Durkheim’s Theory of ‘Anomic Suicide’ Reflected in Blake’s “London”

William Blake’s poem “London” can be directly correlated with French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s theory of “anomic suicide.” Blake discusses his personal distaste for the recent state of the city of London, describing the “mark” the change of society has imprinted on it’s individuals. Durkheim’s theory is based upon those individuals affected by such societal change and a possible explanation for suicide in society.

Blake describes the unfortunate condition of his hometown of London, England; post the French Revolution and post-industrialization and urbanization of the 19th century. Due to overpopulation, unhealthy working conditions, scarce resources, and a generally squalor environment, London was plagued with disease, harlots, poverty, and a jaded working class. Blake displays sympathy for the working class of London, stating how they are “marked” with signs of sadness, “weakness,” “woe,” and grief from their lost city. Blake’s poem is his own personal “mark” of depression and mourning of the London he once loved. Blake also comments on the English’s complete loss of faith in the church; claiming, “every blackning Church appalls” –exhibiting the people’s inability to provide the slightest form of consolation. Blake asserts that all pathways lead to suffering and death and provides the reader with no closure or resolution to the people of London’s pain.

Emile Durkheim’s prime sociological belief was that society exists, despite us: fashioning it’s people in it’s own image. If Durkheim analyzed Blake’s reflective poem, he would apply his theory of “anomic suicide.”  In “Anomic Suicide,” Durkheim argues there are social causes for suicide –it’s not simply a personal act. Durkheim uses the term “anomie” which means purposeless and normlessness. Norms are the unwritten standard routine of social behavior that provides consistency and security. When a society undergoes a rapid or extreme change, the individuals of that society will usually feel intense anomie, which according to Durkheim, is the leading cause of suicide. In a new, complex, changed society, individuals may feel as if they have no connection to value, feeling worthless and alone.

Durkheim alleges that individuals’ source of unhappiness caused by the growth of wealth and power; Blake’s working class characters are “marked” by their unhappiness possibly due to the rise of industrialization in London. The chimney-sweepers, soldiers, and harlots were all entirely uprooted from their familiar environments of self-sufficiency from an economy based on agriculture to a modern, and still very foreign world of city-states dominated by coal production, machinery, and division of labor. The people of London are then propelled into a state of confusion, instability, and perhaps into panic. The new London society’s behavior was dominated by monetary wealth; life becomes less emotionally satisfying because we have replaced our loved ones with money, showing how the new society is now a “throw away” culture, increasing anomie.

When a society progresses from a smaller and simpler community to a larger and more complex society, Durkheim professes the social relationships are altered, as well. Durkheim discusses primary and secondary relationships: primary relationships are close, casual, and intimate relationships, like that of a husband to his wife or a mother to her child and secondary relationships are formal, impersonal, goal-driven, with no personality is involved, such as the relationship between a mechanic and their customer. Therefore we behave differently according to which group we are interacting with. Primary relationships are essential to human beings, because they permit emotion and affection. Everyone needs the support of primary relationships, but when a society moves from simplicity into modernity, primary relationships decline or even disappear, since the working class must now focus on their jobs instead of their family and loved ones. Blake reflects this separation from primary relationships when he discusses the “Marriage hearse,” proclaiming that even formerly joyous occasions now lead towards death. Durkheim discovered that those who are single, divorced, and loners are more likely to commit suicide than those who hold more meaningful, profound, and intimate relationships with those they love. Also concluding that suicide is less likely to occur for those who possess an intense tie to a group, with which they share a certain, unconditional bond. In a society that is goal-driven and purposive, individuals become more calculated and dehumanized since society is based on the pursuit of wealth and power.

Those who are lonely, vulnerable, insecure, usually young and inexperienced, entering a new phase of life and experiencing a difficulty in their transition usually feel anomie most intensely. All of the people of London are stripped from their past lives, and all sorts of familiarity –those described in Blake’s poem are all plagued with uncertainty and are absorbed into their own depression as aftermath of the societal change. Even Blake’s diction mirrors the hopelessness of the English, claiming London’s streets are “charter’d” or owned, reserved, and rented-out. The tone of the poem is very somber and stagnant, which displays Blake’s own harbored anomie. Since Blake does not form a resolution to the people of London’s desperation and gloominess, we can conclude that Blake himself could possibly be contemplating suicide since he sees no escape from this eternal melancholy bestowed upon the city of London. Durkheim also states the new rise in importance and wealth cause personal goals to be unattainable, condemning society into perpetual unhappiness. Blake makes it absolutely clear that the people of London are eternally discontent with their personal situations because they have a constant issue, straining to obtain wealth and power in their society.

Durkheim believes that human beings need limits set in place by society, especially during time of change. Societal changes liberate individuals in society and the freedom that they are given is overwhelming and skews their normally rational mindset. The old regime provided citizens was static and provided stability, but modernity led to crisis for the English. If they were given steady expectations for life and how society is run, suicide would diminish. However, post the French Revolution and post-industrialization, London was destitute of norms and a strong sense of individual purpose, causing the suffering Blake is embodying.

William Blake’s “London” reflects the father of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim’s theory of “anomic suicide” due to it’s underlying social and political theme of desperation. The subject matter: a changed society coping with the harsh effects of the French Revolution and industrialization, can unequivocally serve as a historical example of the “normlessness” and “purposelessness” Durkheim asserts occurs post social change. Blake’s poem is a political poem; it is a cry for help: the voice of the people pleading with the English government to bring the amicable warmth back into their society frozen by modernity and materialism.

2 thoughts on “Durkheim’s Theory of ‘Anomic Suicide’ Reflected in Blake’s “London”

  1. truly insightful analysis of Blake’s poem.
    hatered of materialism and sympathy for working class people –must reflect Blake’s innner world…

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