Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sexton’s major accomplishment in “Wanting to Die” is how clearly and powerfully she expresses the feelings of the emotional suicide. Unless one has faced the miasma of emotions that cause one to consider suicide, one may have difficulty in understanding how someone can choose to commit suicide. Sexton makes this choice comprehensible when she presents the reader with the suicide’s view of life as being spent facing trivialities and making no impression upon the world: “I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.” Life under these conditions is meaningless and full of pain. Suicidal people’s “clothing,” their way of thinking and reacting, does not cover their emotional nakedness. Without the normal person’s psychological strength, suicides are vulnerable to the smallest hurts; “something unsaid, the phone off the hook” are witnesses to the suicide attempt as well as goads that drive one to suicide. Most painfully, the relationships of the suicidal person seem unreal and unreliable: “the love, whatever it was, an infection.”

For normal people, life is to be enjoyed. For suicides, death is a rest from the constant trivialities that stab at them. Anne Wilder’s letter to Sexton celebrated the fact that life abounds in the world—even the life within the blades of grass was to be wondered at and cherished. Human companionship, as represented by the “furnitureunder the sun”—lawn chairs, perhaps—is treasured by those who love living. “Wanting to Die” acknowledges the attractiveness of these things; it is not the pleasures of life that she cringes from, but rather the fact that these pleasures pale in comparison to the restful cessation of “raging” and sorrow that death provides. Suicides, Sexton seems to suggest, are born with the tendencies that they will act upon later in life. The fact that they are alive rather than dead does not negate their essential morbidity; “Still-born, they don’t always die.”

Although this way of thinking, like Sexton’s imagery, may be repellant to the average reader, it is an accurate reflection of suicidal thinking. Most seriously depressed people think of their lives as a meaningless struggle that they are incapable of changing. Others, suffering from long-term depression, report that they have always been depressed and have thought of death as a comforting option.