Death however is certainly a universal truth and the avoidance of death – or survival – our constant preoccupation in one guise or another. Thus literature, widely acknowledged to be a reflection of society and our values, explores death more than any other theme. And if that other great theme ‘love’ – without which we die a slow death of disconnection – might be categorized as means of survival, one could almost hypothesize that death and its avoidance, is the only theme.
When we look at the ‘great’ works of literature, death and matters of survival are some of the biggest Pulitzer winners out there. From ‘The Old Man and The Sea’ (1953), ‘The Colour Purple’ (1983), to The Hours (1999) and All the Light We Cannot See (2015); the books that win are those which literally threaten to take our–or their protagonists’–breath away. Fortunately for those of us who aren’t inclined to make the epic effort it requires to wade through the opening pages of Hemingway’s epic piece of literature–as boring as it is wise–you can satisfy your hankering for death and survival in almost every current Richard-and-Judy-stickered novel out there, from Harry Potter to The Lovely Bones.
But in Britain, our literary history is somewhat telling. Certainly, some of the most prominantly lauded literature invokes the grand themes – A Tale of Two Cities (love, sacrifice, survival …and death), Watership Down (survival…and death), ‘And then there were none’ (death times 10 – yes, an Agatha Christie pops in, surprisingly at number 51 on the greatest British book list). The rest of the list is populated predominantly by books like Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Erm, hang on a minute; those aren’t about death are they?
They do of course have a universal theme; the rigours and constraints of society and the perils of being outcast. Yes, it seems in Britain at least, breaking social etiquette at one time was a fate worse than death. And certainly it threatened our – mainly women’s – survival. Getting a husband, in order to avoid certain social death in middle class society, was everything as Becky Sharp, a sociopathic survivor knew only too well. She hustled to avoid death and demise by a thousand exclusions. And that’s not all. Social death in its broadest sense, includes themes like racism, slavery, persecution and gender discrimination – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘The Plague of Doves’. Moreover, those novels that examine both physical death and social death have the most disturbing impacts of all; Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange.
In fact our morbid fascination with death has been created and recreated in countless different ways. Death has power. It’s the number one box office draw. It’s why the media concentrate on tragedy. It’s why the soap operas kill off a major character to get Christmas ratings. It’s even why those shedding light on an afterlife can attract thousands of believers. And for us authors, if we capture it well enough, death of any kind (physical, social, animal, fish or human) can earn us some big bucks, or even a highly sought after literary prize.
Article first published on Huffington Post