The opening line of "Suicide as a Sort of Present" introduces the central character. The story begins: "There was once a mother who had a very hard time indeed, emotionally, inside" (283). For this mother, life has always been difficult. Since childhood, the mother had suffered from parental abuse and issues described as contributing to her greater problem of having "psychic shit" (283). The mother understood that all the pressure and anxiety she faced were internal matters - everything she hated was inside of her. She failed to fulfill her own perfect expectations, though throughout adolescence, the mother was commended and envied for her "energy, drive, appearance, intelligence, disposition, and unfailing consideration for the needs and feelings of others" (284). Though despite all of this, the mother continued to have a "very hard interior time of it indeed"(284). When she finally gave birth to her son, the mother's life became exponentially harder. Her high expectations carried over to her parenting style subsequently. Every time her son failed to reach the bar she set, she internally punished herself. As the son grew up, he comes to recognize the "wicked" aspects within his self and feels undeserving of his great mother. He grows up and goes on to commit acts of violence and thievery. Through thick and thin, the mother treats her child with unconditional love and always manages to forgive him, all the while, steadily adding to "her own inner fund of loathing" (286). The mother's efforts are described as so encompassing that her acts of internalizing her child's wickedness, "absolved him, redeemed and renewed him" (286). As the the child became a teenager and reached the age where he could apply for licenses, the mother is "almost entirely filled, deep inside, with loathing" (286). Though the mother managed to internalize all of this, she remained silently bound by her own desire to be a good mother. The story ends, with the son "desperate, as are all children, to repay the perfect love we may expect only of mothers" (286). The last words allude to suicide, as the son "expressed it all" for his mother. Interpretations of this end vary, though all agree that one of the essential character commits suicide.
One interpretation of the suicide: as the son grew up, "the mother took all that was imperfect in him deep into herself and bore it all and thus absolved him...even as she added to her own inner fund of loathing" (286). The mother's self-loathing identified at the beginning of the story is justified by the son’s suicide. The suicide, the 'repayment' is proof. The mother is punished for her self-centered self-loathing.
- Third Person Narrator
- Past Tense
In the end, the reader may ask the question: Who commits suicide? Who is the narrator of the story? There are arguments for the son and the mother:
The mother commits suicide and the son is the narrator.
The subjective, outlandish phrases like "heavy psychic shit"(283), "grotesque deficiencies"(286), and "indefatigably loving"(285) do not sound autobiographical. The mother would not use such language if she were writing an account of her own life. Such extravagant language might be used when someone dreams up or creates a story out of his imagination. It also makes sense that the present be the mother’s suicide, which the son repays well after the fact by imagining what drove his mother to it. The story the son creates to explain his mother's death takes the form of this story. He sees it as a repayment for the gift he received, and by justifying his mother's sadness, he is able to give back to his mother.
The first line gives the sense of a looking-back-after-the-fact perspective: “There was once a mother who had a very hard time indeed, emotionally, inside.” Combine this with the repeated colloquialisms - as noted above - which are addressed by the story’s author in footnote 3 as coming from well after the time of the story’s occurrence. The narrator constantly refers to the woman as the mother-to-be, which is what she is to him (the narrator). The way he identifies himself, with a sense of guilt and a bit of insight into the son’s own feelings as a child, really only makes sense if the son is the writer. The description of the mother as the “best, most loving and patient and beautiful mother in the whole world” (286) sounds much like the words a child might write on a mother's day card.
If the son kills himself, it’s not a present. He would just be a rotten child who ends rottenly, expressing nothing about his mother with his death. Suicide is not an expression. The mother, on the other hand, is able to give something with her death: she at once removes her loathing from the world - thereby elminating all risk she might ever express this loathing and saving her son from any pain she might cause - and simultaneously forces her rotten son to reevaluate himself and his life, a gift as well. The mother’s self-hatred and bitterness builds over the course of her life, and her suicide is a way of ensuring that her loathing never actually bursts forth. Through her suicide, the mother achieves the image of perfect love, because her hatred never sees the light of day.
The temptation to see the story more darkly is strong, but Wallace has never shown darkness or cynicism when it comes to the power of narrative. We know that the text is not written from an objective perspective, and it is filled with stylistic tics that are meant to tell us something about the narrator/author. The writing is that of a character, not of Wallace.
In this interpretation, most of the story is a product of the son's imagination. Some might see the story as an example of the ability of the human mind to heal and find closure after trauma. Others might interpret this as a frightening example of the way imagination can make us see something as horrible as suicide as a "gift." In this interpretation, the mother's intentions, however twisted they may be, transform suicide into a motherly sacrifice.
The son commits suicide and the mother is the narrator.
Most obviously, the story discusses the thoughts and feelings of the mother. The son would not necessarily know all of these facts, particularly because the mother never tells anyone about the loathing she has inside. The intimate details about the mother's childhood seem like they have come from someone who has lived them, particularly specifics like "a little bit like kicking a dog"(284) and "F.S.A. Faculty Advisors"(284).
In the concluding lines, the mother is described full of loathing. She remains silent, however, compelled by her deep desire to be good mother. She is able to do this because she has become conditioned to deal with her torment, while the son is seen projecting his “psychic shit” onto the world around him through his violent harm and sociopathic behavior. This behavior is seen as a coping mechanism to deal with “world of impossible expectations and merciless judgment” that bears down on the boy (286). The mother's inability to express her internally tormented self, paired with the fact that the son seems to express his torment quite freely and openly, places the son in the suicidal role. The title "Suicide as a Sort of Present" is interpreted as a back handed sort of gift, one that frees the mother of her motherly duties, and simultaneously expresses all of the loathing and hatred bottled up inside the mother and the feelings of inadequacy inside the son.
By committing suicide, the child repays the "perfect love we may expect only of mothers"(286). Since the mother has not allowed her loathing to be revealed, and has given the son "unconditionally loving forgiveness"(286), the son believes his mother to be perfectly loving. His guilt pushes him to want to give back. He feels that his mother has loved him so much and that he has so many "grotesque deficiencies"(286) that the only way he can repay his mother is through his suicide.
This interpretation requires suicide to be seen as a form of expression, as the son's suicide "expressed it all for her"(286). Suicide may be expression when one feels they have no other outlet for his or her deepest emotions. It is the last desperate chance to express something to the world. Here, expression does not necessarily mean an outlet for communication with others. It is simply the way that the deep depression or loathing may manifest itself, thereby being expressed.
Correlation with "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright's Father Begs a Boon'"
The placement of the story in the collection suggests that "Suicide as a Sort of Present" should be read along with "On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon," which comes immediately before it in Hideous Men. The similar topics of parent-child relationships and death become more complex when the stories are read together. The mother-son relationship in "Suicide as a Sort of Present" contrasts the father-son relationship in “On His Deathbed…”. While in “On His Deathbed…,” the son is hated for things outside his control, the son in “Suicide as a Sort of Present” is hated only as a result of the mother’s self hatred. In this way, “Suicide as a Sort of Present” may serve to create possible explanations and to bring up additional questions pertaining to “On His Deathbed…”.