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A Death of One's Own
Literature, Law, and the Right to Die
Jared Stark
Northwestern University Press, 2018
To be or not to be—who asks this question today, and how? What does it mean to issue, or respond to, an appeal for the right to die? In A Death of One’s Own, the first sustained literary study of the right to die, Jared Stark takes up these timely questions by testing predominant legal understandings of assisted suicide and euthanasia against literary reflections on modern death from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rigorously interdisciplinary and lucidly argued, Stark’s wide-ranging discussion sheds critical light on the disquieting bioethical and biopolitical dilemmas raised by contemporary forms of medical technology and legal agency.
More than a survey or work of advocacy, A Death of One’s Own examines the consequences and limits of the three reasons most often cited for supporting a person’s right to die: that it is justified as an expression of personal autonomy or self-ownership; that it constitutes an act of self-authorship, of “choosing a final chapter” in one’s life; and that it enables what has come to be called “death with dignity.” Probing the intersections of law and literature, Stark interweaves close discussion of major legal, political, and philosophical arguments with revealing readings of literary and testimonial texts by writers including Balzac, Melville, Benjamin, and Améry.
A thought-provoking work that will be of interest to those concerned with law and humanities, biomedical ethics, cultural history, and human rights, A Death of One’s Own opens new and suggestive paths for thinking about the history of modern death as well as the unsettled future of the right to die.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide
John F. Desmond
Catholic University of America Press, 2019
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Age of Suicide is a study of the phenomenon of suicide in modern and post-modern society as represented in the major fictional works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Walker Percy. In his study, suicide is understood in both a literal and spiritual sense as referring to both the actual suicides in their works and to the broader social malaise of spiritual suicide, or despair. In the 19th century Dostoevsky called suicide “the terrible question of our age”. For his part, Percy understood 20th century Western culture as “suicidal” in both its social, political and military behavior and in the deeper sense that its citizenry had suffered an ontological “loss of self” or “deformation” of being. Likewise, Thomas Merton called the 20th century an “age of suicide”.

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An Ideological Death
Suicide in Israeli Literature
Rachel S. Harris
Northwestern University Press, 2014
An Ideological Death: Suicide in Israeli Literature explores literary challenges to Israel’s national narratives. Many prominent Israeli writers use their fiction to confront the centrality of the army, the mythology of the “new Jew,” the positioning of Tel Aviv as the first Israeli city, and the very process by which a nation’s history is constructed.

Yehudit Katzir, Etgar Keret, Amos Oz, Yaakov Shabtai, Benjamin Tammuz, and A. B. Yehoshua are among the writers who engage with depictions of suicide in a critical and rhetorical process that reconsiders myths at the heart of the Zionist project. In Israeli literature, suicide is linked to a society’s compulsion to create impossible ideals that leave its populace disappointed and deluded. Yet, as Rachel S. Harris shows, even at their harshest these writers also acknowledge the idealism that helped build Israel as a modern nation-state.

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Joy of the Worm
Suicide and Pleasure in Early Modern English Literature
Drew Daniel
University of Chicago Press, 2022
Consulting an extensive archive of early modern literature, Joy of the Worm asserts that voluntary death in literature is not always a matter of tragedy.
In this study, Drew Daniel identifies a surprisingly common aesthetic attitude that he calls “joy of the worm,” after Cleopatra’s embrace of the deadly asp in Shakespeare’s play—a pattern where voluntary death is imagined as an occasion for humor, mirth, ecstatic pleasure, even joy and celebration. 

Daniel draws both a historical and a conceptual distinction between “self-killing” and “suicide.” Standard intellectual histories of suicide in the early modern period have understandably emphasized attitudes of abhorrence, scorn, and severity toward voluntary death. Daniel reads an archive of literary scenes and passages, dating from 1534 to 1713, that complicate this picture. In their own distinct responses to the surrounding attitude of censure, writers including Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Addison imagine death not as sin or sickness, but instead as a heroic gift, sexual release, elemental return, amorous fusion, or political self-rescue. “Joy of the worm” emerges here as an aesthetic mode that shades into schadenfreude, sadistic cruelty, and deliberate “trolling,” but can also underwrite powerful feelings of belonging, devotion, and love.

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Surviving Literary Suicide
Jeffrey Berman
University of Massachusetts Press, 1999
An exploration of the relationship between literature and life, this study examines the effect on readers of "suicidal literature"—novels and poems that depict, and sometimes glorify, the act of suicide. Beginning with a discussion of the growing incidence of suicide in American culture, Jeffrey Berman investigates the portrayal of suicide in the works of four authors who later took their own lives—Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton— and two who did not—Kate Chopin and William Styron. In each case Berman discusses the writer's shifting attitude toward suicide, the tendency of critics to romanticize fictional suicide, and the impact of writing about suicide on the artist's own life. At the same time, Berman draws on his experiences as a teacher of these writings, analyzing student reactions to "literary suicide" as recorded in class diaries—responses ranging from grief and confusion to anger and guilt. By looking at the connection between real and imagined suicide, Berman seeks to shed fresh light on a subject long enshrouded in silence, fear, and mystery.

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Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman
Nicole Loraux
Harvard University Press, 1987
In ordinary life an Athenian woman was allowed no accomplishments beyond leading a quiet and exemplary existence as wife and mother. Her glory was to have no glory. In Greek tragedy, however, women die violently and, through violence, master their own fate. It is a genre that delights in blurring the formal frontier between masculine and feminine. Through the subtlety of her reading of these powerful and ambiguous texts, Nicole Loraux elicits an array of insights into Greek attitudes toward death, sexuality, and gender.

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Uncrossing the Borders
Performing Chinese in Gendered (Trans)Nationalism
Daphne P. Lei
University of Michigan Press, 2019

Over many centuries, women on the Chinese stage committed suicide in beautiful and pathetic ways just before crossing the border for an interracial marriage. Uncrossing the Borders asks why this theatrical trope has remained so powerful and attractive. The book analyzes how national, cultural, and ethnic borders are inevitably gendered and incite violence against women in the name of the nation. The book surveys two millennia of historical, literary, dramatic texts, and sociopolitical references to reveal that this type of drama was especially popular when China was under foreign rule, such as in the Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu) dynasties, and when Chinese male literati felt desperate about their economic and political future, due to the dysfunctional imperial examination system. Daphne P. Lei covers border-crossing Chinese drama in major theatrical genres such as zaju and chuanqi, regional drama such as jingju (Beijing opera) and yueju (Cantonese opera), and modernized operatic and musical forms of such stories today.


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