BMCR 1995.10.13

1995.10.13, Garrison, Groaning Tears

Elise P. Garrison, Groaning tears : ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica batava. Supplementum, 147. Leiden: Brill, 1995. x, 210 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9789004102415 $71.25.

Since suicide appears as a pervasive theme if not a central plot in almost a third of the extant tragedies, it is surprising that the subject has only now received book-length treatment. Originally a 1987 Stanford dissertation, Groaning Tears considers the role of suicide in Greek tragedy from a sociological perspective in a broad range of plays. The author pursues two general lines of argument throughout the book: first, that tragedy for the most part depicts suicide in a positive light and, second, that tragic suicide is usually “socially motivated” and therefore reinforces the normative values of the group.

Because G. assumes in the introductory chapter that “suicide is a response to social pressures” (13), she briefly discusses the ethical system of the Greeks and its implications for suicide. G. then surveys the inscriptional and anecdotal evidence for treatment of suicide in classical Greece, arguing that there were no punitive measures taken against the suicide victim nor miasma attached to this type of death. Greeks of the classical period distinguished between the honorable and dishonorable suicide and understood a range of motivations for it, including the pursuit of glory, and the desire to escape shame or punishment. In establishing a social context for suicide, G. concludes that this type of death reinforces rather than challenges the status quo, since “suicide victims do not for the most part question the validity of social rules” (32).

The introduction is followed by Appendix A which lays out the theoretical framework for the analysis of the tragedies. In this section, G. draws on Durkheim and his work, Le suicide, for a definition of suicide that can be applied to the plays. Although the author expresses reservations about the validity of this approach, she nonetheless organizes her chapters around Durkheim’s conceptual categories. She starts with Durkheim’s rather broad definition of suicide as “any death that is the direct or indirect result of a positive or negative act, accomplished by the individual with full knowledge of its result” (36). G. goes on to point out that Durkheim’s definition excludes the notion of intentionality on the grounds that it cannot be objectively measured. Two broad categories of suicide are distinguished: the egotistic and the altruistic. In Durkheim’s view, the egotistic suicide results when an individual is not fully integrated into the group, while the altruistic suicide, a category which includes martyrdom, arises when an individual is too fully identified with the goals and values of the dominant group. These conceptual categories loosely organize the book’s chapters: suicide to avoid shame and exact revenge represents the egotistic type of suicide, while death from grief and the noble suicide of the sacrificial victim conform to the altruistic type.

In Chapter 2, G. analyzes four plays which feature suicide motivated by fear of shame: Sophocles’Ajax and Women of Trachis, and Euripides’Hippolytus and Madness of Heracles. G. argues that the suicide of Ajax both corroborates aristocratic or epic values and yet at the same time reflects a crisis of values: such an individual is caught between “tradition and change” (78) and therefore cannot be adequately integrated into society. This argument shifts with the example of Euripides’ Heracles; here the intended suicide of the epic figure at odds with society also potentially reinforces heroic values. And yet in typically Euripidean fashion, the intervention of Theseus at the end of the play suggests that this individual may be integrated into society through male philia. Deianeira also acts on the principle of “death before dishonor”; for Deianeira, suicide is the only socially appropriate response to the disaster her unwitting actions have wrought. For Phaedra, suicide both preserves her reputation while also serving as a vehicle of revenge. In G.’s view, these deaths exemplify the tragic suicide in its purest form: shame-based suicide privileges the demands of the group over those of the individual and as such is “noble, virtuous, courageous and liberating” (78).

Chapter 3 considers the place of escape songs and their relationship to suicide in Aeschylus’Suppliant Maidens, Sophocles’Women of Trachis, and in Euripides’Hippolytus, Andromache and Hecuba. G. argues here that the escape song, often closely linked to “a threat, attempt or act of suicide” (81), functions as a sort of suicide note which expresses the death wish of the tragic principal. Since these songs convey a wish to bring an end to suffering through death, they cast suicide in a positive light as an acceptable means of overcoming unbearable adversity. While most of this chapter consists of a thematic analysis of lyric passages, G. eventually returns to the social and ethical considerations raised in the earlier part of the book. She ends by concluding that these songs, because they portray suicide sympathetically, corroborate her view that the tragic suicide affirms social ideals.

G. addresses suicide from grief in Chapter 4, taking as her examples Jocasta in Sophocles’Oedipus the King, Eurydice and Haemon in Antigone, Evadne in Euripides’Suppliant Women and Jocasta in the Phoenician Women. In this type of suicide, death becomes a means of reuniting the bereaved individual with a loved one. Since the death of a relative may result in a loss of social position for the survivor, suicide may also restore that status to the individual. In much of this chapter, G. returns to Durkheim’s definition of the altruistic suicide. In the cases of Euripides’ Jocasta and Sophocles’ Eurydice, who kill themselves out of grief for dead children, and of Evadne, who dies out of grief for her husband, this definition would seem to apply. However, Sophocles’ Jocasta, who dies “because her world has been completely redefined but in culturally unacceptable terms” (128), and Haemon, who kills himself out of “hopelessness for his city’s and his own future” (128), do not clearly seem to conform to this type.

Chapter 5 analyzes the “noble” suicide of the voluntary sacrificial victim in Sophocles’Antigone, and in Euripides’Phoenician Women, Iphigeneia at Aulis, Alcestis, Children of Heracles, and Hecuba. To include sacrificial death as a type of suicide G. must lean heavily on Durkheim’s concept of a death endured for the sake of duty. Thus G. sees Antigone as “completely integrated into the familial structure” (133) because her death reasserts the importance of the household. Menoeceus’ death also reflects his high degree of social integration, although it is motivated by political rather than familial concerns. Macaria, on the other hand, chooses death over a “blocked future,” that is, a life of disgrace rather than of glory. G. interprets Iphigeneia’s death as a critique of the whole system: the fact that her death results from an unjust demand for an equally unjust war renders her sacrifice ignoble. And although Polyxena and Alcestis, in G.’s view, do not die for some greater communal good as do the other sacrificial victims, they sacrifice themselves for “the aristocratic ideals of nobility and good reputation” (166). The inclusion of Alcestis in this chapter may strike some readers as odd, since it is doubtful that the Greeks themselves would have considered her death sacrificial in the same sense as the other characters. While it is undeniable that many of the sacrificial victims in tragedy consent to die for some collective good—Antigone and Macaria for family, Menoeceus and Iphigenia for fatherland—there is a constant tension in the language of these scenes between the good of the group and the desire of the individual to win glory. Indeed, this type of death, with its emphasis on preserving reputation and achieving glory for the individual, often with martial overtones, more closely resembles the fair death in battle than suicide.

In the final chapter, G. analyzes the various suicide motifs in Euripides’Helen, a play which self-consciously meditates on suicide in all its forms. Indeed, G. argues that Euripides ironically uses suicide in this play to challenge rather than to reinforce the world of heroic values. A short section on “incidental suicide,” which appears almost as an afterthought, followed by an extremely brief (one-page) conclusion, completes the chapter.

This book raises several questions which it never fully answers. Perhaps most troubling is the use of Durkheim both as a conceptual framework and as a classifying device, since it seems more often to obscure than to clarify G.’s conclusions. This problem immediately becomes apparent in the book’s organization. Despite her own misgivings, the author relies on Durkheim to provide the central conceptual categories of the book, yet relegates an extensive discussion of his theory to an appendix. G. suggests that the main difficulty with applying Durkheim to tragedy arises from differences between ancient Greece and the modern world, but the more problematic issue centers on the question of agency. The exclusion of intent insisted upon by Durkheim shows the limits of this approach, since tragedy often revolves around a crucial choice ( proairesis, in Aristotelian terms) which necessarily reflects individual agency. Moreover, by stripping individual agency from the act of suicide, an abstract and rather circular notion of “society” as agent must be substituted instead. Indeed, G. repeatedly resorts to this idea throughout the book: Phaedra’s suicide, for example, prompts G. to conclude that “Society’s goals of preservation have prevailed” (71). A few pages later, she asserts in somewhat circular fashion: “If values define how society demands its members to live, then society may require its members to die to maintain them” (78). Moreover, in order to include sacrificial death as a form of suicide, G. is forced to interpret the divine command as the voice of social authority, since “Society often uses the idea of a divine will to substantiate and validate its human rules” (51). But the opposite would seem to hold true: human sacrifice as represented in tragedy so violates normative rules that only a deity could issue so incomprehensible a demand. Moreover, by equating voluntary sacrifice with suicide and the gods with human society, G. completely overlooks the religious context of the sacrifice drama.

By using the term society in such a general way, G. also obscures crucial differences between the worlds of epic and tragedy. G. assumes, for instance, that Ajax’s suicide upholds aristocratic and heroic values when the subject receives scant attention in archaic literature. In fact, suicide seems unthinkable in the epic world, especially since it violates a major precept of aristocratic behavior, that of helping friends and harming enemies. As such, tragic suicide does not so much affirm social values, but rather seems to stand outside the normative social and ethical system. Given that madness attaches to so many suicides in Greek tragedy (consider Ajax, Heracles, and even Evadne), a point which G. never discusses, it seems that the Greek imagination could not adequately account for such extreme behavior within a social context. Indeed, Helen, reacting to the suicide of Ajax in Euripides’ play of the same name sums it up: “Was he mad? Who in his right mind would have done such a thing?” (E. Hel. 94). This statement reflects not so much Helen’s distance from the epic world, as G. suggests, but rather a typical Greek response to extraordinary behavior. Perhaps a more thorough treatment of the earlier literature would have allowed the author to meditate more fully on why suicide held such fascination for the fifth-century tragedians and their audiences.

Although this book is both well-researched and comprehensive in its treatment of the suicide theme, its major premise, that tragic suicide ultimately reinforces society’s values, fails to convince. The contribution of this book lies in the fact that it calls attention to a prevalent yet often overlooked phenomenon in Greek tragedy and thus it may serve as a source book for the suicide motif in classical drama. But as a means of shedding light on the complex social and ethical dimensions of suicide in classical antiquity, the book delivers less than it promises.