The Lady and Her Monsters Part II: Suicide and the Myth of Control Through the Lens of Percy Shelley

In last week’s blog, I explored the implications of the post mortem gaze on the female body through what I learned while attending my first-ever Death Salon, and from my recent read The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo. The book centers its biographical discourse on the events that primed Mary Shelley for her famous tale, including her unfortunate way of attracting death; perhaps she acquired a penchant for this early on, with the death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. But the circle of visionaries that Mary Shelley was constantly surrounded by, who all harbored their own demons and their own flourishing minds of brilliance, including her husband, also had an indelible effect on her writing and shaped the way she viewed the world. After finishing the book this week, I’d like to examine a different aspect of the loss of personhood, and one that is not limited to female bodies, by taking a close look at the life and death of Percy Shelley.

As I mentioned last week, in the case of female corpses, their consent and agency, and the consent and agency of their children, was (and in many cases, still is) stripped from them upon being placed on the dissection table or in a museum exhibit. But this lack of agency afflicts all people when they die, albeit in a myriad of different ways. Some people resolve that they might keep their agency by taking their own lives.

Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband and the lauded poet, was a man of brilliance who suffered from intense, phantasmagoric visions and haunting waking dreams throughout the course of his life. The degree to which these daymares affected him oscillated between an enlightening source of poetic inspiration and a deep-rooted, melancholic dread. Part of their power over him was due to their randomness, gifted to him by a manic muse who could not be predicted nor controlled. This condition of Shelley’s, among other things, such as his plausible affairs (especially with his wife’s sister) served to weigh ominously upon his marriage, for his depression seemed contagious and Mary Shelley was not immune to it; her husband’s dreadful lows served to both inspire and exacerbate her own. Yet the one thing that Percy Shelley could control – if not his visions, if not the deaths of his infant children, if not the epic mood-swings of his intelligent, grieving wife – at least, that he believed he could control, was his death.

And this he would attain, when the time was right, through prussic acid. In a letter to his friend Trelawny, he expresses the intense desire for his friend to get ahold of some person inclined to science and kindly “procure [him] a small quantity” of what he believes is the wonder drug. He does not plan to kill himself immediately; rather, he only wishes to be prepared:

It requires the greatest caution in preparation, and ought to be highly concentrated; I would give any price for this medicine. You remember we talked of it the other night, and we both expressed a wish to possess it; my wish was serious, and sprung from the desire of avoiding needless suffering. I need not tell you I have the intention of suicide at present, but I confess it would be a comfort to me to hold in my possession that golden key to the chambers of perpetual rest.

Shelley desires agency, and he desires it in the most desperate way. This, of course, is out of fear. Fear of the unknown; fear of suffering, of succumbing to a ‘bad death,’ or perhaps a bad life. Yet his desire to take his own life is never realized, for soon after this letter is written, Shelley embarks on a fatal voyage on his boat the Don Juan. When his corpse is found, beneath the sands on a desolate beach, it is described by his friends as a place of quiet and solitude, a place that “Shelley had always desired,” and a place that might have not been acquired had he perished by the violence of his own hand.

In suicide, people are seeking resolve. They are seeking a way to exhibit control over their illness, over their grief, over their horrific struggles, and they do this by taking control over their life and ending it. This is what made Percy Shelley contemplate his own demise – he wished to avoid “needless suffering,” and by killing himself by his own hand, he would be, in effect, prescribing himself the ultimate antidote: death. And no longer would that dark angel hide in the shadows of his equally bright and dreary days.

Yet the realm of what suicide can offer is like looking at the world through rose colored glasses and then removing them to see the true colored, chasms of pitch, filled with undulating pains that scald the soul. The “agency” that suicide allows for demands leaving all the bad things and all the wonderful things, too. It does not make any concessions. It demands the present and ransoms the future, and leaves only the remnants of the past. It falsely perpetuates the idea of our own agency, for in many ways, we have none. We are made, without our consent, and we begin our lives, not because we want to, necessarily, but because it has happened, and finally, we die. Though we can never defy death, each day, we can make the choice to live as best we can.

Suicide cuts life short, but for the one doing it, this is exactly the desired outcome. But often their burning flame is extinguished much too early, and herein lies the tragedy. They vanish from the world sooner than death had planned on fetching them. Had he killed himself beforehand, Percy Shelley would not have been able to enjoy his much anticipated voyage, the one last good thing in his life before death claimed him. At the end of his sea journey, he finds the peaceful resting place he had always desired.

However, this does not mean his ending is a ‘happy one’ because he did not kill himself; it does not mean that his death was any less traumatic. It is certainly perplexing, for there are awful ways to die, and suicide could be seen as the most hopeful option when juxtaposed with such things as insidious torture or burning alive. There are depths and spectrums to be explored, and I am not offering answers here, only posing questions and offering thoughts, just as Shelley mused over possessing the “key” to the golden chambers, and how much comfort he believed this would give him. The only caveat for turning the key too early, however, is that it only opens one way. Once opened, the way back is shut out forever, the only place where the human experience can be found:

O happy Earth! reality of Heaven!
To which those restless souls that ceaselessly
Throng through the human universe, aspire

Queen Mab 9, Percy Shelley.

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