Sandra Gilbert draws upon her considerable expertise as a professor of English and experienced critic and writer of poetry and fiction in writing Death’s Door. Nevertheless the most important influence for this book is a series of unexpected deaths involving close family members. These painful events propel the author in a new direction professionally. She moves away from a concentration in women’s studies, where she had gained considerable success, and toward sustained work on death and dying. Initially she wrote a memoir about the unexpected death of her husband, Elliot L. Gilbert (Wrongful Death, 1995). Later she professionalized this acutely personal story with a collection of poems dealing with loss (Inventions of Farewell, 2001). Death’s Door represents an ambitious reach beyond these books. It is a complex masterpiece, both painstakingly personal and satisfyingly academic. The author ventures from her comfort zone of literary criticism into the social sciences and medicine as she explores the context of the dying. She looks at modern technology and its implications as well as after-death conventions in the work of Jessica Mitford. The result is best read slowly and reflectively. This is by no means a trivial work; it contains nuggets worth the reader’s trouble to mine.
Part 1 is the most personal section of the book. The author recounts her own journey to the liminal landscape of human passing, not once but a number of times. The unexpected loss of her husband in 1991, consequent to a hospital admission for a routine surgery, changes the course of her own professional work. This death multiplies for Gilbert the loss of her three-day-old first child, the wrenching deaths of her father, her grandparents, and a cherished aunt, all in her view, “before their time.” Then comes the horror and shock of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, events that raise the experience of personal loss to societal proportions. How does one deal with the weight of profound and illogical tragedies that shift the sands of personal and cultural security? How does one resist the urge to cross death’s threshold and join the departed who have been pulled away without warning? The search for meaning in the concept of “widow,” the struggle to make sense of untimely death in “the after>midnight blackness” that is more than the sunlessness of nighttime, the work of grieving, of remembering, of sustaining care for the dead: These are the tasks assigned to those who grieve. These are the stuff of Gilbert’s explorations.
Human beings who struggle with raw grief resort to various kinds of rituals to remove the pain. Some build alternative imaginary universes of consolation decorated with “Tudor topiary and flashing fountains” (Gilbert quotes Kipling), where their departed loved ones live happily ever after. This construction knits solace from sorrow for some people. Alternately, people compose fantasies to be played out in the world of the living, houses of “what if,” where the future still includes those who have died. Some people deal with death by maintaining some form of communication with the deceased. They create snippets of a kind of e-mail that bridges the cyberspace of grief in the hope of retrieving the lost relationship. What Gilbert describes resonates universally with human experience. It is not her journey alone but the well-trod, painful path of human reality. Her account is both candid and captivating. Navel-gazing it is not. The reader is drawn into Gilbert’s world as she describes the events following her husband’s death, as she speaks of her mother’s keening with sorrow when Gilbert’s father dies. The descriptions, resonatingly emotional, never become maudlin.
Part 2 of the book moves more aggressively into areas that are new to the author’s professional attention. The twentieth century’s mode of death differs from that of previous times, even as the constancy of grief remains the same. Modern people do not “expire” as...
(The entire section is 1649 words.)