Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458
In the novel, Jim Crace presents two opposing attitudes toward death. On the one hand, he offers the view of death as finality, represented by the body. He spends considerable time describing the physical workings of the environment and animals or corpses. This view seems consistent with his choice to make the protagonists, Joseph and Celice, biology professors. On the other hand, Crace stresses the individuality and humanity of people in terms of the impacts they have on others and the ways their lives are continued through memory.
Crace begins the novel with the couple on the beach, where they are murdered while on vacation. Their romantic interlude is interrupted by a random human predator, who robs, rapes, and kills them. The narrator soon introduces a strong feeling of regret over their loss, and suggests that it might be "kind" to look back into their lives as a way of
reclaiming them from death. To start their journey as they disembark, but then to take them back where they have travelled from, is to produce a version of eternity. First light, at last, for Joseph and Celice. A dawning death.
The idea of the contrasting approaches is strengthened by proposing that, in olden times, a "quiver" ceremony was held to commemorate the lives of the lost. This quivering is a religious and social event in which the bodies of the deceased were displayed among their community, who kept vigil with loud vocal reactions and even by touching the bodies. The narrator emphasizes how much changed over a century, as silence is now the norm in the presence of the dead.
A hundred years ago no one was silent or tongue-tied, as we are now, when death was in the room. They had not yet muzzled grief or banished it from daily life. Death was cultivated, watered like a plant. There was no need for whispering or mime. Let the hubbub drive the devils out, they'd tell themselves. Let's make a row. Let's shout.
The narrator juxtaposes the description of the two corpses with the way that Celice taught her zoology students about examining material remains. In class, when describing such phenomena as the workings of decomposition, she would constantly remind the students that this was a necessary, natural process. They needed to confront their own squeamishness, she would note, and fully embrace the concept of life being derived from death, as many animals feed on dead tissue.
She meant that fear of death is fear of life, a cliché amongst scientists, and preachers too. Both know that life and death are inextricably entwined, the double helix of existence. Both want to give life meaning only because it clearly has none other than to replicate and decompose. Hard truths.
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