The Concept Of Death In Literature
By Atri Majumder
The concept of death is an interesting topic for analysis in literature as it is the foundation stone of the philosophy of almost all litterateurs. One may however argue that there is no logic as to why a vague and incomprehensible subject should play such a dominant role in literature? But isn’t it next to impossible to elude death from our thoughts, let alone speculating about it? To some it is a perpetual, impending probability while to others it is an accepted and immediate, absolute reality.
History teaches us that whatever is beyond the realms of understanding of man is important to him and he loves to brood over it and extract a logical or satisfactory meaning out of it. In the light of this indomitable curiosity of the human race, death gives a perfect space for giving birth to ideas and hypothetical realities. For example the concept of eternity may be found to have its origins in death. Though we are dealing with a singular concept we can’t generalize or place it in a uniform pattern as it is individualistic to the core and variable in nature.
While science has failed to provide us with any valid explanations yet, the concepts provided to us by religion governs our lives to some extent(concepts of Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, salvation, etc).Fear of the unknown gives rise to supernatural ideas and our imagination stretches out to another world-the world of the dead. Another aspect of death is sorrow, the indelible pain it inflicts on life and it can thus be interpreted as the most significant emotion of life. All these ideas are reflected in literary creations and they form different ideas in the readers’ mind.
A serene acceptance of death is found in these lines of Emily Dickinson:”Because I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me”, while John Donne wants to metaphysically earn a victory over death:”Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…..One short sleep past, we wake eternally, /And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!”.
The Romantic poets, Keats and Shelley saw death as a means of escape from ‘the weariness, the fever, the fret’ of life. While Keats writes “I have been half in love with easeful death”, Shelley’s personal despondency is best reflected through “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”
The pointless massacre of life fed as cannon fodder, and the vainglorious heroism associated with martyrdom are echoed in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and many others. Albert Camus, the French novelist and philosopher, made a witty observation in his journal on March, 1936:”It is death which gives gambling and heroism its true meaning.”
Thousands of elegies, dirges and requiems have been composed which constitute some of the best literary creations of all times. Tennyson universalized his personal grief in his famous poem ‘In Memoriam’, a requiem to his friend Arthur Henry Hallam; while Walt Whitman laments the death of Abraham Lincoln in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”.
Suicide is another debatable and interesting topic related to death that emerges in many literary works. While to some it is an act of cowardice, to others it is just the product of sheer hopelessness or that evanescent situation where one loses the meaning of existence. The preoccupation with suicidal thoughts has been expressed vividly in the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath:”And I/Am the arrow,/The dew that flies/Suicidal…”(Ariel).On another note,Julian Barnes justifies suicide in a somewhat crude manner-“…life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it;that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with;and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for,it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”(The Sense Of An Ending)
Thus death is a subject for deep contemplation to most litterateurs as is self-evident from their works.But the question that arises is what kind of an impression does it create in the reader’s mind?Does it change change the philosophy of a person and does the haunting thoughts of death govern our lives to some extent?Or is it just a momentary flight of poignant emotions, a means of escapism from thestaggering burden of life?How do we comprehend this ultimatum-do we accept it as a stoical renconciliation with an inevitable denouement?Do we lead our lives in fear of plunging into the abyss of infinity,of being deprived of time,of leaving many desires unattained?Are we living inside a perepetual cycle of life and death?