Tenth of December

by George Saunders
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Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

The Consideration of Suicide

In “Tenth of December,” George Saunders explores the consciousness of a man preparing to take his own life. Partway through the story, it becomes clear that Don Eber has ventured out into the cold landscape in order to hasten his suicide. The reader can tell from Eber’s interior monologue that he does not fit the mold of a stereotypical mentally ill person. In fact, his plan to kill himself is revealed only obliquely. First, the reader learns that he has a wife and two children, and that his father left his mother to go to California with another man. The heavy theme of suicide is addressed especially facetiously (Eber considers whether he will employ “the boulder idea”). As Eber makes his journey into the woods, he engages in an active interior dialogue with himself, remembering episodes in his life, such as his high school class presidency, a trip to the Ozarks, and an appointment with his doctor. The sheer honesty and simplicity of these memories convinces the reader that Eber is not an especially unusual, inscrutable, or odious man; he is relatively normal. In fact, he primarily considers suicide because he wishes to spare his family the indignity of having to care for him in his terminal illness. By featuring a protagonist of this nature, Saunders arguably normalizes suicide and alerts his readers to the gravity and tragedy that invariable surrounds it. Moreover, the story offers a window into the mind of someone who considers taking his own life—and later changes his mind.

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The Difficulties of Morality

There are several instances in Saunders’ story wherein his characters have to grapple with right versus wrong. Both protagonists—the young boy Robin and the 53-year-old Don Eber—face their respective crossroads where they must evaluate the moral ramifications of their actions. When Robin finds Eber's coat, he immediately resolves to return it, styling himself a "mercy-angel." He also imagines his crush, Suzanne Bledsoe, calling him a "hero" for carrying the coat uphill. While childish, Robin has a strong sense of his own moral compass.

Don Eber's sense of morality, while slightly less delineated, is equally present and strong. Over the course of the story, Eber must face more equivocal moral choices than Robin. First, Eber resolves to take his own life, saying, "let me bring no dishonor." He sees himself as a burden to his family since being diagnosed with a brain tumor. The climactic moment in Saunders' story occurs when Eber sees Robin fall into the freezing pond while carrying his coat. He must make up his mind whether or not to save Robin, and the decision is obviously clear to him: he chases after Robin and ultimately rescues him in a snowbank. Even before the accident, however, Eber proves himself righteous and morally bound to an innate sense of right and wrong. When he sees Robin carrying his coat, he questions his resolve to take his own life for fear that seeing such a thing would scar a young boy. Finally, when Robin’s mother rescues him, he decides to continue to live, despite the difficulties that lie ahead of him.

The Limits of Language

The theme of language’s shortcomings is subtly adduced at several points in Saunders's short story. To strengthen his resolve to take his own life, Eber says to himself, "All his fears about the coming months would be mute," which he corrects to "moot." Earlier in the story, Eber says to himself, "Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped." Eber's failure to retrieve the words he seeks is suggestive of both his illness and perhaps his diffidence. Eber's difficulty with language is counterposed by Robin, who, though younger, has a highly developed vocabulary that is revealed in his interior monologues. For example, Robin has come up with a name for an imaginary race of villains, whom he calls "Nethers." In his inner thoughts he deploys language both creatively and precisely, such as when he thinks to himself, "This was some strange juju. This was an intriguing conundrum, if he had ever encountered one." But even Robin’s idiosyncratic diction ultimately bolsters the presiding sense that language is provisional—and more an outflow of the imagination than a mirror of reality.

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