The theme of death has intrigued readers and authors for thousands of years and will continue to do so in the future. It is the vast unknown that has left humans in fear and amazed. There is no one who can tell others what it is like to die because everyone who knows is dead and cannot communicate with people.
Therefore, it is a common theme in literature. It is through literature that people can explore the greatest mystery of life and that is death. Because I Could Not Stop for Death by the elusive poet, Emily Dickinson, The Metamorphosis by the Bohemian writer, Franz Kafka, and A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner, who questioned Southern traditions are perfect examples of literature that incorporate the theme of death.
Not only is death a mystery because it is really unknown what happens, but it also happens to every person. People are faced with their own mortality everyday. It is often associated with pain and humans fear pain. So many things remind an individual that death is imminent and it hurts when one who is close is lost in death. People even wonder if it is not easier to be the one who dies than the one who is left to deal with the pain of loss. There are so many types of support for those who are grieving, but the bottom line is that it is extremely difficult to deal with loss.
This is why literature is a helpful way for the writer to deal with his/her feelings about the topic, and it is a way for the reader to see others’ views and realize that he/she is not alone in the world. All have been affected by it one way or the other. The writer can explore feelings that need to be explored and readers can gain support.
Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson is a poem that deals with no other topic except death. Dickinson lived from 1830 to 1856 and during that time the lifespan for people was short, especially for women. It would only be natural to want to express her feelings and even thoughts about death in her poetry. The unnamed narrator of the poem is met by the personified death when she has least expected it. He is cordial, which is a contrast to the savage way that most people see death. As Dickinson said, Because I could not stop for Death- He kindly stopped for me- … And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility- (Dickinson)
He is insistent that the speaker go with him. There is no argument because when he arrives, it is all on his time. Earthly task did not matter because his carriage was waiting.
Even though Death was pleasant, there is a formal tone to the poem. He is gentleman like, and he drives a carriage instead of a wagon. The imagery of death is one of a polite man bowing to the new occupant and assisting her into the carriage. The speaker is the only one that matters to death at that moment, he is only focused on the speaker. This allows readers to view Death as one, who unlike others, makes death an individual event. No attention is to be shared with any other person.
Dickinson also focuses on the lack of time throughout the poem. Each generation believes that it leads the most hectic life. Today presents a frenzied lifestyle to all people, and most people look back and think that past generations lived a carefree simple life. When in truth, people of that time felt that they lived at a frantic pace. It would not have been uncommon for those of any generation to view a timeless existence as pleasant. She mentions eternity and immortality while the speaker of the poem has actually been dead for centuries and yet it feels as if the journey has just begun.
Death does not make light of the life of the speaker. Everyone has heard the legend that one’s life flashes before his/her eyes just as death strikes. The speaker of the poem is no different. They pass the school which symbolizes the speaker’s carefree youth. Youth is a time for fun and play, but it is also a time of exploration and preparation for the life that one will live in adulthood.
Next are the fields of gazing grain. It is obvious that the grain represents the bread of life and the productive years of the speaker’s life. The early and middle adult years of a person’s life are the years looked forward to by youth and they are looked back on by the elderly. One can only surmise that while every stage of life is important, these are the most important. It is a time when contributions to the world are made. One makes a living, procreates and achieves the dreams that were only imagined in childhood. The setting sun is the end of life and death.
It is only after the setting sun passes the speaker and Death and she feels the chill of the dew that she realizes that she is dead. The Dews drew quivering and chill- For only Gossamer, my Gown- My Tippet-only Tulle-We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground- The Roof was scarcely visible- The Cornice-in the Ground- (Dickinson)
This could only mean that her death was subtle and not harsh. The speaker then realizes that she is dressed in filmy thin clothing that was used as burial clothing at the time. There is no warm blood circulating to give her body heat. Her new home would be the grave, but she does not see it as a stifling place. Instead it has a cornice and a roof which are things an actual house would have.
Because I Could Not Stop for Death is not a poem to instill fear, but to allow the reader to view death as a natural process of life and to have hope that existence after death is real. Dickinson does not portray the view that death is the end of it all, but the beginning of something new. She does not focus on the decomposition of the body and the pain that might have taken place to kill the body. Her view is calm and reassuring.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka gives a view of death as a process or metamorphosis. The protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes one day to find that he has morphed into a giant cockroach. Gregor would have rather been dead than face the horrid insect that he has become. A cockroach is a vile nasty bug that seems to have no worthy purpose. This is symbolic of Gregor’s dreary life on earth. He is a salesman who puts nothing into his work. He has not formed any relationships outside of his family and even though he is a grown man, he still lives with them.
The reason that he has not allowed himself to fall in love or to pursue a career that would suit his personality is because his soul purpose in life is to meagerly provide for his mother, father, and grown sister. In essence he is one of the living dead. He contributes nothing to his own life and he contributes nothing to the world or society.
Now that Gregor is a cockroach it is obvious what other people have thought of him. Even though a cockroach is disgusting in everyway, it would matter very little to a person who really cared about a person. True love, not just sexual love is when one loves another so much that he/she is willing to put up with anything that physically impairs the loved one. That is why most people do not balk when it comes to changing diapers, visiting them in nursing homes, or doing everything possible to take care of their handicapped loved ones.
It is not a pleasant job but people do it out of love. Gregor’s situation shows that his mother, father, and coworkers did not really love or appreciate him. The only family member who is willing to help him is his sister, Grete. She takes care of her brother despite the smell and repulsive appearance. She does this out of respect for her brother, but it is a burden for her.
In The Metamorphosis, the life that Gregor is living is worse than death. His belongings are quickly displaces in his room. Instead of trying to arrange things so that life will be easier for him, his family purposely make it worse. They try to hide him from the world because of their embarrassment. His father even inflicts a mortal wound to Gregor when he exposes himself to the borders that they were forced to take into their home when Gregor’s income is lost. Society would like to believe that a father would only protect his child and would never put that child in danger. Gregor is so dead to his family and the world that his family goes against nature when it comes to dealing with him.
When the wound is inflicted, Gregor does not immediately die. He lingers and dies a slow painful death. Death is not shown in The Metamorphosis as a painless process. According to Kafka, it is slow, emotionally hurtful, and painful to the point that by the time that it comes to a close, it is a relief. He watched as it slowly began to get light everywhere outside the window too. Then, without his willing it, his head sank down completely, and his last breath flowed weakly from his nostrils. (Kafka)
Gregor is not the only one who benefits from his own death. His family is also relieved. There is such a brief moment of grief at his death that the reader is hardly aware that it has happened. Most people do not want to destroy the lives of loved ones when they die, but they would like to at least be fondly remembered. Gregor’s memory is not recognized. They family has forgotten how he worked, supported them, and gave up his personal life for them. Death was truly the end of Gregor. The Samsa’s take a trip to the country and rejoice in there new freedom from this insect. Even Grete, who had at once loved her brother, stretches out her limbs and feels the independence that came from his death. They all immediately plan for moving on with their lives.
Just from each other’s glance and almost without knowing it they agreed that it would soon be time to find a good man for her. And, as if in confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions, as soon as they reached their destination Grete was the first to get up and stretch out her young body. (Kafka)
There is no mention of the afterlife in The Metamorphosis. It is a depressing story without even the hope of a person’s memory being kept alive. The sad truth, according to the story, is that a life without love makes death appear to be the better option. Death is an end to everything.
A Rose for Emily by Southerner, William Faulkner, is the final short story where death is one of the themes of the story. Miss Emily Grierson suffers a fate worse than death in the Victorian South and that is she is a spinster. Society expected women to marry and that the only way a woman could actually live was through a man. The only man that Miss Emily was allowed to know in her younger years was her father. When he died she reacted to his death with denial and refusal to allow him to be buried.
The day after his death all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face. She told them that her father was not dead. She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body. Just as they were about to resort to law and force, she broke down, and they buried her father quickly. (Faulkner) She fears that through his death she will cease to exist because she is not attached to another man.
By the time of her father’s death she is already considered an old maid in Victorian times. She does, however, meet a man who is from the North and is a day laborer. The very people in town who are appalled that she is not married are now horrified that she is hooked up with the wrong man. At first we were glad that Miss Emily would have an interest, because the ladies all said, “Of course a Grierson would not think seriously of a Northerner, a day laborer.” (Faulkner)
She is dead to their society no matter what she does. After shamelessly dating Homer Barron, the Yankee, without a chaperone, he too decides to leave Miss Emily.
Miss Emily channels her anger into the only way that she feels a man can leave her and that is through death. She knows that even with an old Southern name she cannot commit an obvious murder and she does not even want that. The power of life in death is in her hands and this gives her something that society has taken away from her as an unmarried woman and that is power. Miss Emily has been pushed to point that she is ready to exercise her power and so she carefully plots the murder of Homer Baron. She sees death as sensual event and so she seduces Homer Baron into a date like atmosphere where she can wine and dine him into death. In the end, it is obvious that she has even slept with her dead lover, therefore she is not repulsed or scared of death.
Miss Emily’s own death is the only thing that brought peace to her own life. From a girl when she was completely dominated by her strict father until she was a joke to the town, her life was never one to be desired. She lived a life of scorn and it was through death the whole truth of her life was made known. So in essence death and truth went hand in hand in this short story. Faulkner satirized how the old Southern traditions for women were pathetic as well as he bleakly gave only death for the relief of those in the position of Miss Emily.
Death is viewed differently in from story to story and from poem to poem. Each author or poet brings a part of his/her own experience to their writing as well as each reader will do the same. In the end they can all be connected through the topic. No matter how they choose to view death, they all view it without authority, because when it comes to the topic, no one really knows what it is like to experience. They only know what it feels like to loose.
- Dickinson, E. 1890. Because I Could Not Stop for Death. Literature: Reading Fiction,
- Poetry, and Drama, 6th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Faulkner, W. 1929. A Rose For Emily. Literature: Reading Fiction,
- Poetry, and Drama, 6th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Kafka, F. 1915. The Metamorphosis. Literature: Reading Fiction,
- Poetry, and Drama, 6th Edition. New York: McGraw Hill.