Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Alice Walker’s first published short story, “To Hell with Dying” is an initiation story, an account of first love and first death. It depicts how, through innocent faith, laughter, love, ritual, and memory, people triumph over death. The theme of the story is that of the blues, overtly suggested by Mr. Sweet’s guitar playing and indirectly suggested by the tone of the story, which is both sweet and sad, like the blues. The story also serves as the narrator’s song, or celebration, of Mr. Sweet.

In an initiation story, someone—usually the main character but, in this case, the narrator—moves from a certain plane of innocence into a new realm of knowledge and, having attained knowledge, can never claim innocence again. The novice is often accompanied on the journey to enlightenment by a guide, usually an elder. Sweet Little is the narrator’s guide through at least two inevitable occasions of life: love and death. The narrator identifies Mr. Sweet as her first love; he made her feel beautiful and desirable. Ultimately she learns about more than the complexion of love, for she learns the sad truth about death as well.

This story is also about ritual, laughter and celebration, and memory—the various ways people attempt to defeat death. The narrator never states that Mr. Sweet is not really dying all those countless times the neighborhood children revive him. In fact, in the final episode, she seems genuinely surprised that Mr. Sweet...

(The entire section is 542 words.)