Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users, please click the view more button below to purchase a copy of this dissertation from Proquest.

(Some titles may also be available free of charge in our Open Access Dissertation Collection, so please check there first.)

The intentional turn: Suicide in twentieth-century United States American literature by women

Kathleen O Ryan, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation explores the communal uneasiness and hermeneutic impasse created by suicide in twentieth-century US American literature by women. By considering how history is negotiated through suicidal acts and how literary texts are structured by self-inflicted death, I suggest that this intentional turn is most fundamentally readable through public spaces—the Middle Passage, Hiroshima, Harlem, San Francisco's Chinatown. My first chapter focuses on Ludwig Binswanger's The Case of Ellen West: An Anthropological-Clinical Study (1944), an existential analysis of a Jewish woman who killed herself in Switzerland when she was thirty-three. Along with Anne Sexton's poetry, West's writing acts as a prelude to my subsequent chapters because it makes the body inextricable from the imagination, and both inextricable from history, community, and politics. In Chapter Two, I trace the conflation of white femininity and suicide in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature before turning to modern novels in which women ambiguously fall to their deaths: Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), Mary McCarthy's The Group (1963), and Fae Myenne Ng's Bone (1993). These texts disperse intention over a field of inquiry, connecting the private act of suicide to culture less through consciousness than through public space—the fictional space of falling in public and the imagined space of a reading public. In Chapter Three, I examine revolutionary suicide in Toni Morrison's Beloved (1988), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977), integrating theories from Emmanuel Levinas and Huey Newton. Self-destruction operates on two revolutionary levels: within the story, as a political form of resistance and within the narrative structure, as a discursive strategy, an axis around which meanings revolve. Finally, in Chapter Four, I sketch the political terrain covered by female suicide in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), Velina Hasu Houston's Tea (1983), and Suzan-Lori Parks's Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990). Each play extends the logic that I have traced in previous chapters, deploying the act of suicide to register the effects of colonialism, war, and white supremacy on contemporary American women's lives.

Subject Area

American literature|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Ryan, Kathleen O, "The intentional turn: Suicide in twentieth-century United States American literature by women" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988839.