Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Too Much of Water

Oh, dear. It looks like you've got a tragic heroine on your hands. Well, there's only one thing to do with her: get her to the nearest body of water and dump her in.

Ophelia, John Everett Millais

It's really astounding how many tragic heroines die by water. You'd think there was a handbook or something. Elaine, Ophelia, Hero, Helle - their deaths are all intimately associated with water. Helle's is particularly egregious, as the only purpose she serves in her entire story is to fall off the Ram with the Golden Fleece while he's flying over an ocean. Her brother, also riding the Ram, survives to found a royal line, but his sister just drops into the sea like someone cued her. She exists to drown. I smell a thematic necessity.

The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse
It's fairly obvious at first glance why water, of all four traditional elements, is so closely identified with women. Shakespeare spells it out when Laertes mourns his sister. "Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia," he chokes out upon hearing of her death, "and therefore I forbid my tears." Women cry; tears are water; water is a woman's element. That makes it especially appropriate for heroines foiled in love, like Ophelia and Elaine; death by water is as good as a signed confession of love. "I drowned in the tears I shed for my lover." The Lady of Shalott dispenses even with Elaine's farewell letter; she only needs to drift down to Camelot on the river for everyone to understand that she has died for love. The symbolism of a woman in water is universal.

Hero, William Henry Rinehart
And then there's the nature of these women's characters. Water-deaths are generally performed by women who lack control of their lives. Ophelia is hounded from pillar to post by father, brother, lover and king, until her suicide becomes her only act of agency in the entire play. Hero is first aggressively wooed by Leander, then sits in her tower and lights a lamp and waits for him to swim to shore. The several Elaines in Arthurian legend make it murky which, precisely, is the one who dies for love of Lancelot, but in some versions she's not even the spunky rapist who gives birth to Galahad; in these, she tends his wound, gets summarily rejected, pines for him, and expires right after demurely stage-managing her own death to give it the proper emotional punch. And the Lady of Shalott (who I differentiate from all the zillion Elaines because, after all, Tennyson never names her, and "Shalott" is not "Astolat") is the saddest of them all, locked in her tower by the whispered threat of a curse, and doomed to death in the very moment she truly experiences life. These are women more acted upon than acting, for whom the cool calm of a watery death seems fitting.

The Death of Dido, Peter Paul Rubens
Compare them to, say, Dido, another suicide for love. But she dies by fire, and therein lies all the difference. Dido is fire; she's passionate, headstrong, determined, and impulsive. She's not the kind of woman who could float from Carthage to Rome with a passive-aggressive scroll of farewell in her languid dead hands. There is nothing passive about her. When she goes out, she makes damn sure that everyone in the vicinity knows about it. She even goes the extra mile and stabs herself on her own funeral pyre, proving her courage and her recklessness - and starting the bitter feud of Rome and Carthage at the same time. All that makes her far more intimidating than an Elaine or an Ophelia. Dido, the suicide by fire, is a dangerous femme fatale. In comparison, the other tragic heroines are far easier to swallow. They don't wreak havoc; they don't die in a grand operatic manner; they have the decency to shuffle off quietly and modestly, without causing too much fuss and drama for their menfolk. Water is acceptable; fire is, well, fire. And sensible women, even tragic heroines, don't play with fire.

Ophelia, Fernando Vazquez
But, as always, there's more to the story. Water isn't just smooth and serene. Its depths are invisible and ominous; the calm surface covers the roiling underneath. In the same way that fire provides a key to Dido's character, water tells us everything we need to know about what's really going on in the heads of the drowned heroines. These aren't emo girls who feel the need to proclaim their heartbreak at the top of their lungs. They keep everything inside, undercover, out of sight - but it doesn't mean it's not there. Sometimes it breaks free, as in Ophelia's madness; sometimes it provides a poignant emphasis to the heroine's tragic fate, like the Lady of Shalott "singing in her song" as she dies. And sometimes it drives a quiet, secretive girl like Hero to the drastic act of flinging herself out of her tower.

The water suicides make it too easy for us to take them, as we take their element, at surface value. Drama queens like Dido get all the attention, while the Ophelias and Elaines sit quietly by, holding their emotions in. But those emotions are still there. They ruffle the surface. And they offer some answers to the mysteries of these heroines.


  1. That is really cool & I'd never thought about it before. lol :D Also that last picture is freaking sweet.

    You realize, this makes Juliet a badass.

    I think Freud would also offer comment on the very non-phallic nature of a water death: there's no weapon. No sword, no gun. Even these days it is apparently much more likely for a woman to poison herself than shoot herself, which is not true for men. I think this is related, as you said, to power and agency. Even when their suicide is the one act they control, they still take a passive route and let the water kill them.

    I wonder where hanging fits in here. I wonder if it's a gender neutral suicide. lol.

    1. I nearly went insane myself with joy when I found that last picture. I want it to be the cover of my Ophelia novel. I want only good things for it. Time will tell if those two wants are mutually inclusive. :)

      Juliet IS a badass. Her sheer courage does not get enough love. The fact that Romeo takes poison and Juliet freaking STABS HERSELF just proves how badass she is. (And that she wears the pants in that relationship, but we knew that already.)

      I love the no-weapon angle, too. The water deaths are more organic (and thus more naturalistic, another elemental force associated strongly with women) - instead of bringing X to Y to make Dead, the water suicides just become part of an already-existing element. Their personality evaporates; they *are* the water in which they die, in a way that Dido is not one with her pyre, or Juliet with the dagger. It's yet another chance to self-efface - even this final attempt at agency carries the implication of a lack of existence.

      Hanging does seem gender-neutral. There's an implement, but no real weapon. It's not nearly as loaded as a shooting death or a drowning death. I think its only real implications are not so much for gender as for desperation - this is how you die when you don't even have a lake to throw yourself into. I'm thinking specifically of Jocasta, whose suicide by hanging is possibly the most desperate in mythology. (Also, if truth be told, of Don Draper's brother Adam, who hangs himself when Don shuts him out of his life.) Anyone can do it, but you have to be in truly dire straits.

      (Musing, also, on the bawdy appropriateness of Juliet and Dido dying by impaling themselves on their beloveds' blades. That's seriously the last thing I want to think about when you get to the "O happy dagger" line, but I can't ignore it. "Hey, kids! Sex kills!")

    2. Desperation does definitely seem a common theme in hanging suicides. I think you're right. Jocasta is an excellent example, too. I wonder if in part it's the image of a person hanging that we relate so much to desperation: the body is isolated, not supported by anything, slumped. It's also a blend of doing it to yourself and letting nature do it to you, as you have to jump or kick the chair, but gravity is what really does the work. Because of that it lacks the power of the more aggressive suicides (guns & knives) but still retains the Self in a way the drownings don't. Thus, gender neutral, but done by desperate people.

      I like it!

  2. Great review. I too had never thought much about this, but it makes sense.

    Is it bad that the whole time I was reading this I was thinking about Captain Planet and how the one who controls water is the blonde Russian girl? Not the power of heart (the obvious choice) but water. And now I know why.