Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1831

 Translated by William Hazlitt

Death of Esmerelda

Death of Esmerelda:

The hangman and the sergeants entered the cell. The mother made no resistance: she merely crawled toward her daughter, and threw herself headlong upon her. The Egyptian saw the soldiers approaching. The horror of death roused her. "Mother," cried she, in a tone of inexpressible anguish, mother they are coming; defend me!"

"Yes, my love, I will defend thee," replied the mother in a faint voice; and, clasping her closely in her arms, she covered her with kisses. Mother and daughter, as they thus lay on the ground, presented a sight that was truly pitiable.

Henriet Cousin laid hold of the girl round the body. When she felt the touch of his hand she shuddered, "Heugh!" and fainted. The hangman, from whose eyes big tears fell drop by drop upon her, attempted to lift her, but was prevented by the mother, who had entwined her arms round her daughter’s waist, and clung so firmly to her child, that it was impossible to part them. Henriet Cousin, therefore, dragged the girl out of the cell, and the mother after her — the latter, too, with her eyes shut, and apparently insensible.

Then the sun was just rising, and a considerable number of people collected thus early in the Place were striving to make out what it was that the hangman was thus dragging along the pavement toward the gibbet; for it was Tristan’s way to prevent the near approach of spectators at executions.

There was not a creature at the windows. There were only to be seen on the top of that tower of Notre Dame which overlooks the Greve, two men standing out in dark relief from the clear morning sky, who appeared to be looking on.

Henriet Cousin stopped with what he was dragging at the foot of the fatal ladder, and scarcely breathing, so deeply was he affected, he slipped the cord about the lovely neck of the girl. The unfortunate creature felt the horrid touch of the rope. She opened her eyes, and beheld the hideous arm of the stone gibbet extended over her head. Rousing herself she cried in a loud and heart-rending voice, "No! no, I will not." The mother, whose face was buried in her daughter’s garments, uttered not a word; her whole body was seen to tremble, and she was heard to kiss her child with redoubled fervency. The hangman took advantage of this moment to wrench asunder her arms with which she had clung to the condemned girl. Either from exhaustion, or despair, she made no resistance. He then lifted the damsel on his shoulder, from which the charming creature hung gracefully on either side, and began to ascend the ladder.

At that moment, the mother, crouched on the pavement. Opened her eyes. Without uttering any cry, she sprang up with a terrific look; then, like a beast of prey, she seized the hand of the hangman and bit him. It was like lightening.

The executioner roared with pain. Some of the sergeants ran to him. With difficulty they extricated his bleeding hand from the teeth of the mother. She maintained profound silence. They thrust her back in a brutal manner, and it was remarked that her head fell heavily upon the pavement. They lifted her up, but again she sank to the ground. She was dead.

The hangman, who had not set down the girl, continued to mount the ladder.


He now perceived what the priest was looking at. The ladder was set up against the permanent gibbet. There were a few people in the Place and a great number of soldiers. A man was dragging along the pavement something white to which something black was clinging. This man stopped at the foot of the gibbet. What then took place he could not clearly discern: not that the sight of his only eye was at all impaired, but a party of soldiers prevented his distinguishing what was going forward. Besides, at that moment the sun burst forth and poured such a flood of light above the horizon, that every point of Paris, steeples, chimneys, gables, seemed to be set on fire at one and the same moment.

Meanwhile the man began to mount the ladder. Quasimodo now saw distinctly again. He carried across his shoulder a female dressed in white; this young female had a rope about her neck. Quasimodo knew her. It was the Egyptian!

The man reached the top of the ladder. There he arranged the rope. The priest, in order to see the better, now knelt down upon the balustrade.

The man suddenly kicked away the ladder, and Quasimodo, who had not breathed for some moments, saw the unfortunate girl, with the man crouched upon her shoulders, dangling at the end of the rope within two or three yards of the pavement. The rope made several revolutions, and Quasimodo saw the body of the victim writhe in frightful convulsions. The priest, on his part, with out stretched neck and eyes staring from his head, contemplated the terrific group of the man and the young girls, the spider and the fly.

Death of Dom Claude:

At this most awful moment, a demon laugh, a laugh such as one only who has ceased to be human is capable of, burst forth upon the livid face of the priest. Quasimodo heard not this laugh, but he saw it. The bell-ringer recoiled a few steps from the archdeacon, then suddenly rushing furiously upon him, thrust him with his two huge hands into the abyss, over which Dom Claude was leaning. "Damnation!" cried the priest as he fell.

The gutter beneath caught him and broke the fall. He clung to it with eager hands, and was just opening his mouth to give a second cry, when he beheld the formidable and avenging face of Quasimodo protruded over the balustrade above his head. He was then silent.

The abyss was beneath him — a fall of more than two hundred feet and the pavement! In this terrible situation, the archdeacon uttered neither word nor groan. Suspended from the gutter, he wriggled, and made incredible efforts to raise himself upon it, but his hands had no hold of the granite, and his toes merely streaked the blackened wall without finding the least support. All who have ever been up the towers of Notre Dame know that the stone bellies immediately under the balustrade. It was against the retreating slope that the wretched archdeacon exhausted himself in fruitless efforts. He had not to do with a perpendicular wall, but a wall that receded from him.

Quasimodo might have withdrawn him from the gulf by merely reaching him his hand; but he did not so much as look at him. He looked at the Greve. He looked at the Egyptian. He looked at the gibbet. The hunchback was leaning upon the balustrade which the archdeacon had just before occupied; and there never turning his eyes from the only object which existed for him at that moment, he was motionless and mute as one thunderstruck; while a stream flowed in silence from that eye, which till then had not shed a single tear.

The archdeacon meanwhile began to pant. The perspiration trickled from his bald brow, the blood oozed from his fingers’ ends; the skin was rubbed from his knees against the wall. He heard his cassock, which hung by the gutter, crack and rip with every movement that he made. To crown his misery, that gutter terminated in a leaden pipe which bent with his weight. The archdeacon felt it slowly giving way. The wretched man said to himself, that when his cassock should rent, when the leaden pipe should yield, he must fall, and horror thrilled his entrails. At times he wildly eyed a sort of narrow ledge, formed about ten feet below him by the architectural embellishments of the church, and in his distress he prayed to Heaven, in the recesses of his soul, to permit him to end his life on this space of two square feet were it even to last a hundred years.

Once he glanced at the abyss beneath him; when he raised his head his eyes were closed and his hair standing erect.

There was something frightful in the silence of those two persons. While the archdeacon, at the distance of a few feet, was experiencing the most horrible agonies, Quasimodo kept his eye on the Greve and wept.

The archdeacon, perceiving that all his exertion served but to shake the only frail support that was left, determined to stir no more. There he was clasping the gutter, scarcely breathing, absolutely motionless save the mechanical convulsion of the abdomen which supervenes in sleep, when you dream you are falling. His fixed eyes glared in a wild and ghastly manner. Meanwhile he began to lose his hold; his fingers slipped down the gutter; he felt his arms becoming weaker and weaker, his body heavier and heavier. The leaden pipe which supported him bent more and more every moment toward the abyss. Beneath him he beheld — horrid sight! — the roof of St Jean-le-Rond, diminutive as a card bent in two.

He eyed one after another the passionless sculptures of the tower, suspended like himself over the abyss, but without fear for themselves or pity for him. All about him was stone; before his eyes gaping monsters; under him, at the bottom of the gulf, the pavement; over his head Quasimodo weeping.

In the Parvis several groups of curious spectators were calmly puzzling their brains to divine who could be the maniac that was amusing himself in this strange manner. The priest heard them say, for their voices reached his, clear and sharp, "By’r Lady, he must break his neck!"

Quasimodo wept.

At length the archdeacon, foaming with rage and terror, became sensible that all was useless. He nevertheless mustered all his remaining strength for a last effort. Setting both his knees against the wall, he hooked his hands into a cleft in the stones, and succeeded in raising himself about a foot; but this struggle caused the leaden beak which supported him to give way suddenly. His cassock was ripped up from the same cause. Feeling himself sinking, having only his stiffened and crippled hand to hold by, the wretched man closed his eyes, and presently his fingers relaxed their grasp. Down he fell!

Quasimodo watched him falling.

A fall from such a height is rarely perpendicular. The archdeacon, launched into the abyss, fell at first head downward and with outstretched arms, and then whirled several times over and over; dropping upon the roof of a house, and breaking some of his bones, He was not dead when he reached it, for the bell-ringer saw him strive to grapple the ridge with his fingers; but the steeple was too steep, and his strength utterly failed him. Sliding rapidly down the roof, like a tile that has got loose, down he went, and rebounded on the pavement. He never stirred more.

Quasimodo then raised his eye to the Egyptian, dangling from the gallows, At that distance he could see her quiver beneath her white robe in the last, convulsive agonies of death; he then looked down at the archdeacon, stretched at the foot of the tower, with scarcely a vestige of the human form about him, and, heaving a deep sigh he cried, "There is all I ever loved!"



Adrienne Nater, 2008

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