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That Death is handled differently in literature


My theme examines death in the various ways it is handled in literature. The texts I chose reflect the different attitudes towards death. They are �Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, �Death of Ivan Illyich” by Tolstoy Leo, and �A Time to Grieve” by Merren Parker. The various ways death is handled in literature often depends on the character’s personality and life experiences. My report outlines four key ways deaths are handled in literature.


Death can be a tool for satirical expression. In Death of a Sales man Arthur Miller evokes a dry laugh when one of his characters said �A man can be worth more dead than alive”1. This is the really practical way of looking at death; a man being alive is of no use but dead with hefty life insurance is worth more. A man feeling that he had lived a pointless life found death more worthwhile than living. Further satire is uncovered in Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy. A passage reads �The more intimate of Ivan Illych’s acquaintances, his so called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfil the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow” This is comical as we find out that these �so called friends” are rather selfish finding the things they need to do for the deceased �tiresome demand”. The satire makes fun of the common rules and etiquettes, these friends could be �considered” good friends by society by following this rule of attending funeral service and the likes. But by doing it half-heartedly, it’s just as good as doing nothing at all. This showed that death in literature is quite humorous, depending on the situation.


Death is personified as a fearful monster in �Death of a Ivan Illyich”. Even with the translation, Tolstoy’s language is still beautiful as he details his characters last thoughts �the gnawing, unmitigated, agonizing pain never ceasing for an instant, the consciousness of life inexorably waning but not yet distinguished, the approach of that dreaded and hateful Death which was the only reality, and always the same falsity”. Notice, Death was capitalised as if it was a title belonging to a monster, he then proceeds to use various descriptive words to paint us a vivid image of the fearful monster, commonly known as Death. This concept was further explored through this incident in the story. The main character being in complete pain of unimaginable magnitude falls into a dream like state. In this dream like state the main character felt like he was �falling forever as if I was in an infinitely dark and vertical tunnel.”4 Darkness is a metaphor for fear of the unknown; the never-ending fall is synonymous with incredible despair. �And all of a sudden I see the jaws widen a dreadful monster waits at the bottom of my fall”5, this materialises the concept of death into a fearful monster. We often materialise the unknown and mysterious with similarly unknown creatures and spirits. Thunder with the mystical Thor, Luck with Lady Luck and here we have Death with a dreadful monster. We do this to �see” the unknown, seeing the physical manifestation allows us to feel reassure that the concept is within our understanding. We are convinced that by inventing an image of the unknown and assigning it to a creature or spirits body and giving it a name will allow us to explain the phenomenon.


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Death or the lack of death in children’s literary work is incredibly interesting. Merren Parker through A Time to Grieve claims deaths are harmful to children, she states that death is just something children couldn’t comprehend, so there is no point including death in children’s literature. �I tripped over Grandma and it really hurt her, I bet that’s why she don’t come any more”6 children are incredibly naïve exposing them to death would only bring irreversible damage. We see that the child blame the absence of love ones as the consequences of something as benign as an accidental trip.


The above was from a child in her mental infancy, here is a case of an older child and her exposure to death. �It was fun while she was around; I guess I will miss her but hey! Life goes on”7 though quite different they were actually the same person only at different stages of their childhood. This shows that as the child grows her views of death changes and matures. The younger child was unaware of the length of a lifetime, or what it means to never in all the rest of her life see someone or do something again. Understanding death is linked closely with understanding time; this could only come through growth and the gradual maturity of the child.


In �Death of Ivan Illyich” Death was also handled as the truth, the ultimate truth. Tolstoy employed the central metaphor of his work, saying of his protagonist �It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow, deep black sack, but thought they were pushed further and further in they could not be pushed to the bottom… And suddenly he broke through…”8 Dying seem to be waves of never ending pain; death in its truest form is sudden. To our main character death is his moment of truth. Deep black sack is tantamount to the womb, like a baby not knowing what waits on the other side; upon birth the baby suddenly enters the unknown world. Similarly death is our main character’s birth, his truth and upon the moment of death he leaves his womb, his world and enters an unfamiliar world. Tolstoy further narrates, expanding his metaphor �It was at that very moment Ivan Illyich fell through and caught sight of the light…”. It was at the moment of death that the seemingly endless pain suddenly ceases and he sees the �light”, the �light” is truth, his ultimate truth.


It is clear from my essay that death is handled in various ways in literature. The above is just a broad and vague classification and by no means represent all the different ways death is handled in literature. Death as satire, are only funny because we tabooed death. We wouldn’t find satires of death funny if it’s an often talked about subject. It’s rather hard to prove the lack of death in children’s literature through quotes as there isn’t any children’s literature with reference to death, so I used quotes from a book documenting the effect of this lack of death in children’s literature. Death is something we experience alone. Humans are sociable; death being a lonely experience might explain our fear of death. Its comforting to think of death as the next stage and to get to this next stage involves momentary suffering. Death is beyond our control; we might as well ride on and find out for ourselves what is like on the other side.


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