Purdue University Graduate School

File(s) under permanent embargo

"That whyle she lyved she was a trew lover:" Suicide, Gender, and Desire in Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur.

posted on 2021-07-11, 16:07 authored by Margaret L ShebleMargaret L Sheble

My project outlines how Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is interlaced with suicidal characters who, when considered through the lens of “self-murder” provide a more nuanced and complex reading of the text. As this project outlines, suicide is understood as a self-centered action. In the case of my dissertation, I am specifically focusing on suicide where the individual’s intentions are prompted by their individual desire aka “love” for another individual. Using Annamarie Jagose’s definition of queer theory—queer meaning a break from heterosexual norms and its effects on society and not just about identity—I find suicidal relationships to fit this definition of queer. When read as a queer body, the suicidal character represents autonomy outside of the rigid community because they represent desire for the unconventional. Suicidal characters crave a particular, specific, individual desire to the point they are willing to die for it and hence endanger larger societal traditions such as marriage. By dying and not marrying and reproducing, suicidal individuals undermine the social order. What’s more, suicide often messes with gender binary through “gender-bending” as the means of suicide are often outside expected norms i.e., passive/feminine or active/masculine. Traditionally, because of societal gendered binaries women might be expected to die passively, by wasting away, while men would be expected to self-murder in a particularly violent fashion. For Malory, these gendered norms are outlined in the Pentecostal Oath which act as the pillar for which Arthur’s idealistic society is built upon and which the suicidal characters constantly disrupt. Often these suicides for love are grossly misunderstood by the other characters in the Morte. While the suicidal individual commits the act for personal reasons the court tends to read these deaths as propagating ideal desires for the body politic such as how to be a better knight or to be a better Christian for the “greater good.” As I argue, suicide highlights the tension and anxiety of individual desire verses the needs of the larger body politic and suggests both that there needs to be a carefully maintained balance between the two; additionally, moments of suicide make this balance incredibly difficult to maintain. Suicidal characters highlight Malory’s point that good individual knights cannot exist in the body politic that wants order in the guise of sameness. While order can construct stability in a society too much emphasis on monotony extinguishes what makes a society exceptional.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • English

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

S. Dorsey Armstrong

Additional Committee Member 2

Shaun Hughes

Additional Committee Member 3

Jeffrey Turco

Additional Committee Member 4

Molly Martin

Usage metrics


    Ref. manager