In The Unfinished World: And Other Stories by Amber Sparks, what is the relationship between beauty and decay in three stories in the collection?

In "The Cemetery of Lost Faces," decay is the material from which beauty is crafted. In "The Process of Human Decay," a man's body must decay before he can provide beauty to the world. In "And the World Was Crowded With Things That Meant Love," the beauty of a person is preserved through sculptures made from memory. Even though a body decays, a person's beauty still shines through if it is evident in their personality.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"The Cemetery of Lost Faces," a short story about two siblings whose parents die when they are young, draws an artistic relationship between beauty and decay. Louise, the older sister, is a taxidermist who preserves animals, and her art drives the conflict of the story. For Louise, beauty can be found in death through preservation of the dead. Louise learns from her father that the goal of taxidermy is not to emulate life but to preserve a dream-like version of the creature being preserved:

Not alive, he tells Louise, he is always telling Louise. We cannot strive for them to look like life.
Then what? she asks, puzzled. Her eyes are perfect mirrors of his. What should they look like?
Like a dream, her father says proudly, for he thinks of himself as a maker of dreams. The dream of a tiger, the dream of a rhino, the dream of a squirrel. The perfect form that preceded all the real tigers and rhinos and squirrels.

In other words, the essence of a creature's beauty is captured when the body is preserved. The preservation will never be able to imitate the beauty of life but instead creates a new form of beauty, almost like the beauty of a statue or a painting, which captures a moment. There is a strong connection here between Louise and Clarence's own macabre artwork, which manifests in the art they make using bones and hides:

Clarence and Louise are trapping death in amber. They are learning how to make time stop.

The siblings are artists who deal with dead animals, and decay is the material from which they are able to create beautiful works of art. In that sense, the relationship between beauty and decay is straightforward: without decay, there can be no beauty for the two siblings.

In "The Process of Human Decay," a man dies, and the various stages of decay are described from his point of view. At first, the decaying of his body is seen as grotesque by even his family; his body smells, and his skin has begun to decompose by the time his body has been discovered, five days after death. However, his decomposed body seems to capture his living personality:

You have been a grotesque to her while living, even as you were to her mother before her. Your current state of gracelessness reminds us now that you have not always lived with grace.

Here, decay is not beautiful, as it reminds the living of the "grotesque" treatment and behavior of the man. Because the man's behavior was ugly, it is only fitting that his decaying body cause disgust. Thankfully, once the man is buried in the ground, his decaying body contributes to the growth of plants in nature:

Eventually decomposition strips you bare, even in that solid oak you’ve taken the shape of. You’ve helped, finally, to enrich something around you, by feeding the soil with your skin and fat and muscle. Now the soil is full of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and especially nitrogen. Now the soil is supremely satisfied, and you’d be okay with that. You always did like growing things. You always were better with plants than with people.

While the man's decaying body was grotesque in its early stages of decay, his body in the later stages has contributed to the growth of something beautiful. Again, as in "The Cemetery of Lost Faces," the beauty of life becomes most apparent after decay has started. Rather than preserving beauty, however, the man's ugliness is transformed into beauty through decay.

In "And the World Was Crowded With Things That Meant Love," two artists exchange sculptures over the course of their lives until one of them passes away. The sculptures exchanged between the two were a demonstration of love, meant to capture the beauty of the other through artistic tribute. As the two aged, the beauty of the works remained:

They never spoke, never wrote, never texted, never exchanged a photograph, though they sculpted and carved each other many times. They could not help but notice each grew lovelier in memory, even as they grew older and older in life.

In a sense, if we think of aging as a form of decay, then these sculptures capture the beautiful essence of the other person despite the fact that their appearances have changed. In other words, because the two sculptors see the beauty in each other's personalities, they cannot help but make beautiful representations of the other. The fact that these representations derive from memory is even more astounding; memory decays over time, but these two have kept each other preserved in their minds, filling in the forgotten features with the lovely memories they have of each other. When one of the sculptors dies, he is surrounded by the sculptures that were made for him, a testament to the beauty of his spirit despite his decaying form.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Janitor in Space, beauty is synonymous with a redemptive loneliness; it comes from rejecting the decay associated with "the accumulated debris of a lifetime in sin and sacrifice." The story follows a janitor who works on a space station; her daily work is mundane, and she thinks that the astronauts she cleans up after are sloppy and careless in their habits.

She remembers her past life with indifference. In her present circumstance, the weightlessness of space simulates a feeling of freedom. Up in space, she no longer has to contend with the shame of her criminal past. Although she has no friends, she is glad to be "free of the burden of people for the first time in her whole flat life." The janitor rejects death as a sort of redemption; to her, death is the "opposite of wisdom, (and) the opposite of mystery." Instead, loneliness (the only thing she owns) becomes a thing of beauty for her in her new life.

In The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies, beauty is marred by a moral decay that results from misplaced priorities and flawed judgment. Accordingly, the mother and step-father in the story are concerned that grown men have begun to ogle the mother's teenage daughters. Because they find it difficult to accept the girls' burgeoning sexuality, the mother and step-father decide to curb the girls' extracurricular activities; they are no longer allowed to dance the sensual Lindy Hop. Instead, they must content themselves with ballet if they want to dance at all. The adults' flawed judgment and misplaced priorities lead them to shame the girls rather than to educate them about the pleasures and responsibilities that come with sexual awakening.

The girls rebel and decide to take revenge on their parents. They rename themselves the Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies. In 1892, Lizzie Borden stood trial for the axe-murders of her father and step-mother in Massachusetts; she was acquitted in 1893. Both Cat and Patty scheme to dispatch their parents in the same way. However, Cat eventually becomes infatuated with a young man and loses interest in carrying out the murders. Incensed, Patty schemes on her own, but it isn't the same without her twin. The story ends in a surrealistic dream, where Patty cuts down Cat's boyfriend with an axe. The ambiguous ending is stunning, reinforcing the idea that moral decay often corrupts beauty.

In For These Humans Who Cannot Fly, beauty can be derived from decay and death, if only from a matter of perspective. Accordingly, a widower remembers his dead wife by building death houses (Leichenhaus) for a living. In these houses, he has placed five hundred Temporary Resting Containers, where the deceased can rest until they are awakened from their "sleep." Although the widower knows that no one can come back from the dead, he still believes that "every death is a love story." Although its "the goodbye part," he believes that "the love is still there, wide as the world."

It is this love that sustains those who are left behind. From this perspective, the rituals of death are fraught with hope and beauty, not despair and grief. When his wife dies, the widower lays her in a Temporary Resting Container. He ties a piece of cord (connected to a bell) to one of her broken fingers. In the event she awakes, she will only have to move her finger and the bell will ring. Then, the doctors he has hired to be on call at all times will come to her aid. The widower sees the ritual of burying his wife as a comfort, a thing of beauty that encapsulates the love story of a lifetime.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial