Essays in Romanticism

A Family Affair: Ennobling Suicide in Mary Shelley's Matilda

Essays in Romanticism (2013), 20, (1), 101–128.

Abstract

Mary Shelley's 1819 novella, Matilda was published for the first time in 1959. Most scholars point to the scandalous subject matter of father-daughter incestuous passion as the root of the problem for publication, but this essay argues that the scandalous incest plot is largely a vehicle Shelley uses to explore another shocking topic: the right to commit suicide. The incest theme of Matilda serves Shelley's main argument that suicide may be regarded as virtuous, honourable, and even socially beneficial. Through her delineation of the family drama in which a father desires his daughter, Shelley incorporates ideas from the broad cultural debate about the right to take one's own life as they are represented in the writings of members of her own family—and, in so doing, she enacts another kind of family drama. This essay focuses on Shelley's engagement in a philosophical conversation with members of her family, alive and dead, who, through their writings and lived experiences, represent various aspects of the Romantic-era suicide debate.

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Faubert, Michelle