A year ago March 25th, my four year old cousin died. Bookish loser that I am, my first thought was to turn to literature where surely a distraction would lie. But what I got instead was a sympathetic, all together familiar story to cry on.
This semester, The Coe Review received a staggering amount of stories about death. Which got us thinking, what is it that draws us to write about death, especially the death of family members? After all, death in literature is not a new theme. Think about it, what’s a big feature in the Harry Potter series?
What’s a prominent point in Shakespeare’s plays?
Death, especially murder.
How does the New Testament define the Gospel?
Maybe this says something about the universal nature of death, maybe it says something about how writers try and puzzle through something so overwhelming as the loss of life, or maybe it’s just a bunch of people with pens and keyboards trying to get an easy emotional response. Pain is always considered deep and some writers have made suffering into an art (maybe this is why so many writers are depressed). There’s an inevitability in death – it’s something none of us can escape from, no matter how hard we try, no matter how many anti-aging cosmetics or surgeries we may use. It gets everyone.
But of all the forms death can take, familial death seems to be the most prominent in literature. Is it because familial death stings the worst? Is it the revelation that someone who is tied to you by blood or by marriage could be there and then not? To paraphrase, of all people, a comedian, Jay Black notes that you grow up with someone who is so close with you, the people who know you the best because they saw you before you were even really you, and then they can suddenly disappear.
And maybe it is the sudden aspect of death. Even when you’re expecting it, when a little girl has been in a hospital more times in her life than she has been out of it, it still feels…Sudden. Unexpected. It seems like you can plan and plan, but you can never really plan for death. Not really.
Maybe that’s what so much of literature is really trying to grapple with. That suddenness.
Our teacher posed the question: is there such a thing as happy literature?
It’d be nice to say yes.
But at the heart of every story is conflict, and while nearly everything can be resolved, there will be someone left holding the pieces of a broken plan. For every happy couple at the end of Twelfth Night, there is a Malvolio. Not everyone gets to win. And isn’t death the ultimate way to lose?
Then again, two college students exhausted from homework may not be the best to discuss this subject. Philosophers have battled on this subject and probably will continue to argue over it until the last star burns out of the sky. But at least there’s always fluff fiction. You know, the kind of stuff you read when you want to curl up in a blanket fort, drink a cup of coffee/tea/other preferred warm beverage and just forget about the sad for a while. Gotta look on the bright side.
by Kirsten Nelson and Maisie Iven