What are the themes in Alice Walker's "To Hell with Dying"?
The themes in this short story are to do with the coming of age of the narrator, who, by the end of the story learns some very important lessons about life and death. The basic premise of the story concerns the ability of the children to always bring Mr. Sweet back to life indefinitely. It is only when the narrator is 24 and studying her doctorate that she learns death cannot be so easily cheated, as she is called back to Mr. Sweet's deathbed once more but is unable to revive him. Note how Mr. Sweet is described in this final visit before he dies:
[Mr. Sweet] was like a piece of rare and delicate china which was always being saved from breaking and which finally fell.
The simile is important because it shows the recognition of the narrator that the "delicate china" was always going to break eventually, and that nothing could put off the inevitable indefinitely. The narrator thus moves from innocence to experience as she realises the inevitability of death and how even love is unable to conquer death ultimately. The narrator also has something of an epiphany as she dies as she realises that Mr. Sweet was her first love because it was he that made her feel so special and so important. The twin themes of love and death are therefore predominant in this excellent short story.