In Death on the Installment Plan, Céline is obsessed with human suffering and death and with the individual’s efforts to cope with those horrible realities. At the end of the novel, Ferdinand becomes aware that from the moment of birth the individual is being prepared for the grave. Initially, Ferdinand, exposed to so many instances of emotional, spiritual, and physical deaths, is overwhelmed by despair, but he comes to understand and accept the frightening truth that all are paying for death on the installment plan. This realization enables him to cope with his existence. He is able to pick up the pieces and survive.
The novel is an indictment of Céline’s society, which he perceives as vicious and as the primary agent of death, whether emotional, spiritual, or literal. The conditions of modern life encourage distrust, betrayal, rancor, brutality, persecution, and selfishness. Céline believed that it was his duty to open his readers’ eyes to the baseness and ugliness spawned by French society. He provides graphic, naturalistic details of dust, decay, stench, vomit, and excrement. He portrays the destruction of family life, the bankruptcy of business, the callousness of the health care system. He is unsparing in his evocation of the revolting and the nauseating.
Such a world forces Ferdinand to withdraw into himself and to develop a loathing both of it and of himself. Céline’s vision of society, however, is not totally bleak: There are pockets of decency that occasionally counter the pervasive brutality and corruption. In Ferdinand’s case, under the mitigating influence of the few considerate characters in the novel—Caroline, Uncle Edouard, Nora Merrywin, and Courtial des Pereires—he progresses from hatred (including self-hatred) to an awakening of warmer emotions and a recognition of his worth.
The novel is very much a book about the writer and writing. Céline discusses the importance of the imaginative and the cerebral, the hallucinatory and the conscious in the creative process. He also examines its consolatory and therapeutic effect: Both the adult and the young Ferdinand find temporary respite in imaginatively creating the romantic world of King Krogold.
The legend of King Krogold functions not only as a means of escape for the narrator-protagonist; it is significant to Céline’s main theme as well. He uses it as a myth to explore a truth in human nature: In the story, Gwendor the Magnificent asks Death to spare his life until he finds and destroys his betrayer, thus ridding the world of evil. Death reprimands him for wanting to live in a dream world, telling him that pain and evil are a part of life, which cannot be only joyful and beautiful.