Literature for Adults

As scholars often note, human beings can never accurately report on the experience of death, they can only imagine it. Thus it should come as no surprise that death has played such a significant role in literature, where humans use the imagination to reflect, shape, and understand their world. The scholars Elizabeth Bronfen and Sarah Webster Goodwin explain that "much of what we call culture comes together around the collective response to death" (Bronfen and Goodwin 1993, p. 3), and Garret Stewart insists that "death marks the impossible limit of representation, while at the same time, death is an inevitability of representation" (p. 51). In literature, then, death functions as an inevitable cultural exploration of what it means to be mortal. While some scholars and philosophers would insist that humans strive to deny death, especially in the twentieth century, literature reflects a constant process of trying to understand death and all its implications.

Western literature incorporates a number of conceits that are specifically associated with death. These include conceptions of the afterlife, representations of love and death, death-specific literary forms like the elegy, and staple narrative images like the deathbed scene. But in order to appreciate such conceits, one first needs to understand the way literature has reflected changing cultural responses to death and dying.

"Death in Literature" As Cultural History

Most scholars agree that in classical literature and until the Middle Ages death was represented as a natural and expected part of life. The Greeks tended to avoid details about death in their literature, in part because they simply accepted death as part of the human experience, and in part because they wanted to emphasize life. The Greeks did, however, depict death in war, demonstrating their belief in heroic, noble death, and they did emphasize the delights of the next world, and thus the afterlife became more of a focus in their literature than death itself. The sociologist Philippe Ariès has termed this era's dominant philosophy about death the "Tamed Death," a death that, as in Le Chanson de Roland, (twelfth century) was usually forewarned and generally accepted. Closer to the Middle Ages death portrayals increasingly took place in bed and with family and friends nearby—a set of rituals that has remained quite enduring.

The literature of the Middle Ages also began to reflect a profound shift in attitudes and beliefs about death, primarily by associating judgment with death. Christianity's influence on literature resulted in works showing death as a punishment for one's sins, and thus one's death became the crucial event in human experience. Works like The Pricke of Conscience (fourteenth century) described the importance and the horrors of death. The literature of this period also focused on the significance of Christ's death and his wounds, depicted the Danse Macabre, or dance of death, and emphasized bodily decay and images of the skeleton.

This focus on the body carried into the Renaissance where the performance of death, especially on stage, was tremendously emotional. Death was often conceived as it affected the body, and represented in a histrionic fashion, foregrounding time as a natural enemy. Love and death became opposing forces: love the motivation for working against time, and death the inevitable result of time's progress. Suicide became an ironic affirmation of love and of values that could transcend death. William Shakespeare's tragedies exemplify these ideas about death, as do carpe diem poems like "The Flea" (1633) and "The Sun Rising" (1633) by John Donne and "To His Coy Mistress" (1681) by Andrew Marvell.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw major shifts in representations of death, due in part to the growing conflict between religion and science. Ariès asserts that the late eighteenth century offered more visions of both beautiful death and eroticized death. On the one hand, popular novels like Hannah Foster's The Coquette (1797) depict the unwed heroine's death in childbirth as a didactic message extolling the evils of untamed sexuality. On the other hand, literature indulged in an erotics of dying—especially by incorporating emotional deathbed scenes, Little Eva's from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, (1852) being perhaps the most famous. The scholar Michael Wheeler, however, notes that while such scenes might have been erotically charged, they also represented a space of comfort and of quite literal rest, transformed into eternal rest. The late nineteenth century developed the Victorian Cult of Death, a term used to signify the period's almost obsessive fascination with the subject.

Ironically, most scholars argue that the twentieth century ushered in a culture that strove to distance and to deny death. The literature both does and does not bear this out. Given that the century was filled with war, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and acts of genocide, the literature often reflects a preoccupation with death. At the same time, the literature reveals a developing lack of faith in religion, in science, and in institutions, all things that have helped people understand death. Wallace Stevens's famous conceit "death is the mother of beauty" from the poem "Sunday Morning," (1915) suggests that death may lead humans to create art and life; but such a notion eventually confronted a world where nuclear war threatened not merely the individual or collective life but all that humanity might create. The scholar Lawrence Langer characterizes death in modern literature as inappropriate, absurd, random, unnecessary—yet very much present. The question became, How does one negotiate a world and culture in which such death exists? Many twentieth-century texts attempted to answer that question, and the efforts continue in the present.

The history of death in literature reveals a culture that has evolved from one that accepted death as a natural part of life, to one that invested it with primary religious significance, to one that almost fetishized death, to one that tried to deny it for its now apparent irrationality. Literature suggests that as death has become increasingly less "natural" and concomitantly less meaningful, people have had to find new ways to negotiate it.

Major Literary Conceits

There are a number of standard conceits that one can identify in literature dealing with death, and not surprisingly many of these reflect the time and values in which the literature was produced. Thus, in a time when Western culture saw death as a punishment for earthly sin, the literature often focused on the body and its decomposition, and the image of the skeleton became prominent. And when Western culture was in the midst of the Victorian Cult of the Dead, its fascination with death elevated to an almost erotic level, the literature indulged in elaborate deathbed scenes, foregrounding the emotional impact of death for those surrounding the dying individual, at times emphasizing the relation between carnality and death, but also using the bed as a symbol of both beginning and ending—a place of birth and of one's final earthly rest. However, there are a number of other significant conceits.

The afterlife. In literature, the depiction of the afterlife foregrounds death's role and its significance for the individual and the culture. The most common depictions of the afterlife are versions of heaven and hell. Trips to and from the underworld abound, as the classical conception of Hades directly or indirectly recurs in much later works. It is notable, for example, that in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) the "Hades" chapter centers on a funeral, or that in Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" (1956) the persona depicts Walt Whitman crossing over into Hades, a presumably better ending than what Whitman would find if he lived in contemporary society. Images of heaven range from a place of peace and glory for figures like John Bunyan's Christian in Pilgrim's Progress (1678) to a sedentary and static space in which angels desperately await the return of a departed God in Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1992). At the same time, since the nineteenth century literature has often questioned the viability of an afterlife, implying that the natural processes of death and decay may be all that occur. Or, as in some Emily Dickinson poems, the afterlife may mean little more than remaining buried in a tomb, contemplating the life one has just passed, a sensibility that anticipated the later existentialist vision of the afterlife in works like Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit (1944).

Antidotes to death—love, beauty, the imagination. Given the inevitability of human mortality, literature often depicts the effort to challenge death and its apparent omnipotence. Literature has long represented love as a challenge to death, whether in the carpe diem poems and romances of the Renaissance, in the Gothic romances of the nineteenth century (where love faced a constant battle with death), or even in the late nineteenth century where, as the scholar Rudolph Binion notes, the idea that spiritual love remained after death reappeared in literature and culture. At the same time, artists have depicted the imagination and the creation of beauty as a stay against death and the ravages of time. John Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn," (1819) for example, symbolizes art's ability to defy death. And even twentieth-century writers like Stevens, William Butler Yeats, and T. S. Eliot, who faced a world of death on a global scale, looked to the imagination, to beauty and to the literary arts, as a way to forge ahead despite a sense of impending apocalypse. Twentieth-century literature increasingly questioned whether any of these "antidotes" to death would suffice, however, especially as culture used its imagination to develop new and more global methods of creating death.

The elegy. The elegy, or song for the dead, is a longstanding poetic form used not only to honor the dead, but to explore human efforts to comprehend death. John Milton's Lycidas (1637) is an ideal example. Milton's poem mourns the death of his friend Edward King. At the same time, it explores what it suggests that death can take such a young artist. The poem reflects Milton's own anxiety about being a young poet who had taken time to learn and to experience life. The poem thus signifies Milton's fear that his time may have been wasted because he too could be cut down in his prime before he can create the art that will be his legacy. Thus, again one can see how a literary form not only depicts death or responds to it, but also explores death's significance while conveying the prevailing ideas about death for that culture— in this case, that time is life's enemy.

Crisis of faith. Beginning as early as the late eighteenth century and developing exponentially up to and throughout the twentieth century, literary representations of death began reflecting a crisis of faith, initially of faith in God or religion, but eventually of faith in science, in government, and in society at large. Again, Stevens's "Sunday Morning" serves as a useful example. While the poem asserts that death is the mother of beauty, inspiring one to create, it also suggests that the contemporary culture can only see Christ's death as human—the tomb in Palestine holds his body; there was no resurrection; and there is no paradise. Existentialism would go so far as to suggest that one's death seals off and defines the significance and meaning of one's life. At the same time, twentieth-century writers like Thomas Pynchon characterize America as a culture headed toward an entropic ending, society and culture winding down in a kind of cultural death. Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" (1959) and Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (1945) depict society's callous treatment of the living and of those who have died to protect the living. Death became especially meaningless when governments and other institutions were involved. And, of course, scientific progress more often than not led to death, whether via the automobile in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (1974). In both, the development of this new technology directly or indirectly leads to the death of major characters—or via the war machines and diverse weaponry depicted in numerous works of this century.

War. From classical literature to the present, war has been a staple subject. For most of literary history death in war was represented as noble and heroic. Again, however, since the mid–nineteenth century, literature has seriously challenged this idea, often by depicting death in war as senseless and brutal or by suggesting that such belief is culturally necessary; that is, Western cultures can only send its young men to war if it believes that such death carries nobility. Consistently, however, representations of death in war reflect both our human ability to rise, to defend and to prevail as well as the ability to commit inhumane atrocities. Death in war literature remains one of the most compelling ways in which artists use death to speak to readers about their values.

The undead. Whether one considers the ghost of Hamlet's father returning to speak the name of his murderer in Shakespeare's play (1603), or Victor Frankenstein's creature in Mary Shelley's novel (1818), or Bram Stoker's vampire (1897), or Sethe's dead daughter returned to life in Toni Morrison's Beloved, (1987) literature reveals a fascination with the dead who have in some way returned to the living. The monstrous undead serve a crucial role in literature's engagement with death. On the one hand, these figures foreground a cultural anxiety about maintaining clear boundaries—living and dead should remain separate, and when humans cross that boundary, they produce something monstrous. But there are often deeper implications. Stoker's Dracula, for example, embodies the Victorian anxiety about the individual's underlying sexuality and desires. Dracula inverts the living: he penetrates his victims to take life rather than to create life. But he also elicits from his victims' desires that must otherwise be suppressed within Victorian culture. Similarly, Victor Frankenstein's monstrous creature serves as a living, breathing testament to what happens if one strives to play God, and it remains an enduring symbol, reminding readers of the ethical implications resulting from unchecked scientific progress. And the ghost who returns to name its murderer or to remind others of its unfair demise foregrounds the way people are haunted by the sins of their past. In other words, the dead often remain alive in people's collective memory. Beloved, arguably the resurrected daughter who Sethe killed to keep from slavery, clearly signifies the way the history of slavery, and its creation of a life worse than death, both must, and cannot help but, be remembered.

Death is everywhere in literature, in large part because it is a force that individually and collectively people must negotiate. In fact, it is so pervasive in literature that any attempt to provide an overview is inevitably incomplete. However, literature clearly reflects humanity's struggle to understand death, to explore the implications of death for the living, and to use death as a way of questioning the value of life, society, and art.

See also: AriÈs, Philippe ; Becker, Ernest ; Danse Macabre ; Ivan Ilych ; Literature for Children ; Shakespeare, William ; Vampires


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Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

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