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“To be or not to be…”

Discuss how the idea of death is treated in a selected by you literary texts.

The concept of “death” belongs to the universal phenomena. Death is considered from two main aspects. As a biological process, “death” is understood as “the end of the life of a person or animal; a particular case when someone dies” [3]. The second religious view on death lies in understanding it as a process when the soul leaves the body as a result of physical cessation of functioning of the human body. The theme of death interested the scholars since the 14 century, when the plague killed thousands of people all over the world.  The concept of “death” was one of the mythological motives represented in the views of any ethnos. In the ancient times, people believed that Gods are immortal. In all religions the death is understood as the beginning of life in the other spiritual form. Thus, in the Ancient Egypt people put in the tomb a lot of necessities, which can be useful for the dead in his after-death life.

The topic of death is widely represented in the poetry, for example in the works of Edgar Poe, William Shakespeare, Novalis etc. Their poems, verses and ballads contain the death motive. In Edgar Poe’s works it is the motive of the dead fiancée, in Shakespeare’s verses it is a motive of freeing from the world, in Novalis’ works it is the motive of after-death life, for example:

Night became the mighty womb of revelations into it the gods drew back and fell asleep, only to venture forth in new and more glorious forms over the transformed world [4, p. 10].

He we see the idea of transformation. The life after death is believed to be glorious. This motive was especially popular in the Romanticism epoch.

In the British literature death was frequently described as the moral dying of a character. Many people believe that if a person is good and have dignified life, he or she dies peacefully, and oppositely, a bad person dies in pain. This idea is seen in the works of Charles Dickens (19th century author). For example, his work The Old Curiosity Shop, Quilp is an evil dwarf. He dies dramatically and alone:

It toyed and sported with its ghastly freight, now bruising it against the slimy piles, now hiding it in mud or long rank grass, now dragging it heavily over rough stones and gravel, now feigning to yield it to its own element, and in the same action luring it away, until, tired of the ugly plaything, it flung it on a swamp – a dismal place where pirates had swung in chains through many a wintry night – and left it there to bleach.  And there it lay alone. … There was something of the glare upon its face. The hair, stirred by the damp breeze, played in a kind of mockery of death – such a mockery as the dead man himself would have delighted in when alive – about its head, and its dress fluttered idly in the night wind [1, p. 620].

Like Wordsworth’s Lucy or Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff, Quilp dying is humanly alone while merging with a vital elemental company. His death is not separate and sacred. In contract to Quilp’s awful and lonely death, Little Nell Trent in the same novel dies without pain and complaints. The author uses description of death with the wonderful sunset:

She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. ‘When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.’ Those were her words.  … Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose [1, p. 524].

Some critics consider the emphasis on death in nineteenth century British literature as simply a reflection of the realities of the time, as a warning that conditions must be improved, or as a means of providing moral instruction for the reader. However, Carol Hanbery MacKay suggests that certain descriptions of death illustrate the sublimation of sexual impulses and the influence of Victorian public morals [2].

The great British novel saturated with death motives is “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf.  She wanted to describe the life and death through the prism of wisdom and insanity. The motive of death is revealed in the character of Septimus Smith. He participated in war and when he returned to the society, he is unable to find his place in it. Smith believes that people around are awful, but the life as a whole is wonderful. He accepts death as freeing of a person from the social reality. The dead people call him, because he understood the truth and essence of death as the beautiful transformation from the slave to a free man:

So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signalling to me. Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty this exquisite beauty [5].

Virginia Woolf depicts very realistic picture of the after-death life, which exists in the Christian religion. The concept of “death” consists of physical, psychological and symbolic components. The physical component means ending of physical being done by the different ways such as disease, murder, suicide, euthanasia, tragic or heroic ending, accident etc. The psychological component of death includes the emotional reaction of characters on it. They include wild fear, depression, grief, desperation etc. Finally, the symbolic sphere covers the beliefs of the characters in after-death life, i.e. in Paradise and Hell, ghosts and so on. Look at the fragment below:

Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes.) Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known (he wrote it down). He waited. He listened. A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words, from trees in the meadow of life beyond a river where the dead walk, how there is no death. There was his hand; there the dead. White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings!” [5].

This description correlates with the mythological, and even Christian, understanding of death, in which the dead people are always near alive. The dead relatives always help those, who are still alive. The image of Death is described as merciful. Septimus ends his life with suicide. This death is a challenge to the outer world. He has no strength to fight with the injustice and cruelty of the existing world, so he decided to leave this world, thus freeing himself from the hated human nature:

Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death [5].

Summarizing the above-said, the death is treated as something really deep, eternal and sacred for people. The analysis shows that frequently the death is a way to escape from the social world that lost its humanity and soul. Death is described as merciful for dignified people and awful and even cruel for evil people. In all analyzed fragments the death is believed to be the continuance of life after losing the earthly body, but this existence is done in the other outer form. The characters do not think the death is a way to non-being, but it is a step to something new that is given only to the selected people, who deserve for the better life.


  1. Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop [Electronic resource]. URL:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/700/700-h/700-h.htm
  2. Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature Critical Essays [Electronic resource]. URL:  https://www.enotes.com/topics/death-nineteenth-century-british-literature
  3. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English [Electronic resource]. URL: https://www.ldoceonline.com/
  4. Novalis, Hymns to the Night [Electronic resource]. URL:  http://thesorcerersapprenticeonline.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/no-34- hymns-to-the-night4.pdf
  5. Woolf Virginia, Mrs. Dalloway [Electronic resource]. URL: http://royallib.com/book/Woolf_Virginia/Mrs_Dalloway.html