Death in Literature
Death in Literature
Among the most frequently treated subjects in literature, death—present as a theme, symbol, or plot device—exists as one of the defining elements in the writing of modern poets, dramatists, and novelists. Intertwined with the origins of literature itself, human consciousness of mortality has for centuries provided the impetus for reflection on the causes, meaning, and nature of existence. And, while treatments of death are as varied as the authors who write them, scholars have perceived in modern texts—whether for the stage, in verse, or in prose fiction—certain clearly defined approaches to this topic of nearly universal interest.
Modern writers have frequently presented death as the ultimate existential dilemma, one which arouses terrible anxiety as it offers an avenue toward authentic self-discovery. Likewise, death is often perceived within a larger context, as part of the natural cycle of decay and renewal, or treated as a source of laughter, co-opted for humorous ends by writers of black comedy and absurdist drama, who nonetheless recognize the high seriousness of their subject. Death in literature also carries with it a range of symbolic implications, over the years having been aligned with ideas of retreat into solipsism, escape, alienation, and ultimately with the sources of meaning and the creation of literature itself.
In the modern novel and short story death has achieved a nearly ubiquitous presence. Critics observe in the works of Franz Kafka and D. H. Lawrence, for example, an almost obsessive concern with human mortality, which produces states of alienation, anxiety, and a potential retreat into the self in order to escape the omnipresent forces of death and decay. Death in the works of the Modernists is also frequently associated with solipsistic individuals, in relation to whom external and internal forces collude, symbolically cutting them away from humanity. Scholars acknowledge that the intense study of death undertaken by many Modernists also affords some writers the opportunity to more fully understand life and living. For writers like Gertrude Stein and Italo Svevo—in his Confessions of Zeno (1923)—the contemplation of human mortality leads to an understanding of personal identity and provides for an immanent meaning in life. Writers of the contemporary era have also often focused on the comic qualities of death under the umbrella of "black humor" fiction. Using the pretext of death as an inescapable part of the human comedy, such writers as J. P. Donleavy in The Ginger Man (1955), Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in Slaughter-house Five, (1969) and Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire (1962)—to name only a few—have used the subject of death as an ironic metaphor for life and art in the twentieth century. In the writings of these and other contemporary authors, death pervades the story and its protagonists' minds, and offers an absurd commentary on the brevity and meaninglessness of their lives and the finality of their deaths.
The symptoms of black humor fiction stretch beyond genre boundaries to the field of drama, in which the writers of modern tragicomedy and proponents of the theater of the absurd—represented by such writers as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter—again study the humorous side of death. Critics have seen a wide diversity, nonetheless, in the writings of these dramatists. These range from Beckett, whose fatalism in the face of incomprehensibility demonstrates that laughter might be the only appropriate response to a violent and hopelessly absurd universe, to Ionesco, in whose tragicomic plays about death critics discern an affirmation of life. Other playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, have dealt with death as the defining feature of stage tragedy. Critic Philip M. Armato has characterized Williams's mid-career plays, among them The Night of the Iguana (1961), as "one poet's quest for a solution to the problems created by man's awareness of the inevitability of death." Elsewhere, Robert Feldman has seen in the characters of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) a longing for death as an escape from the seemingly interminable pain of life.
Such tragic responses to death are more in line with the serious mood that tends to prevail in poetry on the subject. Critics find this attitude best exemplified in the musings of the twentieth century confessional poets, a group that includes such writers as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. For several of these writers, notably Plath and Sexton, death as a pretext for understanding life is of tantamount importance. In the poetry of these introspective writers, mortality exists as the defining sensibility, and is deeply rooted in a personal experience of the anguish of living and of death; an experience so intense for Plath and Sexton as to have culminated in their own suicides.
Winesburg, Ohio (short stories) 1919
The Floating Opera (novel) 1956
Happy Days (drama) 1961
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1970
77 Dream Songs (poetry) 1964
The Abortion (novel) 1971
Der Tod des Vergil [The Death of Vergil] (novel) 1945
La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947
Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927
E. E. Cummings
Santa Claus—A Morality (drama) 1946
J. P. Donleavy
The Ginger Man (novel) 1955
"The Dying of Francis Donne" (short story) 1896
Der Meteor [The Meteor] (drama) 1966
As 1 Lay Dying (novel) 1930
Second Skin (novel) 1964
Catch-22 (novel) 1961
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SOURCE: "On Death and Dying: Kafka's Allegory of Reading," in Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings, edited by Alan Udoff, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 87-96.
[In the following essay, Bernheimer studies Franz Kafka's literary-existential exploration of the subject of death.]
My title alludes to two very different books, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's compassionate account of the feelings of terminally ill patients and Paul de Man's rigorous study of the self-destructiveness of literary texts.1 This double allusion is intended to suggest the scope of Kafka's conception of death, which ranges from naturalistic reference to the writer's approaching end to near suspension of reference in the allegorical figuration of his writing destiny. A close analysis of two famous passages, frequently conflated by critics, will demonstrate how Kafka' s different attitudes to death and dying are inscribed in his fiction as implied models for its reading.
The first passage is a diary entry written on December 13, 1914:
Recently at Felix's. On the way home told Max that I shall lie very contentedly on my deathbed, provided the pain isn't too great. I forgot—and later purposely omitted—to add that the best things I have written have their basis in this capacity of mine to meet death...
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SOURCE: "Death and the Native Strain in American Poetry," in Social Research, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 449-62.
[In the following essay, Bloom selects a representative poem from both Wallace Stevens and W. B. Yeats in order to contrast American and British poetic conceptions of death, and observes that the former is generally more solipsistic than the latter.]
Shall we be found hanging in the trees next
Of what disaster is this the imminence:
Bare limbs, bare trees and a wind as sharp as salt?
The stars are putting on their glittering belts,
They throw around their shoulders cloaks that flash
Like a great shadow's last embellishment.
It may come tomorrow in the simplest word,
Almost as part of innocence, almost,
Almost as the tenderest and the truest part.
This is Wallace Stevens in expectation of an imminent death. The context is the American Sublime; the poem is his masterpiece, The Auroras of Autumn. When the poem attains its resolution, the auroras cease to be a spell of light or false sign of heavenly malice, and are seen as an innocence of the earth. Death, which may come tomorrow, is not called part of that innocence, but almost part of it—even almost what it is in Whitman, the...
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Philip M. Armato
SOURCE: "Tennessee William's Meditations on Life and Death in 'Suddenly Last Summer', 'The Night of the Iguana' , and 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 558-570.
[In the following essay, Armato studies Williams's portrayal of human perceptions of death in his dramas, concluding that "underneath the guise of southern decadence, Tennessee Williams practices the art of a decidedly Christian playwright.]
In Tennessee Williams' autobiography, the chapter dealing with his life in the sixties might well be entitled "The Inferno." His recent description of these years is chilling. Before publication of Memoirs he had told Rex Reed that they culminated in a "protracted death wish that lasted roughly from 1963 until my release from the psychiatric hospital  where I came within a hairbreadth of death." Even before these most difficult years of spiritual and physical suffering, death, Williams admits in the same interview, had been an "excessively recurring theme" in his plays. His preoccupation with mortality is certainly understandable to those who are familiar with his biography. He has suffered from childhood diphtheria, numerous nervous breakdowns, two heart attacks, a tumor, prolonged bouts with alcohol/drugs and the untimely death of his...
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Enright, D. J., ed. The Oxford Book of Death, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 351 p.
Offers literary selections from throughout history on the subject of death.
Ackerman, R. D. "Death and Fiction: Stevens' Mother of Beauty." ELH 50, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 410-14.
Studies the figure of the Mother of Beauty in Wallace Stevens's writing as a symbolic construct that encompasses the ideas of "natural decay and procreative renewal."
Barreca, Regina, ed. Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. London: Macmillan, 1990, 264 p.
Includes several essays on the Victorian eroticism of death.
Boym, Svetlana. Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991, 291 p.
Examines the relationship between literature and biography, regarding the concept of the death of a poet in "both figurative and literal terms."
Burkman, Katherine H. "Death and the Double in Three Plays by Harold Pinter." In Harold Pinter: You Never Heard Such Silence, edited by Alan Bold, pp. 131-45. London: Vision Press Limited, 1984.
Probes Pinter's use of doppelgangers, or doubles, in his dramas A Slight Ache (1961), Old Times (1971), and No Man's Land...
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