The Quick and the Dead Themes
by Joy Williams

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The Quick and the Dead Themes

Death and Grief

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The preface to the first part of the book asks the reader a series of questions ranging from “Do you find the dead ridiculous? How about the dead finding the living ridiculous?” to “Which would you prefer to have your life compared to, wind or dust?” All of the characters, as well as the reader, are forced to confront death in The Quick and the Dead. However directly stated Williams’s questions are, her answers are subtle and often ambiguous. While the current ways that people face and deal with death are depicted as powerless and impotent, Williams refrains from offering a straightforward alternative.

Many of the characters in The Quick and the Dead are in mourning. Alice, Annabel, and Corvus have each lost their mothers. Alice has spent her life raised by her grandparents and has developed into an eccentric person, refusing to find a place to live in society. Annabel embraces everything about society—especially consumerism. Meanwhile, Corvus seems to move into an entirely passive cocoon of grief. Although The Quick and the Dead is sometimes classified as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, none of the girls comes to a clear reconciliation with her grief.

Carter’s battle with death is perhaps more direct as he is confronted with his wife’s ghost. However, as Carter moves through the novel, he is similarly unable to move to a state of resolution. Ginger haunts Carter and teases him about the afterlife, yet she provides no comfort that the afterlife is better than life. Instead, she mocks and abuses Carter, urging him to kill himself so he can be with her. Ginger’s ghost is excised when Sherwin dies because of her tricks, but although Carter is freed of his problems, he has not solved anything.

Indeed, these are only a few examples of how characters are required to face death. Signifiers of death are littered throughout the novel, ranging from the mostly lifeless desert to the nursing home at which the girls volunteer to the taxidermy of the Wildlife Museum. None of these responses to death seems meaningful—the nursing home seems corrupted and the Wildlife Museum is shut down after Stumpp comes to view it as little more than a charnel house. Emily considers herself one of the only persons able to confront death in a meaningful way. She rescues animals as they are dying, though there is often no way to save them because what has broken is something that is necessary.

The Individual Versus the Group

Alice strives to be unique in her opinions and actions, a goal that she hopes will offer her a “savage glitter.” The romance with which Alice hopes to surround herself requires that she not join a group. As such, she finds herself at odds with almost every person with whom she comes in contact, except the extremely passive Corvus. Alice expresses extreme ecological opinions, arguing that not being born is ecologically responsible and pointing out to meat eaters that their food once had a face, but she often struggles to elaborate on her declarations when challenged. Instead, she offers additional declarations.

Annabel is uniquely insightful but she is eager to possess the “inessentials” and fashions, a position that often makes her seem more vapid than her intellect deserves. Groups are often depicted as shallow in The Quick and the Dead . At the end of...

(The entire section is 853 words.)