When the Gothic came into vogue in the eighteenth century, suicide had not been addressed by science; instead it was a matter for philosophical debate. Dating back to 1733, suicide was considered part of a broader 'English malady', which encompassed a wide array of what we would now consider psychological symptoms. Physician George Cheyne's pseudo-scientific book, The English Malady, or, A Treatise on Nervous Disease of all Kinds attributed the causes of suicide to atheism, determinism, poverty, capitalism, and bad weather, among other things. This idea of the English Malady was pervasive enough that suicide, although illegal, was often not punished by English courts, but instead ascribed to madness rather than criminality.
Nearly sixty years later, indignant over daily reports of suicide in the London newspapers, John Wesley condemned 'self-murder' in the strongest terms. In a sermon responding to this shameful English over-indulgence or weakness, Wesley deemed it a flaw of the legal system that all 'self-murderers' were considered mad, and therefore not punished. Punishment, for Wesley, was the key deterrent to suicide. Citing the ancient Spartans, Wesley suggested that the body of every self-murderer, regardless of class, should be hanged in chains, exposed naked in the streets. After such a law was enacted, Wesley writes, "the English fury will cease at once."
In France in 1793, Voltaire argued in favor of an individual's right to choose suicide in 'Cato.On Suicide, And The Abbe St. Cyran's Book Legitimating Suicide,' a chapter in his Philosophical Dictionary. After a long consideration of both English and French examples of self-murderers, Voltaire considers their motivations. Some killed themselves for king and country. Some for love, others to avoid a dreadful descent into disease. Since he doesn't find a pattern indicating these deaths are malicious, Voltaire concludes that by most societies' rules, self-murder would not be deemed a crime. Further, he cites the Bible's lack of indictment and the generosity of the Ancient Romans on the subject as evidence that in the history of Western civilization, suicide has been overlooked in service of greater causes. Voltaire condemns French laws that resulted in the government's confiscating the property of self-murderers thereby robbing their children of their proper inheritance, because he believes these laws are based on fallacious Christian canon law, which considers Judas's strangling himself a greater sin than his betrayal of Jesus.
Although it was not a philosophical argument, another famous voice on suicide at the beginnings of the Gothic was that of Johann von Goethe, whose 1774 book, The Sorrows of Young Werther was part of the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany. This story of a sensitive young man unlucky in love culminates in the main character's death when he shoots himself in the head with a pistol. The influence of Werther in Europe is undeniable, as the book sparked fans to imitate Werther's clothing style, and was even blamed for a rash of real-life suicides using pistols in the same manner. Sorrows of Young Werther is one of the books the monster reads in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein.
Since the earliest Gothic novels tended to be projects of British nationalism heavily concerned with what it meant to be a good English person, not a French or German one, it is unsurprising that authors might be less inclined to write about suicide than about other means of death. The anonymous author of the chapbook “Cronstadt Castle,” provides an example of suicide in the Gothic, when the Count stabs himself to death because he fears his past sins will be revealed. Later in the Gothic, suicide becomes more common. Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ends when Mr. Hyde commits suicide by drinking a poison, although his double personality makes it difficult for the reader to truly indict him for his chosen manner of death. Is it the still suicide when there are two different personalities at play?
Voltaire. The Philosophical Dictionary. [Electronic Resource] : From the French of M. De Voltaire. Dublin : printed by Bernard Dornin, NO. 9, Grafton-Street, (opposite Exchequer-Street), M,DCC,XCIII. 1793]; A new and correct edition, 1793. Print.
Wesley, John.The Works of John Wesley. Vol VII. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 2007; 3rd ed., complete and unabridged, 2007. Print.
Wright, Angela. Britain, France and the Gothic, 1764-1820 : The Import of Terror , University of Sheffield. Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.