Stiff Themes

The main themes in Stiff are the utility of the human corpse, the continuance of personhood, and the absurdity of death.

  • The utility of the human corpse: Roach favors the word cadaver as a way to remind readers that after death, human bodies are no different than the remains of other animals.
  • The continuance of personhood: In Stiff, Roach maintains the humanity of the cadavers she sees—particularly “beating-heart cadavers,” which raise difficult philosophical questions of what exactly makes a person.
  • The absurdity of death: Death, like life, is a little absurd in Roach’s portrayal, even as it is also complex and meaningful.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

The Utility of the Human Corpse

One of the overriding themes in Stiff is the idea that the human body is not massively dissimilar from the corpse of any other animal. What we leave behind after we die, Roach suggests, is essentially the same as what a chicken or cow leaves. Roach's use of the word cadaver is a subtle way of reinforcing this. The word is typically associated with a dead body in a medical or anatomical context; by continually using it throughout Stiff, Roach interrogates the idea—which people so closely cling to—that human corpses are different from those of other animals. The term cadaver, with its connotations of scientific detachment, suggests that the human body (once devoid of life) is simply another type of animal carcass.

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Roach continues this theme by making other comparisons throughout the book between human bodies and the bodies of animals, particularly in contexts which serve to remind us that many humans eat other animals without compunction. Roach describes the disembodied heads used by plastic surgeons in training as "the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken." Set in pans, these heads are "a terrible thing to waste"—they are parts of the body to be put to functional use, much as we might put to use the various parts of a nonhuman animal corpse. Corpses are used to test the safety features of cars and to determine, for the purposes of forensic science, how long it actually takes a body to decompose and what the various stages of decomposition look like. For scientists and others, then, the human cadaver is not necessarily a sacred or untouchable thing: it is something that can be of use.

The Continuance of Personhood

It is interesting that Roach, at the same time as she dismantles the idea that the human body is somehow superior to the corpse of an animal and should be considered sacred, still uses language to refer to corpses as if they are people. In the research facility at Knoxville, for example, she notes that "the people lying in the sun are dead." She...

(The entire section contains 615 words.)

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