Death in a Literary Tombstone, and the Corpse’s Suffering

Outi Hakola

Outi Hakola

Narratological theories construct events as building blocks of the plot, defined as changes of state, or transitions from one state to another. Death, too, is a genuine change in state, a transformation from one kind of being to another kind of (non)being, and as with any narrative element, death happens in a specific place and at a particular time. Consequently, as a narrative event, death both affects characters and leads the story in some direction.

In film studies, Catharine Russell recognises the desire in Western fiction for a meaningful death. Death can be used to advance the plot, but more often it is employed as closure to emphasise its meaning and importance. For example, in detective and crime novels, death usually opens the story, and the story revolves around finding the murderer. Possible further deaths can be used to create new plot twists and increase the emotional anxiety of the story. However, in these stories, the death is still primarily related to the ending, the death of the murderer that settles anxieties and returns society to its natural equilibrium. Catharine Russell argues that desire for death as a formalised ending arises from the Bildungsroman tradition, where death brings an ending to different meanings and possible storylines. These traditions have made fictional death expected and hoped for because it settles narrative anxieties and provides closure. However, at the same time the tradition also culturally tames or explains away death.

However, using death to provide a narrative closure or even catharsis — an Aristotelian concept which explains how adverse events and emotions can be used to serve “moral” purposes by helping the reader to process negative issues and release emotional tension with a positive solution — is only one of the options available to literature. Death is often related to knowing in fiction from revelatory ancient tragedies to modern detective stories, where the reader learns more and more as the plot develops and discloses the crime. However, in many contemporary texts closure does not bring any kind of revelation or discovery. Many recent novels have been written in order to underline the uncomfortable fact that individual deaths, or for example the dreadful events of the Second World War, may not confer meaning on the existence or make any sense at all. Although death offers an occasion for retrospection which can give meaningfulness to the lived past, as Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin has argued, such a feeling of meaningfulness is not always achieved. Likewise, if earlier in narratology scholars usually shared the view that the ending gives a sense to the beginning and the middle, this is no longer the only option. Contemporary versions of death have preferred storylines, in which either the meaning of life is not revealed at the point of the death, or death and closure may not be related to each other at all, or death can actually work as a beginning or opening of a new story. Sometimes death merely shows us how things end, neither with a bang nor with a whimper, as Gail Sidonie Sobat puts it in her essay in this volume.

Various life stories and their telling of the moment of death are a good point to test and play with the construction of meaningfulness in the narration. The examination of the past of deceased persons and narrating their moments of death can have creative and transformative significance by way of offering possible futures.

In postmodern poetics, in particular, death is no longer seen as an ultimate ending, but rather something that offers a potential for new narratives or new ontological or liminal levels. As Lotta Kähkönen argues in her article, which discusses novels as acts of remembering life stories, this possibility for new beginnings and approaches also entails alternative ways of thinking about such conventional dichotomies as subject and object. Likewise, although many (fictional) biographies tend to focus on life’s end rather than its beginning, writing being intimately connected with the death of the biographical subject, many contemporary biographical writings have also questioned the linear teleology of life stories. Aude Haffen observes how author biographies often play with such conventions of life writings. Aude Haffen shows how the past author’s supposedly sublime fame and dignified death are contrasted with trivial, ironic and mundane details about his or her physical death that unsettle the conventions of life writing and also disturb the sense of closure. For later biographical authors, writing about past authors and narrating their deaths may also involve reflecting on the writer’s own cannibalistic voyeurism and blur the boundaries between the selfhood of the deceased and that of their later narrator. Postmodern poetics have also tended to downplay the metaphorical dimensions of death and restore its materiality by drawing critical attention to the problematic relationship between language and the materiality of the dead body.

Being aware of the conventional sense of an ending related to literary death scenes, some writers have experimented with this traditional topos and refused to close their stories in conventional ways. In classical detective fiction, for example, the dead body is often the point of departure for investigation and for telling the puzzling story, and usually when the story ends the reason for the death is disclosed. Crime fiction is continuously preoccupied with death, but in this volume, Andrea Hynynen shows how at least for one crime fiction writer, Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, the plot evolves in more unexpected ways. Death and life are inseparably intertwined when the supernatural blurs the fundamental border between these two concepts.

Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau has ended several of her crime stories with references to immortality, using fantastic plots which leave the ending more open than death as an active closure might usually do. Jean-Pierre Thomas takes the discussion of immortality a step further by examining the deaths of seemingly supra-human superheroes, who characteristically do not die — or if they do, death may not offer any meaningful closure at all. Pondering on the idea (initially presented by Peter Allen David) that in comic books death has no meaning, Jean-Pierre Thomas argues that it is tempting to suggest that the lethal experience does not exist in comics as it does in our world.

Thus, death can play an essential part in both closed and open endings in narrations. This is why Catharine Russell introduces the term “narrative mortality.” She uses it to describe death’s narrative and a discursive role which, instead of trying to force the use of death in fiction into any clear formalist categories, would introduce issues of mortality as part of the stories as a whole, and thus give more room for “socio-cultural heterogeneity.”

Death defines human lives on the basis that men are more or less conscious of their mortality. Some could argue that death robs life of meaning as everything comes to an end anyway. Others would claim that death gives meaning to life because it forces us to act on things now, not to wait for eternity. Among major Western novelists, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce expressed a positive and carnivalistic attitude to death in ‘Ulysses,’ in which death has a life-affirming function. In his article for this volume, Andrew Goodspeed identifies James Augustine Aloysius Joyce’s acceptance of death as an integral fact of life and argues that it is the complementarity of death to life that leads James Augustine Aloysius Joyce to place so heavy an emphasis on death in a work that is so clearly in favour of life and humanity.

Griselda Pollock’s article on ‘Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl’ (1947) has approached the same question of the meaning(less) of death from a slightly different perspective. She argues that even though Anne Frank does not die during the diary, the story is filled with a sense of mortality due to her known death at Bergen-Belsen. In her diary, she is young and alive, forever frozen to a certain moment. Her seeming immortality at the story level merely shows the fragility of human life and makes her story a constant source of mourning and memorialization (Pollock 2007, 125–128, 135–140). At the more general level, Griselda Pollock’s arguments bring forward a number of interesting notions. First of all, the mere consciousness of mortality can give any novel a sense of determinism. Secondly, literature has the power to freeze life to a certain moment, and this stillness can become a source of memorialization and through constant remembering, writing can give the characters, their lives and stories a certain immortality.

The relationship between literature and immortality can be looked at from different perspectives and concerns social, cultural and historical continuity. Indeed, whereas human life in itself is limited, society outlives individual lives and introduces the necessary continuity. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, argues that society finds death abnormal and dangerous because death is an end to existence. In order to overcome this disruption, modern society has marked death as a personal dilemma, whereas the past, future and collectivity of society represent immortality. Societies — and nation-states in particular — provide stability as a counter-force for death’s destructiveness (Bauman 1992, 96–127, 197–199).

Owing to this social continuation, even an individual can seek immortality through remembrance, or among other things through literature. Zygmunt Bauman (1992, 58–60) argues that while an author accomplishes his or her place in history, this creates a form of personal immortality, even if it is meaningful only for as long as these texts are read and recognized. In other words, literary classics continue to make their authors alive and even immortal, and writing a novel can be seen as a way to reach for a cultural afterlife. Similarly, Stephen Cave, a British philosopher, claims that the desire for immortality motivates human achievements, such as literature and arts, or civilizations in general. Although the desire for cultural and symbolic immortality can be seen as a personal character trait and a desire of authors, it is also part of a larger cultural condition; after all, literary works continue to shape the culture long after their authors’ deaths (Cave 2012, 2–6, 205–210).

The interconnections between literature and immortality are mentioned in several articles in this book. Focusing on the traditional topos of poetic immortality, Sari Kivistö argues that although since Quintus Horatius Flaccus many writers have challenged the finality of death and sought for eternal remembrance through their poetic monuments, this strive for immortality has also been criticized and even ridiculed in the early modern period as being based on false assumptions of the human condition and entailing overly masculine or sublime poetics. Katherine Doig takes a slightly different stance on the analogy between narrative and life by showing how in certain contemporary epistolary novels — ‘Age of Iron,’ ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ and ‘Gilead’ —the text takes the body’s place as the repository for the narrator’s soul. Katherine Doig discusses structural equivalences between epistle and death and shows how the text’s gradual constitution mimics changes which occur at the moment of death. This literary phenomenon, where the text is a tombstone, ash or a corpse, and where the experience of death is assimilated into the act of writing, opens wider philosophical perspectives.

A biologically dead person can thus have a strong symbolical influence in his/her society. But as a contrast to this type of social immortality, literature has also been occupied with serious social isolation and oblivion which achieves the dimensions of death. The concept of social death refers to the difficulties in defining the exact limits of life and death. People can be socially dead even before their biological death if they have lost social relationships and cannot influence the wider society any more. Claudia Falconer Card (2003, 63), for example, defines social death as “loss of social vitality”, “loss of identity” and loss of “meaning for one’s existence.” The concept has been used when dying people have lost their ability to interact with other people (Mulkay 1993), but also in cases of social histories, such as slavery (Patterson 1982) or genocide (Card 2003). In this volume, Tiina Käkelä-Puumala argues that if someone is not remembered or noticed, mortality and death can intrude even before physical death, causing the person to retreat into the position of a ghost.

In sum, while different metaphors or characters are used to embody death in literature, death has also been used as a metaphor for different social issues and thus death imagery can contribute to the serious social commentary.

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