To Hell with Dying

by Alice Walker

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Mr. Sweet Little was a diabetic, alcoholic, guitar-playing, tobacco-chewing, tall, thin, dark-brown man whose hair and straggly mustache were the color of Spanish moss. He lived alone on a neglected cotton farm down the road from the narrator and her family. Over a period of many years, Sweet Little and the children participated in a ritual that was an important element in the lives of all. When Mr. Sweet was feeling the worst, the bluest, the sickest-at-heart a man could be, he would take to his bed and the doctor would declare that old Mr. Sweet was dying. The narrator’s father would declare, “To hell with dying, man, these children want Mr. Sweet!” and the children would swarm around the bed and throw themselves on top of the dying man. Always the youngest child would kiss the wrinkled brown face and tickle the motionless body until it began to shake with laughter. These things were done to keep Mr. Sweet from dying. The children performed the ritual naturally for many years. No one told them what to do—they played it by ear. So it was that Sweet Little was repeatedly rescued from the brink of death by love, laughter, and the innocent belief of children. As the youngest child in the neighborhood, the narrator led these revivals for the last part of Mr. Sweet’s life.

Sweet Little was kind and gentle, even shy with the children—an ideal playmate. Often so drunk that he was as weak as they, he was able to act sober when drunk, a talent that enabled him to carry on fairly coherent conversations. The narrator’s mother never held his drunkenness against him and always let Mr. Sweet and the children play together.

Once an ambitious person, Mr. Sweet had wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a sailor, but he found out that black men got along better if they were not. He had loved another woman before he had had to marry Miss Mary. He was not even sure that their son, Joe Lee, was his. The narrator had learned these things about Mr. Sweet’s past from the many sad and wonderful songs he made up while he played the guitar and entertained her family. She remembers how beautiful Mr. Sweet made her feel, how she listened to his songs, watched him cry, and held his woolly head in her arms, and how she wished that she could have been the woman he had loved so long ago. He was her first love. When Mr. Sweet began to cry, it indicated that he was about to die again, so the children would get prepared, for surely they would be called on to revive Sweet Little yet again.

Mr. Sweet was in his eighties when the narrator went away to a university. On his ninetieth birthday, she receives a telegram requesting her to come home immediately because old Mr. Sweet is dying again. She is finishing her doctorate but, sure that her professors will understand, she does not hesitate. When the dying man sees her, his eyes look spry and twinkly for a moment, but this time death cannot be stayed. The twenty-four-year-old doctoral student cannot believe that she has failed to revive the old man: He “was like a piece of rare and delicate china which was always being saved from breaking and which finally fell.” The narrator sits strumming Mr. Sweet’s old guitar that he has left to her; she hums “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the song he used to sing especially to her; and she relives her memories of him—her first love.

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