Dr. Amy Ronner lectures in a WashU classroom

"Suicide, Anomy, and Stavrogin's Noose" A conversation with Dr. Amy Ronner

This week Dr. Amy Ronner visited campus and gave a lecture on her most recent book "Dostoyevsky as a Suicideologyst: Self-Destruction and the Creative Process" We asked students for their reflections. This is what they had to say.

First of all, I was stunned by Dr. Ronner’s close interrogation of suicide with integration of multiple disciplines because suicide itself is a very narrow, specialized area of study. She mentioned Durkheim, a French sociologist, who is commonly cited as one of the principal architects of modern social science, along with both Karl Marx and Max Weber (from Wikipedia). And coincidentally, I’m taking Dr. Oltmanns’ Abnormal Psychology in which we talked about suicide in mood disorders a couple of weeks ago, and I just had a test today. FYI, here are some notes on the four types of suicide mentioned by Dr. Ronner, taken from the textbook of that class:

- Egoistic suicide - people feel their existence is meaningless

- Altruistic suicide - sacrifice

- Anomic suicide - sudden breakdown in social order

- Fatalistic suicide - living circumstances become unbearable, such as slave

She demonstrated that Svidrigailov’s suicide was an Egoistic one, and Ralskolnikov was also on the trajectory of Egoistic suicide, when he became ruminative and frustrated upon his existence in the society, from which he had become detached. I also like her conclusion that in front of Raskolnikov were two paths: the Porfiry and Sonya path, towards life, and Svidrigailov path, towards Egoistic death. This leads to more prospects of examining the interaction between life and death, perhaps including the impossible-to-answer question: why chose death over life.

I was also impressed by how her background in law and literature has provided so much more diverse vision when trying to interpret suicide. I’ve always been troubled by my “psych student mindset” when reading literature because on one hand, it provides shortcuts to comprehend the content; but on the other hand, it also limits the possibility of gaining more profound understanding.

The other Dostoevsky novel mentioned by Dr. Ronner is Demons, and the protagonist is Nikolai Stavrogin. It is my first time to hear about this book. The book was significantly influenced by the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860s, so I suppose this would echo with Durkheim’s theory on anomic and fatalistic suicide, and it must be an interesting work to read.

Carmen Xia


I found Dr. Ronner's analysis of suicide to be fascinating. I had heard of Dostoevsky as an influential figure in the development of modern psychology, but this added another layer to it. I also hadn't really considered the suicide aspect of Crime and Punishment as much as other themes within the novel, so this was illuminating in that regard, too. But I found most interesting the discussion of suicide more broadly as a form of self-sabotage. In Crime and Punishment, The Stranger, and the brief portion of Native Son that I've read so far there has been widespread self-

sabotage. It seems like each main character, for some reason, has an internal desire to punish themselves for something. I'm not sure if its a form of masochism, but it certainly aligns with what we've read. This perspective also gives a new frame for how we explain why Raskolnikov didn't kill himself. He, in a way, already had. The murder he committed was essentially his own form of self-homicide––though it was of course, also a murder of two other people. As Dr. Ronner mentioned, basically everything Rodya did throughout the novel make himself worse off. While I'm not totally sure I would agree that his inability to refrain from confessing was a suicide––to me it just didn't feel that way––there is a strong argument in favor of this. Same with Merseult. His murder is more curious, I think, since the only reason he sights is the Sun and he has such a warped perception of living, but there is a suicide angle when thinking about his story, though perhaps less convincing.

Ben Ewer


It was a pleasure to listen to Dr. Ronner speak; it was very clear that she is extremely knowledgeable about the topics she discussed. I thought it was really interesting how she explained that Dostoevsky predicted many aspects of contemporary suicidology in a sense. She made the concepts super easy to understand and follow, especially when she was discussing the four different types of suicide. I have never thought of suicide in such an organized and categorized manner before so I felt like I learned a lot and I see the topic in a new light. One of the ideas that stuck with me the most was the concept that Svidrigailov represents suicide itself and that each of the other characters represent different paths Raskolnikov could take.

I think another student brought it up in a question after Dr. Ronner's talk, but I really liked the idea of how literature could be used as evidence for scientific research. I am curious about what other subjects besides (or within) psychology have had prominent research that used literature to support claims. This idea is an interdisciplinary goldmine and I definitely think it is worth exploring and could be incredibly interesting. Although I have not read most of the other books she mentioned, I still feel like I understood her points because she did such a good job of illustrating the details that were important to understanding suicide's important role in those books. Overall, I am very grateful that we got the chance to hear her speak and I certainly learned a lot about literature, psychology, and the law.

Rielly Carter


“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that. Philosophers often question themselves the question that "Under what conditions is suicide warranted?" Although this question is discussed more in the context of social science as Dr.Ronner introduced various suicidal theories that divided the one committing suicide into several categories, the question still revolves around whether life is worth living. For egoists, the value of life comes from the abundance of self-identification without acknowledging their existence has an inherent value similar to what Camus asserts that suicide is the moment where true autonomy comes into the mind as Camus thinks that it is absurd to try to know, and understand, or explain the world, for he sees the attempt to gain rational knowledge as futile. Maybe philosophers are too focused on the egoistic side of suicide

as the main reason for suicide and ignore the altruistic side of suicide as a such cult-like sacrifice is already philosophically suicidal in some sense regardless of the strong sense of social hierarchy in both anomic and fatalistic suicide. As Dr.Ronner said, suicide is both magical and tragical as it is very hard to comprehend the minds of the "absurd" as Camus would have put it.

In cases like "Crime and Punishment", there might be a distinct relationship between homicide and suicide as one of the suicide theories describes it as "killing everything around you", even in some genocidal way.

Calvin Chen


I found Dr. Ronner's discussion fascinating, as her interdisciplinary approach mirrored my own academic interests, as an English Lit and PNP double major. Last week, we were discussing Freud’s death drive (Thanatos) in my Literary Theory class, and my professor mentioned how difficult it was to find ‘real world’ instances of the death drive, so this lecture was a helpful example of the application of literary theory. Many of the themes she discussed also related to the Personality Psychology course that I took last spring, as well as my current philosophy course, Art & The Mind Brain. In this way, the lecture combined many distinct subjects into a comprehensive analysis which I enjoyed. Additionally, I found the theory that suicide is inherently also patricide, matricide, fratricide and genocide quite fascinating, especially if applied to literature. To what extent to characters survive after we close the cover of a novel?

Margaret Dresselhuys


I personally thought Amy Ronner's lecture was very interesting in understanding the depth of Dostoevsky's works. Comparing his personal tragedies to his works reveals how strong of an influence his life had on his works. The tragic aspects of his life are especially reflected in his depictions of suicide in his numerous works. Her discussion of the four different forms of the reasoning behind suicide in Dostoevsky’s novels paints a clear image of life in Russia during his lifetime and its bleakness. The discussion of the various mentions of suicide in Dostoevsky’s works reflects how they were a significant aspect of Russian daily life at that time, and as Ronner described, “it was an epidemic.” It was clear that his works deeply reflected the struggles of his life - the tragedies shaped the author.

Eliot Magalnik


Being a PNP major, I found this talk fascinating. With my background in philosophy, I have briefly learned about the four types of suicide (egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic), and with my background in psychology, I have thoroughly learned about suicide and the psychological phenomena that play into suicide.  What was great about this lecture, though, was that it was through the lens of the literary perspective of Crime and Punishment. In Crime and Punishment, it was easy to see how Raskolnikov often self-sabotaged himself. He basically admitted to his crime, had fits of illness whenever near the police station or Porfiry, etc. From what Dr. Ronner said, it appeared that Raskolnikov was leaning toward egoistic suicide (whether literally committing suicide I'm not sure) in that he could not live with his crime, nor could he live with the fact that he had been caught (despite seeming like he wanted to get caught). I think the most interesting part of Dr. Ronner's discussion, though, was that about Svidrigailov. Personally, I did not take much notice of Svidrigailov's death or character; I essentially characterized him as the "villain" or "bad guy" of the story and that was that. However, Dr. Ronner highlighted Svidrigailov in a way that I had not really put much thought into. She focused on his (literal) egoistic suicide and how he could no longer live the way that his life (and perhaps the way that he) was. It was interesting to focus more on Svidrigailov in this sense rather than Raskolnikov, which is who I feel we primarily focused on during class. 

Overall, I really enjoyed hearing Dr. Ronner speak! Thank you so much for this opportunity! 

Talor Willis