Sarah Ames (University of Edinburgh)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Stevenson and the Economics of Suicide’

In the midst of the late nineteenth-century’s decline of the gentleman and the rise of the entrepreneur, Stevenson published ‘The Suicide Club’ (1878/1882), the first of his topsy-turvy New Arabian Nights stories.  In it, he imagines a stagnating gentleman’s club, which has the sole purpose of ‘generating’ death: members join to have their own suicide performed for them.  Why be so superfluous as to be alive, it seems, when members can pay for the ‘service’ of death?  Stevenson’s Club depicts this attitude within a capitalist world focused on self-interest, as opposed to brotherhood, and demonstrates the lengths gone to both to make money and to spend it in a service-driven, productivity-focused environment.  Yet while ‘The Suicide Club’ is ironic and a parody of both the active societies which existed at this time – such as the Fenians, which are the focus of More New Arabian Nights – and of the endless supply and demand cycle, the text also provides an unexpected, and long-lasting, legacy.

Following its publication, British and American newspapers display a surge in suicide clubs, many of which are taken to be copy-cat enterprises: Stevenson’s text inspired other, similar, money-making schemes, locating him at the heart of economic debates in this period of rising capitalism and entrepreneurship, as this paper will explore.  The paper will look at reports which range from the ‘conventional’ suicide club to the bizarre: it is clear that details of such clubs not only captured the public imagination, but also helped to sell newspapers.  The availability and distribution of ‘The Suicide Club’, this paper will demonstrate, began further cycles of both money-making and of text from the unlikely starting point of extinction, enabling groups of people far and wide to kill themselves ‘like a gentleman’.

Categorized as Abstracts

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