Death in Literature
Saramago's characterization of death departs from convention in several waysnot least in her insistence in remaining lower case: "I am not Death, but death. Death is something of which you could never even conceive, and please note, mister grammarian, that I did not conclude that phrase with a preposition, you human beings only know the small everyday death that is me, the death which, even in the very worst disasters, is incapable of preventing life from continuing, one day you will find out about Death with a capital D, and at that moment, you will understand the real difference between the relative and the absolute, between full and empty, between still alive and no longer alive ."
Much Western painting depicts death as a female angel, but contemporary film and literature typically characterize death as the Grim Reaper, a male figure of wordless dread. Until now, the personification of death has been largely confined to genre fiction, such as Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series and Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (though one could argue that the Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian strides the earth as Thanatos incarnate). Saramago's portrait is the second of two recent highbrow representations of death. The first was Markus Zusak's 2006 young-adult novel, The Book Thief, the story of a young girl growing up in Germany during WWII which is quite sympathetically narrated by Death.
And then there is W. Somerset Maugham's story, also narrated by Death, which appears as an epigraph to John O'Hara's 1934 novel, Appointment in Samarra:
"Death speaks: There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.'"
This article was originally published in November 2008, and has been updated for the
September 2009 paperback release.
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