In literature death is often symbolized as the Grim Reaper or a Dark Shadow. Words to describe the time of death have been written as Swallowed Up, Devoured or Losing the Fight. Such dark and negative connotations have been attached to Death in recent literature and surely contribute to our ongoing fears surrounding it.
I just finished a wonderful book, “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. The book was narrated from Death’s point of view during the Holocaust in Germany. The book focused predominately on a young girl, her family and the neighbors in her community. Death as the Narrator remained objective, pragmatic and exhausted. But Death became touched and softened by human actions from time to time and reflected this aspect towards the end of the book.
Literature reflecting dying has been mainly relegated to the works of nonfiction in recent years. Memoirs documenting the final days of patients, parents, relatives, mentors and, indeed, the authors themselves are many. A number, including Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” and Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture,” have become bestsellers.
The prolonged messiness of dying, however, is not the focus of current literary trends in writing or in film. Death remains on the periphery. Current cultural preoccupation with youth, beauty and success may be a contributor to this state as well as our extended life spans.
In 19th-century literature death was written about much more frequently and thoroughly. The actual, agonizing and sometime hideous process of dying—played a significant role. Think how long it took Emma Bovary to succumb to her arsenic, and the scrupulous detail with which Flaubert recorded her agonies. Similarly, in Tolstoy’s, “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” we learn at the outset that “the very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.” Tolstoy also writes “How it came about in the third month of Ivan Ilych’s illness … Another two weeks went by … another and another” Who knew that death could take so long?
19th century poet; Emily Dickinson wrote many poems on Death; “Because I could not stop for Death,” “The Last Night that She Lived,” and “I’ve seen a Dying Eye,” Dickinson offered unflinching reality of the finality of death and offered not consolation but controlled despair and acceptance. Edgar Allan Poe fully embraced the writing and exploration of death in his short stories such as Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. He presented story after story in which death was viewed as a beautiful and transcendent experience. In fact, he was often quoted saying that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic subject for literature.
These great writers and thinkers of literature reminds us that literature not only can, but must, address the important subject of death in ways that touches the heart and prepares the mind.
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