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 they did in the pasta normal progression of life’s experiencebut rather enter into a world of “termination.” Previous philosophies of death entertained a notion of the passage of the human spirit. They proposed a life beyond this one, a place that provided balm not only for those about to cross through death’s door but for those left behind.
Gilbert argues that this notion has undergone a mutation. Modern cultures do not see the event of death in the same way as did their forebears. The massive “death events,” especially of the twentieth century’s efficient killing technologies of war and of the Holocaust have, she argues, depersonalized the concepts of life and death and have torn away the soothing poultice of hope in an afterlife. Today the dying are “terminated,” a practice prefigured by the massive numbers of war casualities as well as by the intentional murders of millions of people in the Holocaust. Face to face with such horror, the comforting notion of a heaven no longer sustains nor consoles the majority of people.
She uses material from poetry, art, and film to make the point. A particularly arresting diptych of photographs pictures a bonneted baby boy (“Gramp Holding Dan”) in the arms of his apparently young and vital grandfather. The accompanying picture, taken twenty years later, reverses the order: “Dan Holding Gramp.” The elder man is now reduced to a frail and incontinent shell of the vigorous man captured in the earlier frame. Which image is real? Where does one locate one’s feelings about the changes in this person, Gramp, and the foreshadow of death that characterize the second photograph? As Gilbert remarks, there are “confusions between life and death with which photography haunts us, complicates grieving, and derides our strategies for denying our own mortality and that of those we love.” Who has not looked with nostalgia or grief upon the yellowed photos or home movies of deceased relatives and felt what Gilbert is expressing here?
In a chilling account of the death camps and other twentieth century atrocities, the author sees a parallel to the modern setting of death. Hospitals are the modern place of “termination,” places that keep patients in a sort of prison. People now die routinely in sterile, professionalized settings rather than in their own homes. Doctors and nurses help dying people to be terminated, easing the passage of the body from life to death. Gilbert notes her surprise that statistically more people die toward the dinner hour, because that is when the medical staff can come to help the passage. Death often comes as the result of deliberate action rather than, as in the past, as a natural process over which no one had control. One could only stand passively by and watch.
Modern medical advances, if that is what they are, have changed not only the means but the venue and focus of death. Marvels of technology are powerful hands against death’s door, holding the final passage at bay until human decision pulls them away. Are the dying, then, prisoners in a bizarre spaceship? The body that tries to die is held captive as a kind of cyborg: only partly human intimately entangled in an embrace of invasive tubes and machines. Only when those in attendance deem the time appropriate are what Gilbert terms “nuanced modes of termination” used to open the door to death. As technology can keep life from slipping through the clutching fingers of tubes and technical interventions, its removal can be timed to fit what is convenient. The patient on life support may feel similar to those prisoners in a concentration camp, waiting to be selected.
In part 3, Gilbert returns to ground more consonant with her academic background. As she notes in the preface, she originally intended Death’s Door to be a more detached literary excursus that would explore the fate of the elegy in modern culture. Somehow, the immense tragedy of September 11 affected the original intent and caused the author to move beyond her original proposal. This final section probably represents more closely her original intent. Gilbert conducts an extended study of several literary accounts of death and grief, among them the work of poet Sylvia Plath.
A particularly interesting foray in this section of the book looks at the work of the soldier poets of World War I. Readers of Pat Barker’s ambitious trilogy Regeneration (1991) will appreciate meeting its characters fleshed out, so to speak, in their grim and graphic poetry of war. Much of the poetry that grew from the blood-nourished battlefields of France is discussed at length in this section.
Death’s Door represents a thoroughly ambitious task. It expands cultural and religious frames. It looks at technology as well as art and literature. The reader is introduced, without syrup but not without detail, to the ongoing reflection in which the author has engaged since 1991. Gilbert considers the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) crisis, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and other seminal historic events that she concludes have shaped how deaths are conceived and processed.
The reader will find the book rigorous and ambitious. He or she is presented with images, both visual and those crafted in words, as well as strong emotion. The book is certainly a fine academic work, including thirty pages of bibliography and extensive footnotes as well as many photographs. Nevertheless, it is accessible to any serious reader. It is powerful, gravid, and sometimes too much to bear. It is tragic but captivating.
For those who lose the people they love through the door of death, that passageway never quite closes, argues the author. Like a persistent foot in the jamb of the entryway, grief never allows total closure. Nevertheless, as Gilbert contends, the struggle to make sense of the irrationality of death, “is in itself a victory.” Death’s Door always remains a bit open to the human need to return to closeted feelings and to process difficult events. This, concludes Gilbert, is good.
Booklist 102, no. 8 (December 15, 2005): 6.
JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 295, no. 17 (May 3, 2006): 2079- 2080.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 21 (November 1, 2005): 1171.
Library Journal 130, no. 18 (November 1, 2005): 100-101.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (February 26, 2006): 16.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 41 (October 17, 2005): 53.