What do "Death" and "Life-in-Death" stand for in Coleridge's The Rime of Ancient Mariner?

Death and Life-in-Death are allegorical figures who represent the potential fates of the men on board the ship. Death represents the straightforward physical termination of life, while Life-in-Death represents spiritual death.

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The figures of Death and Life-in-Death make their appearance in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner after the mariner kills the albatross and brings down a curse upon his fellow shipmates. The two enter on a ghostly ship and share a spectral, menacing appearance, though Life-in-Death has the added grotesquerie of somewhat resembling an attractive woman with her red lips, golden hair, and "free" looks. The two figures play dice for the fates of the men onboard: Death wins the crew while Life-in-Death wins the mariner.

What Death represents is straightforward: he is literally death itself. When he wins the men, they all die, their souls going "to bliss or woe." Life-in-Death is the far more sinister of the two because she represents a state of spiritual and physical anguish that persists in life. When she wins the mariner's soul, he is unable to pray or truly repent for what he has done, suggesting Life-in-Death has trapped him in a state of spiritual death. This spiritual death cuts him off from other living beings and love itself. Surrounded by the corpses of the fallen sailors, the mariner endures loneliness, terror, and guilt for a week. Only when he looks upon the sea creatures swimming alongside the boat and appreciates their beauty ("I bless'd them unaware") is the mariner able to be restored to spiritual life.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 12, 2021
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The mariner kills the albatross and the crew eventually decides that the mariner is to blame for all their thirst, so they make him wear the albatross. (This is where the concept of “albatross as a burden” comes from).By killing the albatross, a symbol of purity and the Christian soul, the mariner has offended God and nature. In the Romantic and Transcendental philosophies, there was an inherent connection between nature and spirit; connected via the Imagination. On the surface, this sounds like an animal rights poem, but Coleridge was making a Christian/Romantic statement that harming nature is harming ourselves as all are interconnected.

So, all these supernatural events are caused by the mariner’s senseless killing of the albatross/symbol of Christian soul. They eventually pass a ship. This is right after they make the mariner wear the dead albatross around his neck; his cross to bear. On the ship they pass, Death (actually representing death) and Life-in-Death (representing suffering in life) are playing dice. They were betting for the lives or souls of the men. Death won all the men – they all dropped dead. Death-in-life won the mariner and he subsequently has led a life full of suffering because his killing of the albatross led to the death of his men. But the impression is that the death of the albatross is the initial crime and as offensive as the men’s deaths.  

 

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It is clear that these two spectres that appear on the ship and play a chilling game of dice for the life of the Mariner represent what their names say they are. Death represents complete death, and Life-in-Death represents a state of death that exists in life, that the Mariner has to suffer because Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, whereas Death wins the life of the sailors, resulting in their deaths. Note how they are described:

Are those her ribs through which the Sun

Did peer, as through a grate?

And is that Woman all her crew?

Is that a DEATH? and are there two?

Is DEATH that woman's mate?

 

Her lips were red, her looks were free,

Her locks were yellow as gold:

Her skin was as white as leprosy,

The Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,

Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Clearly focusing on their descriptions, and in particular the description of Life-in-Death, shows they are deeply suggestive of what these figures represent. The fact that Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, and the way that we are presented with how the Mariner lives--doomed to wander the world and share his story thanks to an uncontrollable compulsion--shows the life-in-death that he has to endure as his punishment.

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