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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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, 1900


Death of Hurstwood

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy, 1925


Death of Roberta

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, 1900

Death of Hurstwood: Chapter XLVII

Hurstwood laid down his fifteen cents and crept off with weary steps to his allotted room. It was a dingy affair — wooden, dusty, hard. A small gas-jet furnished sufficient light for so rueful a corner.

"Hm!" he said, clearing his throat and locking the door.

Now he began leisurely to take off his clothes, but stopped first with his coat, and tucked it along the crack under the door. His vest he arranged in the same place. His old wet, cracked hat he laid softly upon the table. Then he pulled off his shoes and lay down.

It seemed as if he thought a while, for now he arose and turned the gas out, standing calmly in the blackness, hidden from view. After a few moments, in which he reviewed nothing, but merely hesitated, he stood there, hidden wholly in that kindness which is night, while the uprising fumes filled the room. When the odour reached his nostrils, he quit his attitude and fumbled for the bed.

"What’s the use?" he said, weakly, as he stretched himself to rest.

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy, 1925

Death of Roberta:

And Roberta, suddenly noticing the strangeness of it all — the something of eerie unreason or physical and mental indetermination so strangely and painfully contrasting with this scene, exclaiming: "Why, Clyde! Clyde! What is it? Whatever is the matter with you anyhow? You look so — so strange — so—so — Why, I never saw you look like this before. What is it? And suddenly rising, or rather leaning forward, and by crawling along the even keel, attempting to reach him, since he looked as though he was about to fall forward into the boat — or to one side and out into the water. And Clyde, as instantly sensing the profoundness of his own failure, his own cowardice or inadequateness for such an occasion, as instantly yielding to a tide of submerged hate, not only for himself, but Roberta — her power — or that of life to restrain him in this way. And yet, fearing to act in any way — being unwilling to — being willing only to say never, never would he marry her that never, even should she expose him, would he leave here with her to marry her — that he was in love with Sondra and would cling only to her — and yet not being able to say that even. But angry and confused and glowering.

And then, as she drew near him, seeking to take his hand in hers and the camera from him in order to put it in the boat, he flinging out at her, but not even then with any intention to do other than free himself of her — her touch — her pleading — consoling sympathy — her presence forever — God!

Yet (the camera still unconsciously held tight) pushing at her with so much vehemence as not only to strike her lips and nose and chin with it, but to throw her back sidewise toward the left wale which caused the boat to careen to the very water’s edge. And then he, stirred by her sharp scream,(as much due to the lurch of the boat, as the cut on her nose and lip), rising and reaching half to assist or recapture her and half to apologize for the unintended blow — yet in so doing completely capsizing the boat — himself and Roberta being as instantly thrown into the water. And the left wale of the boat as it turned, striking Roberta on the head as she sank and then rose for the first time, her frantic, contorted face turned to Clyde, who now had righted himself, For she was stunned, horror-struck, unintelligible with pain and fear — her lifelong fear of water and drowning and the blow he had so accidentally and all but unconsciously administered.

"Help! Help!

"Oh, my God, I’m drowning, I’m drowning. Help! Oh, my God!

"Clyde, Clyde!"

And then the voice at his ear!

"But this — this — is not that which you have been thinking and wishing for this while — you in your great need? And behold! For despite your fear, your cowardice, this — this— has been done for you. An accident — an accident — an unintentional blow on your part is now saving you the labor of what you sought, and yet did not have the courage to do! But will you know, and when you need not, since it is an accident, by going to her rescue, once more plunge yourself in the horror of that defeat and failure which has so tortured you and from which this now releases you? You might save her. But again you might not! For see how she strikes about. She is stunned. She herself is unable to save herself and by her erratic terror, if you draw near her now, my bring about your own death also. But you desire to live! And her living will make your life not worthwhile from now on. Rest but a moment — a fraction of a minute! Wait — wait — ignore the pity of that appeal. And then — then — But there! Behold. It is over. She is sinking now. You will never, never see her alive anymore — ever. And there is your own hat upon the water — as you wished. And upon the boat, clinging to that rowlock a veil belonging to her. Leave it. Will it not show that this was an accident?"

And apart from that, nothing — a few ripples — the peace and solemnity of this wondrous scene. And then once more the voice of that weird, contemptuous, mocking, lonely bird.

Death of Clyde Griffiths:

At last the final day — the final hour— Clyde’s transfer to a cell in the old death house, where, after a shave and a bath, he was furnished with black trousers, a white shirt without a collar, to be opened at the neck afterwards, new felt slippers and gray socks. So accoutered, he was allowed once more to meet his mother and McMillan, who, from six o’clock in the evening preceding the morning of his death until four of the final morning, were permitted to remain near him to counsel with him as to the love and mercy of God. And then at four the warden appearing to say that it was time, he feared, that Mrs. Griffiths depart leaving Clyde in the care of Mr. McMillan. (The sad compulsion of the law, as he explained.) And then Clyde’s final farewell to his mother, before which, and in between silences and painful twistings of heart strings, he had managed to say:

"Mama, you must believe that I die resigned and content. It won’t be hard. God has heard my prayers. He has given me strength and peace." But to himself adding: "Had he?"

And Mrs. Griffiths exclaiming: "My son! My son, I know, I know. I have faith too. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He is yours. Though we die — yet shall we live! " She was looking heavenward, and seemed transfixed. Yet as suddenly turning to Clyde and gathering him in her arms and holding him long and firmly to her, whispering: "My son — my baby — And her voice broke and trailed off into breathlessness — and her strength seemed to be going all to him, until she felt that she must leave or fall —— And so she turned quickly and unsteadily to the warden, who was waiting for her to lead her to Auburn friends of McMillan’s.

And then in the dark of this midwinter morning — the final moment — with the guards coming, first to slit his right trouser leg for the metal plate and then going to draw the curtains before the cells: " It is time, I fear. Courage, my son." It was the Reverend McMillan — now accompanied by the Reverend Gibson, who, seeing the prison guards approaching, was then addressing Clyde.

And Clyde now getting up from his cot, on which, beside the Reverend McMillan, he had been listening to the reading of John, 14, 15, 16: "Let not your heart be troubled. Ye believe in God — believe also in me." And then the final walk with Reverend McMillan on his right hand and the Reverend Gibson on his left — the guard front and rear. But, with instead of the customary prayers, the Reverend McMillan announcing: "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you in due time, Cast all your care upon Him for He careth for you. Be at peace. Wise and righteous are His ways, who hath called us into His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that we have suffered a little. I am the way, the truth and the life — no man cometh unto the Father but by me."

But various voices — as Clyde entered the first door to cross to the chair room, calling: "Good-by, Clyde." And Clyde, with enough earthly thought and strength to reply: "Good-by all." But his voice sounding so strange and weak, even to himself, so far distant as though it emanated from another being walking alongside of him, and not from himself. And his feet were walking, but automatically, it seemed. And he was conscious of that familiar shuffle — shuffle — as they pushed him on and on toward that door. Now it was here; and now it was being opened. There is was — at last — the chair he had so often seen in his dreams — that he so dreaded — to which he was now compelled to go. He was being pushed toward that — into that — on — on through the door which was now open — to receive him — but which was as quickly closed again on all the earthly life he had ever known.


Adrienne Nater, 2008

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