To Hell with Dying Summary
by Alice Walker

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To Hell with Dying Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Mr. Sweet is a sick old man whose multiple ailments bring him often to the brink of death; the narrator’s father and the children would call him back from his deathlike state by calling “To hell with death!” and surrounding him with affection. The story describes Mr. Sweet lovingly so that the reader can see that someone others might reject as a person of no account (he gets drunk on his own home brew and chews tobacco) is in fact important to the family and to the town. The “resurrections” in which the children participate hide from them the reality that death is permanent. Finally, when the narrator is away at college, Mr. Sweet gets sick again, and this time no one can call him back. After his death, the family celebrates him, and the narrator accepts the gift of Mr. Sweet’s guitar, which she plays in his memory.

Published originally as adult short fiction and included in Walker’s collection In Love and Trouble, this clear, gentle short story needed only the addition of some fine illustrations to become a children’s book, where its message of acceptance and inspiration is transparent. It is different from other children’s stories of death because it does not hide the unacceptable parts of the main character and because it does not offer any traditional consolations, only that of remembered affection. It represents a child’s viewpoint (remembered, as the narrator is now grown up) of a society in which affection and tolerance for difference are important values.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 866 words.)