In Poetics, Aristotle recognized literature’s value for humanity when he stated that “the object of art is an imitation of life.” Writers have always used the situations and events of everyday life in their writing, and since death is just as much a part of life as anything else, it is arguably one of the most recurring themes in all of literature. In poetry, fiction, and drama, death is seen as a central theme that gives way to other themes ranging from justice to rites of passage to grief. Death is a crucial fact of life, and from the emotional response to death to the various religious frameworks through which it is interpreted, it is obvious why death is used as a theme in literature so extensively.
In ancient literature, the theme of death is seen regularly. In Gilgamesh, the ancient epic of Mesopotamia, death is clearly illustrated through relationships, responding to the deaths of loved ones, and war. Once Gilgamesh comes to love Enkidu, he dies, and the reader is left with Gilgamesh’s thoughts and response to his friend’s death. In ancient Greek mythology, the Trojan War provided a framework for a myriad of stories, including Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; both stories recount numerous lengthy battles and gruesome scenes of death. Later, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, the three great Greek tragedians, created death-driven plays, such as Sophocles’ Oedipus The King and Antigone, which includes patricide, suicide, and fratricide. In Poetics, Aristotle highlights the value of tragedy, which compels an audience to feel a catharsis, or cleansing of the soul, by witnessing tragic acts, typically deaths of highly regarded characters—deaths those characters may not totally deserve. Even in ancient literature, authors were utilizing death as a theme to elicit an emotional response in the reader or audience.
Later, in the Roman myths told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, death is one of the underlying themes present, in which characters face transformation, which for them is often the same as death. In the Roman poet Virgil’s The Aeneid, Aeneas is to establish the city of Rome, but this is only after his home has been destroyed and his family killed. Throughout the story, the reader witnesses constant death in battle. In book 10, after Aeneas takes the life of Lausus, his father, Mezentius, comes to Aeneas to avenge his son’s death. Mezentius calls out to Aeneas, why do you ridicule me, threaten me with death? Killing is no crime. .â•¯.â•¯. Let me rest in the grave beside my son, in the comradeship of death. (Virgil, The Aeneid, book 10:1,067–1,077) Here it seems that death would be a comfort to this father whose son has been killed in combat. In this perspective, a reader can understand how death is seen in battle as valorous and can even be consoling. Especially throughout literature of battle and war, death is faced with bravery and moral courage. In the Middle Ages, the theme of death often underlies the literature as well. In a lot of the romance literature, such as Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, the idea of chivalry is a prominent theme, and one aspect of chivalry was that a knight was expected to fight valiantly to uphold his king’s or his lady’s honor, even forfeit his life in battle if need be. One of the major European events in the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague, certainly had an effect on literature, as in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, in which 10 people flee the plague in Florence, and each tells a different story over the course of 10 days in order to keep his or her mind off of the deaths of friends and loved ones left behind. One of the biggest literary figures of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, wrote The Divine Comedy, a story in which the poet is given a guided tour of life after visiting the inferno, purgatory, and heaven. This work seems reminiscent of Aristotle’s catharsis idea in that the reader’s soul is cleansed by seeing what Dante sees. Geoffrey Chaucer uses death as a central theme in several of his Canterbury Tales. In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” three men actually set out to find and kill Death, who has taken the life of one of their friends. The Wife of Bath, one of the most critically examined female literary characters, tells a story of a knight who faces execution unless he can find out what women truly want.
In these stories Chaucer uses death as a theme to demonstrate several ideas: Humans are afraid of death; they sometimes become at once saddened and angry when loved ones die; and finally, something demonstrated in nearly all of these works is the idea that humans fear death because they value life so dearly and they do not know what comes after death. Not knowing what comes after death is significantly portrayed in Renaissance literature as well, especially in the poetry of England, in which the theme of carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) is so common. From Robert Herrick’s iconic “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” to John Donne, the idea of “seize the day” is not so much an inspiration to enjoy life as it is a warning to enjoy life quickly before it ends. On the other hand, in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the title character makes a deal, transferring his soul to the devil for immortality because he does not want to die. Later in the Renaissance, John Milton composed one of the greatest epics in the English language, Paradise Lost, in which he sets out to “justify the ways of God to men” (book 1, l. 26). In doing so, he must explain death as much as life. However, any discussion of Renaissance literature must highlight William Shakespeare, who used the theme of death in many of his works. In Sonnet 73, he uses the traditional symbolism of seasons, in which spring represents birth and youth while winter represents death with the lines “That time of year thou mayst in me behold, / When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang, / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold” (ll. 1–3).
The speaker is calling for the reader to see how he is getting close to death. The sonnet ends with the line “To love that well, which thou must leave ere long” (l. 14), which again alludes to the carpe diem theme. However, Shakespeare incorporates diverse ideas about death in his works, and one that is different is in Sonnet 71, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead,” in which the speaker recommends forgetting about him, “Lest the wide world should look into your moan / And mock you with me after I am gone” (ll. 13–14). Here, Shakespeare proposes a different idea about death, mainly to forgo grieving and simply get on with life. Of course, he employs the death theme in his plays in various ways as well, from the suicidal Ophelia in Hamlet to the pretended death of Hero in Much Ado about Nothing to the deaths brought on by the evil Iago in Othello. Characters avenge deaths of loved ones, face death in battle, and even plot the betrayal of other characters. Shakespeare is perhaps unparalleled in all of literature in his ability to invoke the whole range of human emotion regarding death.
Through later periods of literature all over the world, authors have continued to use death as a major theme, symbolically, metaphorically, and physically. Evident in such novels as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and Richard Wright’s Native Son, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, death provides authors with the substance to create an emotional response in the reader like no other topic. Themes like betrayal, vengeance, greed, honor, justice, courage, and failure are almost always portrayed in conjunction with death. Some of the great novels have been born in a response to death, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which Victor struggles to create life out of his response to his own mother’s death, but in the ensuing action, he loses those most dear to him. Looking at more contemporary novels, some of the most famous American writers—Stephen King, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks—are noted for their riveting stories that revolve around mystery and death. Authors have all the material of life around them from which to draw, but nevertheless, death has always been and will continue to be one of the most prominent themes in literature, and for many reasons: There is a pervading symbolism attached to death in different cultures and religions. Death signifies an end and a great mystery about what comes next, and the range of human emotions surrounding it is so vast that authors are able to combine it with many other themes.
See also Allende, Isabel: House of Spirits, The; Bierce, Ambrose: “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, An”; Brontë, Emily: Wuthering Heights; Browning, Robert: “My Last Duchess”; Camus, Albert: Stranger, The; Capote, Truman: In Cold Blood; Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: “Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The”: DeLillo, Don: White Noise; Dickens, Charles: Christmas Carol, A; Dickinson, Emily: poems; Eliot, T. S.: “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The”; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: “Rappaccini’s Daughter”; Keats, John: poetry; Miller, Arthur: Death of a Salesman; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Fall of the House of Usher, The”; Shakespeare, William: Romeo and Juliet; Welty, Eudora: Optimist’s Daughter, The; Whitman, Walt; Leaves of Grass; Woolf, Virginia: Mrs Dalloway; To the Lighthouse.