Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Death: Gratifying or Punishing?

In this week’s reading – Ernest Hemingway’s “Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and Emily Dickinson’s “Success if Counted Sweetest—,” “I Heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” and “Because I could not stop for Death—” – all of the works attempt to dissect and illuminate different accounts of death and its significance in human nature. While death can bear a plethora of meanings, both authors successfully project the ambiguity of whether death is a pleasurable release or a bitter usurpation of life.

In Hemingway’s “Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the reader encounters the tense setting of the African wild. Francis Macomber, a seemingly strong and able man, ventures regularly into the grassy plains with his professional hunting partner (Robert Wilson) in search of large game animals. When Macomber fails to finish off an injured lion, he is deemed a coward. From here, the story takes a turn for the worse: arguments with his wife begin to emerge, revealing a troubled past between the married couple. Hemingway carefully adds the details that Macomber’s wife Margot is quite beautiful and that Macomber is very wealthy, essentially listing the sole two factors as to why they do not divorce each other. This tension culminates in the final scene of the story when Macomber, Wilson, and Margot are shooting at a bull buffalo and Margot “accidently” shoots Macomber. Here, as evidenced in many of Hemingway’s stories, this sudden ending is left open for interpretation – was it Margot’s intention to kill her husband? Did she “choose” to kill him, sparing him a troubled life and freeing him from their terrible marriage? Personally, I believe that Margot did not purposefully murder Macomber. One should carefully note that Margot is crying “hysterically” (505), which shows that she is genuinely sad about the death of her husband. Furthermore, even if Margot did mean to kill Macomber, her expressions of sadness and disgust with Wilson let on that she regrets her terrible actions.

In a slightly different light, Dickson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—,” and “I Heard a Fly buzz—when I died” portray a similar perspective on death. For instance, both poems appear to give off negative connotations that encapsulate their respective views on death. In “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—,” the author implies that one must articulate the truth without any details (in its bare, basic form). To stress this point, Dickinson writes, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind –” (7-8). It is made clear that the truth (for example, whether or not Margot loved Macomber/meant to kill him) must be revealed gradually, otherwise one will be blinded its harsh reality. (This is shown in the end of Hemingway’s story – the “Truth” behind Macomber’s death had a significant impact on Margot.) In “I Heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” Dickinson attempts to show the harsh simplicity of death. With phrases such as “The Stillness in the Room” (2) and “uncertain stumbling Buzz—” (12), Dickinson strips all elaborate interpretations and thoughts on death, showing that death is simple: once you are dead, that is it. To magnify the insignificance of death, she chooses a fly – the weakest of creatures – to act as the last lingering thought on the dead person’s mind, rendering the thought of death less important than a fly’s dull buzz.

Conversely, Dickson’s two other poems – “Because I could not stop for Death—” and “Success if Counted Sweetest—” – illuminate death as a pleasurable release from life. “Because I could not stop for Death” portrays death as an enjoyable carriage ride (“The Carriage held but just Ourselves” (3)), with the figure of death being the carriage driver. Dickinson paints a beautiful picture, writing that they “slowly drove” (5) through a scene of frolicking schoolchildren, “Fields of Gazing Grain” (11), “the Setting Sun” (13), and into eternity. In this depiction of death, the passage into the afterlife (and presumably the afterlife itself) seems peaceful, even blissful. Similarly, in “Success if Counted Sweetest—,” Dickinson also exhibits death in a positive light. In the opening of the poem, she states that “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed” (1-2), showing that “success” can only be truly achieved by those who cannot obtain it. She later gives the example of a dying soldier (“As he defeated—dying—“ (9)) to express that only in death can one comprehend the amount of success in one’s life. Furthermore, she writes that “The distant strains of triumph / Burst agonized and clear!” (11-12), which clarifies the point that death allows one to realize any unforeseen truths about life – with this, one can pass onto a relaxing, carefree afterlife.

All in all, Hemingway’s “Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and Dickinson’s “Success if Counted Sweetest—,” “I Heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” and “Because I could not stop for Death—” truly break down the definition of death and portray it as both a harsh, simple event and a joyous release from life. These tremendous works hint that while death may seem to play an important role in human nature, it may be insignificant (with no afterlife, perhaps just dull, indefinite “buzz”) just as much as it may be significant (a journey to a better place, free from life’s burdens). Either way, one can only wait to see – or not see – what lies ahead.

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