Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Jonathan . Flatley


“Under the Sign of Suicide,” examines modernist writers’ intense and sustained preoccupation with and representations of suicide. Beyond numerous essays on the topic, we also find many fictional characters such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Svidrigailov and Kirilov both taken by gunshot, Stavrogin and Smerdyakov both by hanging. We also find Franz Kafka’s George Bendemann who takes his life by drowning, and Virginia Woolf’s Septimus Smith by impaling, Her character, Rhoda, dies off a cliff. In American literature, we find Edna Pontellier, Quentin Compson, Clare Kendry, Semour Glass, Teddy McArdle, Willy Loman, Tod Clifton, and on and on. This list is surely not exhaustive. And yet while at first glance modernism’s preoccupation with suicide may appear disturbing, distasteful, or at worst, morbid, my dissertation wagers a surprisingly counter-intuitive gesture. I argue that representations of suicide in modernist literature (specifically works by Walter Benjamin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Virginia Woolf, and James Baldwin) function not in terms of some pathological exhibitionism, or perhaps worse, as some stigma-prone practice about which we must remain silent. Rather, I argue that by reading a little more closely and by paying attention to the varied yet subtle conditions of suicide’s possibility that we may understand that suicide functions in modernist writing in two related ways: first, as a critique of our modern world, and secondly, as a way to imagine how we could begin to repair our broken relation to this world. “Under the Sign of Suicide” inhabits the liveliness of suicidal activity in an effort to highlight the ways in which its liveliness reveals an avowal of our condition of estrangement under capitalist modernity, on the one hand, and on the other, the ways in which suicidal activity—as a mode of being modern—amplifies our ability to imagine new modes and forms of social reproduction. Which is to say, modernist representations of suicide invite readers to imagine how our world needs to change. In short, rather than perpetuate various stigmas of silence surrounding suicide and suicidal behavior, my dissertation addresses the question, what might happen when we listen to suicidal voices?