“We must ask why unfortunate people do not kill themselves more.”

This is only an infelicitous phrasing of the question the Old Woman With One Buttock (daughter of Pope Urban X and the Princess of Palestrina) asks in Voltaire’s Candide. The victim of a string of catastrophes that are bizarre and extreme even in the context of this pretty bizarre novel, she says she has heard many people lament their sufferings and say they would be better off dead, but she notes that almost none of those people, including herself, actually kill themselves. She concludes that people love life too much to leave it, even when it seems awful. (At the end of the novel we find her concerned only that her newly safe and peaceful life not be boring.)

My student was writing about this old woman and the question she addresses when recounting the story of her life: subjected to such suffering, why go on? His phrasing, though, makes her question sound more like a suggestion for addressing the rising costs of health care.

I like the placement of “more”: my student should have put it before “unfortunate”—” why more unfortunate people do not kill themselves.” Maybe he was concerned that the reader would wonder whether he meant “more people who are unfortunate” or “people who are more unfortunate than others,” and with the picky instructor who he knew was his reader, maybe he would have been right to worry. Or he might have added “often” to the end of the sentence, to say “why unfortunate people do not kill themselves more often.” But the same picky reader might have commented in the margin, “MORE often? Isn’t once enough?” or “Do they only kill themselves slightly now?” (No, she wouldn’t have made either of those comments; but she might have thought of them, I admit. After all, I just did.) To satisfy me, he would have had to take a little more time and a little more thought: “why so few people who consider themselves unfortunate actually kill themselves,” perhaps.

Or he could have quoted directly from the text, where the meaning is unambiguous partly because it is distributed over several sentences.

I also would have appreciated his attributing the question itself to the old woman: “Why, she asks, do not more of the unfortunate kill themselves?” As he has written it, he himself is urging us to ask this question; and it isn’t a question I have ever before felt compelled to ask, or answer. I have never looked around and thought to myself, “Whine, whine, whine. Why don’t they just kill themselves?” or “Look at all these suffering people! Why don’t they just end it all?” That kind of thinking leads to the notion of “Death Panels”—boards of people judging the unfortunate: “Oh, SHE’s so unfortunate she should kill herself.” (There is NO SUCH THING as a “death panel” in the Affordable Care Act, but there are evidently a lot of people who dread being subjected to one to the point that they could be terrorized into hating the legislation for its imaginary sake anyway…)

Luckily, the old woman is right. Most of us love life too much to leave it over a bit of misery. I was having a good old inter-colleague grouse the other day on the subject of student papers: “Couldn’t you just slit your throat?” he asked, and I replied “Every day.” But neither of us did; and neither of us would.

I wish my readers all good fortune; but if you sometimes feel, or are, unfortunate, do take the old woman’s advice: Love life. Fear only boredom—which sometimes may also feel like an instrument of death (“This boredom is killing me!” “He bored me to death!”) but is not one that people generally turn on themselves.

I feel pretty safe: teaching writing may be exhausting sometimes, frustrating often—but it is never, ever, boring.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““We must ask why unfortunate people do not kill themselves more.”

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