In Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the Tyrant, a messenger arrives to report that Jocasta, queen of Thebes, has killed herself. To prepare listeners for this terrible news, he announces, “The tragedies that hurt the most are those that sufferers have chosen for themselves.” Edith Hall, whose own life and psyche have been shaped by such loss—her mother’s grandfather, mother, and first cousin all took their own lives—traces the philosophical arguments on suicide, from Plato and Aristotle to David Hume and Albert Camus.
In this deeply personal story, Hall explores the psychological damage that suicide inflicts across generations, relating it to the ancient Greek idea of a family curse. She draws parallels between characters from Greek tragedy and her own relatives, including her great-grandfather, whose life and death bore similar motivations to Sophocles’ Ajax: both men were overwhelmed by shame and humiliation.
Hall, haunted by her own periodic suicidal urges, shows how plays by Sophocles and other Greek dramatists helped her work through the loss of her grandmother and namesake Edith and understand her relationship with her own mother. The wisdom and solace found in the ancient tragedies, she argues, can help one choose survival over painful adversity and offer comfort to those who are tragically bereaved.
“Edith Hall combines personal memoir with her own intimate understanding and painstakingly researched use of ancient Greek tragedy to address the subject of suicide. This important book aims to help readers who may find themselves in a similar position of suffering.”—Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge
“The best book on suicide I have read. Edith Hall intertwines family history, autobiography, and philosophy, with close readings of ancient Greek authors in this moving exploration of those who decide they can’t go on and the effects their actions have on family, friends, and descendants.”—Nigel Warburton, author of A Little History of Philosophy
"Edith Hall is a clear-eyed classicist in the real world, confronting family furies of depression and suicide alongside sensitive and revelatory readings of the Greek plays: the result is ultimately a humane and affirming vision of life.”—A.E. Stallings, author of This Afterlife, Like, and Olives
“Original, witty and profound: Edith Hall leavens her magisterial scholarship with a personal story that is searingly honest and inspiringly redemptive. She makes the Ancient Greeks relevant and feeling.”—Margaret Reynolds, author of The Wild Track and editor of The Sappho Companion
“A song of sorrow, tenderness, and heartbreak, the most powerful thing I have read in an age. I stayed up all night to finish it.”—Marina Carr, award-winning playwright