Posts Tagged ‘death in literature’

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

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