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English 36603: Literature and Suicide

Section E, Spring 2019

3 Credits / 3 Hours

Mon. and Wed., 6:30-7:45pm

Strictly speaking, no one can testify to the physical and psychological experience of suicide—perhaps this is what has made the subject so prone to literary expression.  This course will begin in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, where an anonymous author wrote the first known suicide text: “Dispute between a man and his Ba.”  We will then consider Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts on suicide before looking at four major revolutions in the modern understanding of voluntary death: the invention of “suicide,” a sympathetic and progressive word coined by Sir Thomas Browne in 1643; the Romantic obsession with self-destruction; the modernist challenge to religious and Romantic approaches to suicide; and finally the reassessment of suicide in a clinical context and the subsequent phenomenon of “suicide memoirs.”  Authors include Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goethe, Mishima, Soyinka, Chopin, Woolf, Larsen, Sarah Kane, and Kay Redfield Jamison.

Please note: the majority of our material deals with a subject matter that may prove disturbing.  Please think about whether you will have trouble with class discussions and assignments.  This course is not a substitute for medical care, and I do not have professional therapeutic training, although I am always available to talk.

But if you are experiencing depression, please visit the CCNY Counseling Center at NAC 8-213.  You can schedule an appointment in person, by calling (212) 650-8222, or by emailing

You can also reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Course Goals and Objectives

  • Cultivate a rich understanding of various suicide traditions

  • Wrestle with the complexities of both defining and understanding suicide

  • Hone skills of close reading, literary analysis, and critical argumentation

  • Develop an original and compelling writing voice

  • Discover the pleasure of reading these texts

Required Materials

All books are available at the CCNY Bookstore.

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther.  ISBN-13: 978-0199583027

  • Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.  ISBN-13: 978-0679752707

  • Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Other Stories.  ISBN-13: 978-0199536948

  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.  ISBN-13: 978-0156030359

  • Nella Larsen, Passing.  ISBN-13: 978-0142437278

  • Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.  ISBN-13: 978-0679763307

Recommended Materials and Resources

  • Purdue University Online Writing Lab (MLA Style Guide): <>

  • Google Scholar: <>

  • William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition).  ISBN-13: 978-0205309023


You may bring laptops in order to take notes but no cell phones, headphones, or portable music players.

Attendance and Punctuality

Attendance is mandatory.  Only three absences and three times arriving late (more than ten minutes) will be excused.  Each additional unexcused absence will result in half a letter grade dropped. (Two lates equal one unexcused absence).  Six unexcused absences will result in a failing grade.  If you know you will be late or absent, please email me.

Academic Integrity

All students must adhere to City College’s code of academic integrity, which reads in part:

Academic integrity is an essential part of the pursuit of truth, and of your education. We are all are all responsible for maintaining academic integrity at City College—it is the rock on which the value of your degree is built.

If you cheat on a test or plagiarize by using someone else's work or ideas, you defeat the purpose of your education. In addition, academic dishonesty is prohibited in the City University of New York, and is punishable by failing grades, suspension and expulsion.

For the complete policy, follow this link:


Assignments must be emailed to by 11:59pm on the day on which they are due.  Assignments not handed in at all will be given failing grades.  Talk to me if you are having a serious problem completing the work, and we will work out a plan that is agreeable to us both.  Incomplete or late assignments will lose half a letter grade per day.  This means that if you submit an A paper that is due on Monday on Wednesday, you will receive a B.

Definition: 5 points

Socratic Dialogue: 15 points

Close Readings: 50 points (25 points each)

Participation: 30 points

Total: 100 points

Classroom Participation

This is a discussion-based course, not a lecture-based one.  I strongly believe that learning is a social practice, and by voicing your reading of these texts to your peers, you are helping to educate the entire classroom, yourself and myself included.  However, I am aware that some people are more comfortable speaking than others—in fact, public speaking regularly tops polls of Americans’ greatest fears—and your participation grade will also include active listening.  However, there will also be no toleration of deliberately racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or ableist language.  I use the word deliberately because we all have gaps in knowledge and experience and part of the purpose of a college education is assisting each other in filling in those gaps.  Therefore, I encourage respectful debate when your peers or I have said something that is hurtful, insensitive, or ignorant.


Definition: For your first assignment, you will write a definition of the word “suicide.” 

Socratic Dialogue: For your second assignment, you will write a one 1000-word dialogue in which two speakers are arguing about a key issue in suicide studies,

Close Reading: For your third and fourth assignments, you will write two 1000-word close reading essays on an assigned text

You will turn in first and final drafts of each assignment except the definition, but you are welcome to submit multiple drafts for comments before each assignment is due.

Accommodating Disabilities 

Lehman College is committed to providing access to all programs and curricula to all students.  Students with disabilities who may need classroom accommodations are encouraged to register with the Access Ability Center/Student Disability Services.  For more information, please contact the Access Ability Center/Student Disability Services, North Academic Center, Room 1-218, phone number (212) 650-5913. 

Title IX 

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects individuals from discrimination based on sex in any educational program receiving federal financial assistance.  Sexual harassment, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX, and is considered a Civil Rights offense.  City College encourages anyone experiencing harassment, discrimination or sexual misconduct to talk to a faculty member, counselor, or staff; confidential resources are available through the City College Counseling Center at (212) 650-8222.

Classmate Contacts


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Reading and Assignment Schedule

Part One: Religion and Self-Murder

Monday, January 28: “Dispute between a man and his Ba”

Wednesday, January 30: From the Vedas; from the Hebrew Bible; from the New Testament; from the Bhagavad-Gita; from the Qu’ran

Monday, February 4: Sophocles, Ajax

Wednesday, February 6: Augustine of Hippo, from The City of God; Thomas Aquinas, from Summa Theologica; Dante Alighieri, from Inferno; Thomas More, from Utopia; John Bunyan, from Pilgrim’s Progress

Sunday, February 10: Definition of Suicide Due

Part Two: The Invention of Suicide

Monday, February 11: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Acts I and II; Sir Thomas Browne, from Religio Medici (in class)

Wednesday, February 13: Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III; John Donne, from Biathanatos

Wednesday, February 20: Shakespeare, Hamlet, Acts IV and V; Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet; Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, from The Maid’s Tragedy

Sunday, February 24: First Draft of Socratic Dialogue Due

Part Three: Romantic Self-Destruction

Monday, February 25: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Book One; Lord Byron, from Manfred; Thomas Hood, “Bridge of Sighs”

Wednesday, February 27: Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Book Two; William Wordsworth, “Argument for Suicide”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Suicide’s Argument”

Monday, March 4: Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Chapters 1-3; Daidoji Yuzan, from The Beginner’s Book of Bushido

Wednesday, March 6: Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Chapters 4-6; Kamikaze Corps, from Kamikaze Diaries and Last Letters Home

Sunday, March 10: Final Draft of Socratic Dialogue Due

Monday, March 11: Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Chapters 7-10

Wednesday, March 13: Wole Soyinka, Death and the King’s Horseman, Acts I-III; Samuel Johnson, from The Kings of Yoruba; A.K. Ajisafe, from Yoruba Laws and Customs: Suicide

Monday, March 18: Soyinka, Death and the King’s Horseman, Acts IV-V

Part Four: The Lived Experience of Suicide

Wednesday, March 20: Kate Chopin, The Awakening, Chapters 1-16; Gustave Flaubert, from Madame Bovary

Monday, March 25: Chopin, The Awakening, Chapters 17-39; Leo Tolstoy, from Anna Karenina

Wednesday, March 27: Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, pp.3-63

Sunday, March 31: First Draft of 1st Close Reading Due

Monday, April 1: Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, pp.63-124

Wednesday, April 3: Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, pp.124-190

Part Five: Clinical Suicide and Suicide Memoir

Monday, April 8: Nella Larsen, Passing, Part One; Sabina Spielrein, from “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being”

Wednesday, April 10: Larsen, Passing, Part Two; Sigmund Freud, from Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Sunday, April 14: Final Draft of 1st Close Reading Due

Monday, April 15: Larsen, Passing, Part Three; Émile Durkheim, from Suicide

Wednesday, April 17: Stevie Smith, “Not Waving but Drowning”; Sylvia Plath, “Edge” and “Lady Lazarus”; Anne Sexton, “Sylvia’s Death,” “Wanting to Die,” and “Suicide Note”

Monday, April 29: Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis 

Wednesday, May 1: Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Prologue and Part One

Sunday, May 5: First Draft of 2nd Close Reading Essay Due

Monday, May 6: Jamison, An Unquiet Mind, Part Two 

Wednesday, May 8: Jamison, An Unquiet Mind, Parts Three and Four and Epilogue

Monday, May 13: Jay Asher, from Thirteen Reasons Why

Sunday, May 19: Final Draft of 2nd Close Reading Essay Due