Prize

Honorable Mention

Course

Advanced Writing in the English Major

Publication Date

Fall 2021

Disciplines

English Language and Literature

Description or Abstract

“I passed on to the gate, and stooped down. I lifted the heavy head, put the long dank hair aside, and turned the face. And it was my mother, cold and dead”

(Esther’s Narrative, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, pg. 701).

The death of Esther Sommerson’s mother, Lady Dedlock, is one of the more simplistic and cold renderings of suicide in Charles Dickens’s oeuvre. The results of Esther and Mr. Bucket’s tireless search are given in three short sentences with a count of five adjectives. And yet, Charles Dickens was writing in the tradition of literary sentimentalism, a genre that started in the Gothic period that manipulated the concept of sentiment into a literary device meant to induce compassion and sympathy in the reader. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a famous example of the sentimental novel. In contrast to Dickens’s sentimental novel, Goethe’s Werther sentimentalizes suicide through the protagonist’s struggles with an ill-fated love, and some likely undiagnosed mental health conditions such as depression. In recent discussions of Victorian suicide in literature, a controversial issue has been whether Dickens’s depictions of suicide reflect the ambient Victorian taboo around suicide or destabilize those societal prohibitions. While Dickens’s depictions of suicide are not sentimental in nature, his inclusion and framing of the suicides demonstrates an attempt to destabilize the rigidity of Victorian norms concerning suicide. Indeed, especially in comparison to Goethe’s progressive depictions of suicide a century earlier in romantic German literature, Dickens’s subtlety in challenging the Victorian stance on suicide reveals the relative stagnancy in British ideology on suicide and interiority, even within the genre of sentimentalism.

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