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July 18, 2013

Essay on Theme of Death in Literature

Theme of Death in Literature
Death is a recurring theme in popular, classic and present-day literature. American literary scholars have noted that the theme of death in American literature both in poems and prose has been a matter of fascination and interest. From early colonial works through nineteenth century, the theme of death runs through the works major poets and writers of America. In this paper, I will critically compare and contrast the poem “I could not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and short story “I used to Live Here once.” At the outset, both the works attempt to describe the experience after death. Emily Dickson personifies death while Jean Rhys mystifies it. What these two works share in common is their tendency to dwell on the theme of death.
The speaker, in this poem, establishes a rapport with the readers from beyond the grave and narrates her journey with death being personified from life to hereafter. In the initial stanza, the speaker is just too busy to pay heed to death “Because I could not stop for Death—“), so Death—“kindly”—takes the time to do what she cannot, and stops for her.
This gesture of civility which Death evinces in taking time out of her tedious routine compels her to shun all the worldly things she was previously engaged in.  “And I had put away/My labor and my leisure too”—so they can just enjoy this carriage ride (“We slowly drove – He knew no haste”).
In the third stanza, we see the reminiscence of the world which the speaker is leaving behind. Children are shown to be playing around fields and hedges of grain. The transition between this and the next stanza is made possible in this line, “We passed the Setting Sun—,” but at the opening of the fourth stanza, she stands corrected—“Or rather – He passed Us –“since she ceased to become a living person and is now living through the phase of death.
In the next stanza, following her being aware and wary of the new place in the world, the very physical reality of death appears to her, as  “The Dews drew quivering and chill—,” and she elucidates that her dress is only gauzy, and her “Tippet,” a kind of cape usually made out of fur, is “only Tulle.”(Martin, 2002)
Having witnessed the coldness of death, the carriage stops by her new “House.”The depiction of the house—“A Swelling of the Ground—“—confirms it glaringly that this is no cottage, but rather a grave. Yet they only “pause” at this house, because although it is ostensibly her home, it is really only a resting place as she travels to eternity.
The final stanza of the poem provides us with somewhat vague indication of the immortality subtly described in the first two lines. In these lines, the speaker says that though she had died ages ago but it feels no longer than a day. She cannot place in comparison this with ordinary days since it is the very day of her demise, when she saw “the Horses’ Heads” that were pulling her towards this immortality. (McNeil, 1996) Here, the Hoses’ heads may be referred to as symbols that are taking her to the valley of death.
The poems of Dickinson address the themes death time and again but she treats it quite differently in every poem. In “I could not stop for Death—,” death is personified not as an intimidating, and threatening reality but instead as a well-mannered and kind guide that leads her to eternity.  The speaker has no qualms when Death picks her up in his carriage; she just appreciates it as an act of kindness, a subtle apology that she was too busy to find time for him.
It is this compassion, this individual interest in her—it is accentuated in the first stanza that the carriage accommodates just the two of them, particularly so since the internal rhyme in “held” and “ourselves”—that compels the speaker to so easily shun her life affairs and what it has in store for her. This is plainly stated, as it is “For His Civility” that she puts away her “labor” and her “leisure,” which is Dickinson using a figure of speech to represent another alliterative word—her life. (Pollak, 1996)
As a matter of fact, the next stanza shows that life is thankless and rude if placed in comparison with the carriage ride. This journey or carriage allows her to witness a school scene of children playing may rather be an example of the troubles of life. Though the children are playing “At Recess,” the verb she uses is “strove,” highlighting the trials and tribulations of life and existence. The use of anaphora with “We passed” also accentuates the exhausting tedium of humdrum schedule.
The next stanza, however, goes on to paint a conventional picture of death in which things become cold and more sinister. The dress of the speaker is not too thick to provide her warmth or protect her from the ravages of weather.  Nevertheless it swiftly becomes self-evident that this part of death conjures up the coldness.  The next stanza’s image of the grave as home is aptly put since it ends in the final stanza on a note of immortality.  Additionally, the use of alliteration in this stanza that accentuates the material trappings—“gossamer” “gown” and “tippet” “tulle”—serves to minimize the sinister effect that it had created it in the preceding stanza.
Reading the first stanza, it seems that the aim is immortality and afterlife where “immortality” is the only other lodger of the carriage; however after reading the final stanza we understand that the speaker has eventually achieved it. Time has lost its inherent value and meaning because there is no difference between hundreds of years and a day.
Given the fact that time is gone, the speaker can now rest assured with realization inculcated that death was not mere death rather it was immortality which the speaker achieved for she “surmised the Horses’ Heads/Were toward Eternity –.” By ending with “Eternity –,” the poem itself enacts this eternity, chasing after the infinite.
The recurrent theme of the poem is that death is not something to be feared since it is an inextricable part of nature. In other words, death is a welcoming guest whose arrival should be cheered with arms wide open. 
Emily Dickinson was rather confined and pensive, preferring to mull over the ideas of loneliness and death. On the other hand, the reading of Bible and intact notions of Christianity had made her meet and treat death as a friend, not as a terrifying reality of life. (Pickard, 1967) 
Emily Dickinson personifies death in her poem while Rhys comes up with somewhat a mysterious story. “I Used to Live Here Once” is a to some extent mystifying story of a woman who appears as a ghost to visit her childhood home.
The narrator tracks down the woman on her journey from a nearby river and down an old and long road that leads to the home where she had spent her childhood. Upon reaching the house, two young white children are found playing outside much like Dickinson’s school children but they fail to recognize the woman after she introduces herself to them. The readers are baffled by the apathy of children and compelled to find answer to why children did not respond to her in a courteous way.

The woman seems fascinated by the sight of children hence tries to ingratiate herself with them but on the contrary children ignore her. This is perhaps due to her inability to register the fact that she is dead. Considering the autobiographical account of the author, it is clear she did not have a strong attachment with her roots. Critics argue that Rhys must have used this story as means to show her disconnectedness and seclusion throughout her life. (Modjeska, 1999) 
All in all, the underlying of the story is one woman’s spiritual journey after life. As the plot opens out, the readers come to know that the woman is embarking on a journey. She is taking a jaunt down what appears to be an acquainted passageway, but at the same time the author also comes up with some remarkable differences.
We are at a snail's pace being led on a journey with the major character in the story and can jump to conclusion that it has been ages since she visited this place. Statements like “The road was much wider than it used to be” and “The only thing was that the sky had a glassy look that she didn't remember.” as well as “The screw pine was gone” (Rhys, 1976), provides the readers with clues about the changes which have occurred in her nonappearance so much so the fact that we are having to read something that is beyond a physical journey.
This story is rife with symbolism without which it would have been difficult for the author to develop the theme. The tone and symbols are consistently used in the story. The very first passage in the story informs the readers of a point of crossing over a river. At this point, it should be noted that often in literature death is referred to as “crossing over.” Simply put, this is used as a powerful image of death by the author. 
The author also lays stress significantly on the “glassy sky” “(Rhys, 1976) allotting two sentences to it. It enables us to fully comprehend the fact that death is as not always sullen but mysterious as well.  Nevertheless, glass often takes the readers to associate it with fragility as well as reflection, an important aspect to consider while one is mulling over the transition phase from life to death.
We are first told that the woman is trying to communication with children who are total strangers to her. They, nonetheless, ignore her without taking any notice of her proximity. Afterwards, we are told that the children are suddenly cold. Considering the possibility of a paranormal activity, often chill or coldness is associated with the area where this activity is taking place. Now, it does not require much to explain the correlation between cold and death. They go hand in hand.  At this instance in the story, the character has a moment of truth and clarity and the author sums up the experience and address the theme by stating “That was the first time she knew.” (Rhys, 1976)
The authors decision to narrate the story from a limited omniscient point of view “when the thoughts and feelings of only one of the characters are related through the narrator” (Clugston, 2010) was very vital to the reader because it would allow them to fully understand the theme. Without the cherished thoughts and memories of the woman we would never been able to understand what all of the symbolism meant or even been given the final moment of clarity that brings it all together. Unlike Dickinson, who employs first person narrative technique, Rhyes opts for an omniscient point of view and narrates the spiritual journey of a woman from a third person standpoint quite effectively.
The ending scene evidently points towards discrimination, oppression and racism, even if the color of the women is not told. The children unearth her presence distressing, saying that it has "...gone cold all of a sudden. ..." (Rhyes, 40) and retreat into the house. Here, the author attempts to draw readers’ attention towards the inherent conflict between different cultures and societies. Despite the fact that the origin of the protagonist is unclear but still it can be assumed the she is a native of the West Indies. Indeed, in literary works, the author so often seems inclined to identify himself with his character. At the time when Rhyes wrote this story, the African-Americans had not fully gained an equal status with Black as the element of racism left non-White people in a state of somewhat tacit inferiority. Perhaps, this may be the cause of her reclusion and inability to gain the attention of the children who are just playing outside.(Cassil, 2000)
The last sentence of the story reads: "That was the first time she knew." This implies that it was the first instance (that of trying to communicate with children) allows her to gauge the intensity of her position as a dead person.  Put simply, it enables her to understand that she does not belong to the living individuals of the society which is a result of her reclusion and social incompatibility.
All in all, the two works: one poem and the other a short story have many similarities and slight differences. Both the authors treat the same theme in a different manner. The spiritual journey after death is described which clearly highlights the quandary, seclusion and disconnectedness of the authors with life.
Rhyes mystifies death and her version of death is somewhat appalling and despondent while in contrast Dickinson embraces death as a friend showing death as a lively and worthwhile experience of life. In case of Rhyes, death further tears one apart from life as the world remains unmoved even after her attempts to ingratiate with the playing children. It can be said that Rhyes comes up with a rather bleak and cold version of death while Dickinson explores death which is jovial and enticing.

Cassil, Ronald Verlin.(2000) ed. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company. 1995.
Clugston, R. W. (2010). Journey into literature. [Rhys, Jean. I Used to Live Here Once] San Diego, California: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
Martin, Wendy (ed). (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Martin, Wendy (ed). (2002). The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McNeil, Helen. (1986). Emily Dickinson. London: Virago Press.
Modjeska, Drusilla (1999). Stravinsky's Lunch. Sydney: Picador.
Pollak, Vivian R. (1996). Thirst and Starvation in Emily Dickinson's Poetry in Farr (1996) 62–75

Pickard, John B. (1967). Emily Dickinson: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


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