois, barely over 20 miles away from where I graduated high school in Tuscola, Illinois. After reading essays like “A Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” which name-dropped the hell out of the towns that surrounded both of our hometowns, it was pretty clear to me that Wallace knew exactly where Tuscola was and maybe he had even been there before. So my fantasy entailed of me meeting him at a book signing or whatever and telling him that I graduated from Tuscola High School, and he would smile and say something about how he knows about Tuscola and we would talk about that whole patch of East-Central Illinois and he would discover how intelligent and nice I am and I would somehow slip in that I was a writing student (true at the time) and he would either A.) Fall in love with me (a quarter-century age difference meaningless at this point) or B.) Take me under his wing and mentor me until I was molded into a DFW-like writer-genius/Pulitzer Prize winner etc etc. I still have this fantasy, by the way, it’s just much more fantastical now than it was before.
 And, in his case, can turn into something like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, the lucky bastard.
 As in, not to be fucked with.
 I should say here, though, that with intense sadness I have read (several times) Wallace’s autopsy report and can’t help but be struck with certain elements of it. The rather detailed description of the area where he killed himself, including measurements of the patio where he nailed the belt, oddly reminded me the time Wallace would sometimes take to describe something technical, like the measurements of tennis courts. Though his wife’s, Karen Green, name is blurred out on public copies of the autopsy report as the one who found his body, the description of his body says mildly, “There is a tattoo on the right upper arm laterally with word ‘Karen’ and a symbol of the heart,” which so reminds me of the way Wallace could use relatively plain wording that, when placed in the right context, will hit you square in the gut. But all of this is not only besides the point but totally goes against it.