Death in Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Death in Literature

Among the most frequently treated subjects in literature, death—present as a theme, symbol, or plot device—exists as one of the defining elements in the writing of modern poets, dramatists, and novelists. Intertwined with the origins of literature itself, human consciousness of mortality has for centuries provided the impetus for reflection on the causes, meaning, and nature of existence. And, while treatments of death are as varied as the authors who write them, scholars have perceived in modern texts—whether for the stage, in verse, or in prose fiction—certain clearly defined approaches to this topic of nearly universal interest.

Modern writers have frequently presented death as the ultimate existential dilemma, one which arouses terrible anxiety as it offers an avenue toward authentic self-discovery. Likewise, death is often perceived within a larger context, as part of the natural cycle of decay and renewal, or treated as a source of laughter, co-opted for humorous ends by writers of black comedy and absurdist drama, who nonetheless recognize the high seriousness of their subject. Death in literature also carries with it a range of symbolic implications, over the years having been aligned with ideas of retreat into solipsism, escape, alienation, and ultimately with the sources of meaning and the creation of literature itself.

In the modern novel and short story death has achieved a nearly ubiquitous presence. Critics observe in the works of Franz Kafka and D. H. Lawrence, for example, an almost obsessive concern with human mortality, which produces states of alienation, anxiety, and a potential retreat into the self in order to escape the omnipresent forces of death and decay. Death in the works of the Modernists is also frequently associated with solipsistic individuals, in relation to whom external and internal forces collude, symbolically cutting them away from humanity. Scholars acknowledge that the intense study of death undertaken by many Modernists also affords some writers the opportunity to more fully understand life and living. For writers like Gertrude Stein and Italo Svevo—in his Confessions of Zeno (1923)—the contemplation of human mortality leads to an understanding of personal identity and provides for an immanent meaning in life. Writers of the contemporary era have also often focused on the comic qualities of death under the umbrella of "black humor" fiction. Using the pretext of death as an inescapable part of the human comedy, such writers as J. P. Donleavy in The Ginger Man (1955), Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in Slaughter-house Five, (1969) and Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire (1962)—to name only a few—have used the subject of death as an ironic metaphor for life and art in the twentieth century. In the writings of these and other contemporary authors, death pervades the story and its protagonists' minds, and offers an absurd commentary on the brevity and meaninglessness of their lives and the finality of their deaths.

The symptoms of black humor fiction stretch beyond genre boundaries to the field of drama, in which the writers of modern tragicomedy and proponents of the theater of the absurd—represented by such writers as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter—again study the humorous side of death. Critics have seen a wide diversity, nonetheless, in the writings of these dramatists. These range from Beckett, whose fatalism in the face of incomprehensibility demonstrates that laughter might be the only appropriate response to a violent and hopelessly absurd universe, to Ionesco, in whose tragicomic plays about death critics discern an affirmation of life. Other playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, have dealt with death as the defining feature of stage tragedy. Critic Philip M. Armato has characterized Williams's mid-career plays, among them The Night of the Iguana (1961), as "one poet's quest for a solution to the problems created by man's awareness of the inevitability of death." Elsewhere, Robert Feldman has seen in the characters of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) a longing for death as an escape from the seemingly interminable pain of life.

Such tragic responses to death are more in line with the serious mood that tends to prevail in poetry on the subject. Critics find this attitude best exemplified in the musings of the twentieth century confessional poets, a group that includes such writers as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. For several of these writers, notably Plath and Sexton, death as a pretext for understanding life is of tantamount importance. In the poetry of these introspective writers, mortality exists as the defining sensibility, and is deeply rooted in a personal experience of the anguish of living and of death; an experience so intense for Plath and Sexton as to have culminated in their own suicides.