Novels That Deal with Suicide.Teachers and students - One of my former students killed himself last week. He was only 24 years old. Other students have told me that he was obsessed with reading...

Novels That Deal with Suicide.

Teachers and students - One of my former students killed himself last week. He was only 24 years old. Other students have told me that he was obsessed with reading about suicide and novels that dealt with it. I have heard this before - suicidal students seem fascinated by Slyvia Plath, Hemingway, etc., because of the suicide issue.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog deals with a girl contemplating suicide.

Teen suicide is a huge problem where I live. I am wondering what some opinions are with regard to teaching these novels. Are we contributing to the problem? I know we can't put kids in a bubble and lock the door, but I do worry about kids that don't have a good support network getting immersed in the kind of introspection in which the main character in this novel indulges. For that reason, the novel scares me a little -- maybe because I have had so many intimate conversations with girls who think like Paloma! Depressed kids don't need ANY ammunition.

I see Paloma as a type of female Holden Caufield.

Comments?

Asked on by lynnebh

7 Answers | Add Yours

lynn30k's profile pic

lynn30k | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I lost a former student to suicide a couple of months ago. The reasons were many, and I know how you feel--is there anything we could have done? Is there anything we did to make it worse?

For me, books and movies that deal with violence, death, and suicide are fine IF they make it clear how horrible it all is. What I had a problem with 10-20 years ago was a seeming spate of movies in which all the thoughtful, highly intelligent but "different" characters ended up killing themselves. I *hated* Dead Poets Society. It was one of several movies at that time in which the person who committed suicide was romanticized after death in such a way to almost make it sound appealing. A recent movie I much preferred, that showed the wrongness of all this was World's Greatest Dad--a movie that turned out to be not at all what I had thought.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

So sorry to hear about your student.  I've lost several in my career, though none to suicide, which must be especially tough.  As far as teaching novels that deal with suicide as a theme, it is merely a novel, much as songs that deal with suicide are merely songs.  Students who tragically get to the point of attempting suicide have many more factors driving them in that direction than a book.

Surely, it makes sense to pay attention to signs when they appear and seek help for the student, but many times they don't appear at all, or are difficult to see in the large mix of stduents each day.

Another way to look at teaching these novels is as a starting point for class discussion about suicide as a teen issue, then, when writing about it, we can sometimes see signs we may not have seen on the surface.

My deepest condolences.

scarletpimpernel's profile pic

scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I'm sorry that you have lost one of your students, especially in such a tragic way.  As a high school teacher, I've experienced the death of a student/former student almost every year as a result of car accidents, but suicide is even more difficult to try to explain to your students.

Like the other teachers, my students question every year why everything we read is "depressing."  While I do try to balance "happier ending" works with other classics, it is true that many literary works (especially in American Lit.) deal with death and tragedy.  In addition to connecting those fictional works with real life, I also try to discuss author's worldviews with my students so that they understand why they so often choose to include such tragedies in their works.

What has helped in recent years is to discuss with my students how many of them choose to see horror flicks, choose to watch murder/mystery shows, or choose to follow "sensational" new stories.  When I point that out to them and then remind them that authors also write to make a living, they understand that oftentimes authors write about such dark ideas because that is what has been popular for centuries.

amy-lepore's profile pic

amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Oh, Gosh!  I am so sorry to hear about your loss.  I know the death of a student or former student always effects the class dynamic.  Last year at graduation, we had six roses on the seats of seniors who should have been getting their diplomas but had been buried the month before as a result of a horrible car accident on prom night. 

My students also always comment on the depressing themes of literature we teach in class...especially with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet.  As a result, I try to introduce some of the comedies and also to focus on the comic relief of the tragedies themselves.  Tragedy is part of life.  It is the ying and yang...the balance that we must all strive to achieve. 

In class, I try to balance our discussions with real-life lessons and apply what we are reading to as many real-life sitatuations as possible.  I hate to think we are contributing to the problem of teen suicide or even an obsession with death, but those who are bent on it will probably find a way regardless of the literature we read in class.  As teachers, we just need to be as vigilant as possible and refer the students we are concerned about to their counselors for more in-depth probing and the help they need to get back in balance.

While there is humor to be found in all literature, there is nothing humorous about the death of a young person    ...especially one who lived and sat in your class.  Again, I am so sorry for your loss.

epollock's profile pic

epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted on

I have read Paul's Case in class for as long as I can remember without anyone actually going through with it. It is always sad to hear about the loss of a student, but with peer pressure, family responsibilities, and personal esteem, there is very little that one teacher can do and if it came down to what we read in class, from all of the stories about really evil people, I just don't see it happening and translating to the classroom.

skiraly's profile pic

skiraly | College Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

Novels That Deal with Suicide.

Teachers and students - One of my former students killed himself last week. He was only 24 years old. Other students have told me that he was obsessed with reading about suicide and novels that dealt with it. I have heard this before - suicidal students seem fascinated by Slyvia Plath, Hemingway, etc., because of the suicide issue.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog deals with a girl contemplating suicide.

Teen suicide is a huge problem where I live. I am wondering what some opinions are with regard to teaching these novels. Are we contributing to the problem? I know we can't put kids in a bubble and lock the door, but I do worry about kids that don't have a good support network getting immersed in the kind of introspection in which the main character in this novel indulges. For that reason, the novel scares me a little -- maybe because I have had so many intimate conversations with girls who think like Paloma! Depressed kids don't need ANY ammunition.

I see Paloma as a type of female Holden Caufield.

Comments?

Lynne, I certainly can identify with your problem here and am sorry you've lost a student under such tragic circumstances.

Last year I had similar concerns in teaching After the First Death (1979) by Ray Bradbury, as it is a dark novel dealing with terrorism. One of my students even commented on the fact that as English teachers, we seem to dwell on depressing themes.

But in the end, my take on this is that it is unfortunately the challenges in life which reveal the human spirit or examine the human condition. There is not much merit in studying happy, happy, where there is not a lot to be learnt!

Life is tough and I think examining these tough themes through literature is important, as long as we approach the study in a way that we "guide" our students through it and remain sensitive to vulnerable students.

Hope this helps.

Suzanne

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