Books explore human fascination with death
“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” So says author J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first installment of her best-selling Harry Potter series.
Though Rowling might be subtly referring to Harry’s future death and resurrection in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, she’s also commenting on the human fascination with death itself. Despite any fears we might have of the unknown, death holds a certain charm for us, one intensified by its ambiguity. What happens when we die? Do we exist in an alternate form or do we drift into nothingness? Between the pages of a novel, readers might get a few perspectives on these unanswerable questions.
The dilemma, however, arises when multiple interpretations of death and the afterlife begin to take shape. Literature has always been a medium through which authors express humanity’s innermost fears and desires, and nowhere are themes of death more varied than in books. And all of the haziness surrounding the meaning of death, it’s no surprise that writers churn out multiple explanations for what happens after the end of a human life.
In Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere, for example, the afterworld finds a new identity in Elsewhere, a land where the deceased age backward until they reach the age of seven and are born again as babies on Earth. Here, death is a temporary state and serves as one big feedback loop, one where humans cycle through life, death and life again. Though the inhabitants of Elsewhere can watch the earthly world through “observation decks,” they remain permanently fixed in the afterlife, idly killing time until their rebirth.
In Zevin’s model, the afterlife also bears a striking resemblance to the contemporary world. Her characters find jobs, pursue romantic relationships and even lose their loved ones — though, this time around, the loss occurs when they return to Earth.
But perhaps it’s not so odd that our imaginings of the afterlife resemble earthly civilizations. If Zevin’s characters never cease to exist, then, in a certain sense, they never die. Instead, they are eternally reincarnated, traveling back and forth between two nearly identical worlds, suggesting that, for some writers, it’s difficult to imagine a sharp departure from earthly ways in an afterlife society.
Other authors, however, remain more intent on suspending their deceased characters between this world and the next. They portray these souls as ghosts or supernatural spirits who are unable to give up their attachment to their human lives. Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones follow this approach. In Symmetry, a middle-aged Aunt Elspeth dies of leukemia and haunts her London flat, observing her former lover, Robert, and her nieces Julia and Valentina as their ordinary lives go on without her.
Susie Salmon of Bones, on the other hand, finds her life cut tragically short when she is brutally raped and murdered by her twisted neighbor, George Harvey. As she inhabits her own personal heaven, Susie resentfully watches her family fall apart while trying to find her murderer.
Both Symmetry’s Aunt Elspeth and Bones’ Susie carefully watch over those they’ve let left behind but never manage to hold a permanent, satisfactory place on Earth, even when they return to Earth and inhabit someone else’s bodies. Once again, death proves somewhat flexible in these novels. These characters never completely leave Earth — at least, for Susie, until the very end — even as outside forces continually try to push them away.
But despite Zevin’s enchanting explanation of the afterworld or Sebold’s intensified connection between the dead and the living, the most basic take on the death mythos is also the most common: that of the man who does not die.
The Tuck family in Tuck Everlasting drinks from the spring in the woods and cannot die. The Tiger’s Wife’s protagonist, Natalia, encounters a “deathless man,” one cursed to wander the earth forever. Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort splits his soul into seven pieces in an attempt to permanently cement his presence in the wizarding world. In the same series, a sorcerer’s stone guarantees its user eternal life. No matter how brilliant and luxurious an imagining of the afterlife might be, apparently, nothing beats staying alive forever.
Or does it? After all, these characters are generally miserable in their extended time on earth.
The Tuck family constantly moves from place to place to avoid being caught by a man in a yellow suit, a figure who hunts the family in a sinister attempt to market eternal life.
The exhausted deathless man in The Tiger’s Wife, meanwhile, understands that death is not something to be feared because there is the certainty of existence afterward — even if he cannot obtain it himself.
And any Harry Potter fan would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t view Lord Voldemort’s antics as positively evil.
Even with these characters who escape death, at least temporarily, these authors seem to be showing us that eternal life is hardly a blessing.
“Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life,” writes Natalie Babbit in Tuck Everlasting. “You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”
So even with their varied takes on death and the afterlife, these authors remain certain that death is inevitable, uncertain and even, as Rowling put it, something of an adventure. They focus the reader on the impossible feats of their protagonists, assuring us that in the end it’s the quality, not the quantity, of life that remains the most important — even as we remain fascinated by what happens when it’s all over.
Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.