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

Death in a Literary Tombstone, and the Corpse’s Suffering
© Photograph by Tadzio Autumn

In fictive stories, death is often recognised as having narrative power. 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 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 Benjam 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 writers’ 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 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.”

Sarah Genner
Sarah Genner

Edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a British Dark Artist who creates obscure home decor and design for fans of horror and skulls.

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

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