The Friend

by Sigrid Nunez

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Complexities of Suicide

The themes of death and suicide, as well as the grief that inevitably follows both, are ubiquitous throughout the novel. The narrator repeatedly refers to a number of famous figures who have committed suicide, most often writers and philosophers. She even considers deaths that are not necessarily suicides but which seem instead to be acts of resignation—such as Houdini, whose final words were “I am tired of fighting, I do not want to fight anymore.”

The thought process of a suicidal person is explored in great depth, and special care is taken in debunking the common myth of the “suicide note.” It is said that people who take the time to “scribble a goodbye” usually lose their nerve. Indeed, “you” left no note whatsoever, something that is incredibly difficult for the people around him to accept, particularly Wife Three.

In the end, the narrator finds a conclusion in the form of the testimony of another. Mourners feel as though they owe it to the dead to search for the truth, but the reality is that those who end their own lives without leaving letters desire silence and mystery—and it may ultimately be best to honor and preserve this mystery.

The morality of suicide is explored in great detail, and the question of whether or not it is an acceptable option is one that weighs heavily on the narrator’s mind. She listens to a radio program that condemns all suicide as cowardly, selfish, and evil. However, she cannot bring herself to resent “you” in this way. She understands that, much like Houdini on his deathbed, “you” was simply tired of fighting, and his act didn’t necessarily have to be about anyone else.

The Relationship Between Pet and Owner

In the novel, the relationships between humans and domesticated animals are explored thoroughly—and often humorously, creating a juxtaposition with the grief surrounding the other themes of the work. The British writer J. R. Ackerley is repeatedly referenced, primarily in the context of his controversial memoir My Dog Tulip, which is so intimate a portrayal of Ackerley’s canine friend that it details the dog’s bowel movements and “heats.” Ackerley is portrayed as one extreme, given his belief that a dog and a human should be equal friends and that the dog should have complete sovereignty over its own life.

Indeed, the amount of control that the narrator has over Apollo is a source of constant contemplation. She considers that in a scenario involving a full-on conflict between herself and Apollo, he would, as a Great Dane, be the obvious victor. In fact, this is a somewhat tangible threat before she and Apollo bond. The degree to which dogs depend upon humans—and the degree to which they experience complex human feelings, such as grief, betrayal, and understanding of death—are explored in detail.

As Apollo grows old, as do all living things, the narrator is forced to contemplate the demise of pets and how it relates to their owners. She recalls a memory in which she took one of her dying cats to be “put to sleep” but, due to a botched or otherwise ineffective sedating process, was unable to be with the cat when she died. The question of whether animals see euthanasia as a relief or as a betrayal weighs heavily upon the narrator. She is consumed by an anxiety revolving around the assumption that a pet sees the human as a god: when it realizes that it is dying, she worries that it is confused and hurt by the perception that the human either can’t or won’t do...

(This entire section contains 1028 words.)

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anything about it.

Gender Relations

Relationships between men and women, particularly in the literary world, are a central theme in the novel. In fact, the relationship between the narrator and “you” is one such relationship that seems to be of a vaguely defined nature. The two are longtime friends, but their history is interspersed with romantic tension, and as everyone keeps reminding her, the narrator is single and of relatively advanced age.

Several sections of the book reflect on the condition of womanizers and the fact that many famous writers have had a problematic view of women. The narrator resolves that there are two kinds of womanizer: the ones who love women and the ones who hate them. In the writing world, men are often of the former variety. While this is more easily forgivable, it does not mean that their behavior is without toxicity.

In the penultimate chapter, which details the unnamed woman who is writing the book and her friend who is a suicide survivor, much of the conversation explores the relationship between gender inequality and writing. The woman insists that she could not bring herself to write a previous work about victims of sexual abuse and trafficking because it seemed to take away from the victims, claiming that writers are predatory for writing about this experience from a place of privilege. The suicide survivor insists that this is a matter of gender and references an extreme argument that men shouldn’t write at all. The woman, however, insists that they should simply “let women speak” and allow someone with experience to do the witnessing.

Growing Old

The existential dread inherent to the aging process is evident in several of the novel’s major threads. It is often considered to be a factor in what motivates suicide victims, perhaps even including “you” himself. The narrator contemplates the various pains of growing old, which include not only physical pain and infirmity but also the fear of no longer being sexually appealing. Furthermore, much of the narrator’s behavior surrounding her friend’s death and her ownership of Apollo is suspected by those around her to be symptoms of the onset of dementia.

The narrator relates her own experiences with age to suicide and the death of animals. She is also able to connect the issues of age to those of gender, calling a “certain age” the moment “women become invisible.” Indeed, the universal difficulties of growing old embody concepts that unify many of the book’s themes.