The mystery of life and how to live it well is represented in several literary and poetical works, though each in a unique manner, and those works are: Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” and “Success is Counted Sweetest.” In Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the main character, Francis Macomber, exemplifies that, sometimes, a tragedy must occur in order to start living one’s life to the fullest. In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” she stresses the importance of making time for life, because it passes one by in a flash and can end when least expected. In her poem, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” she disputes the traditional maxim and suggests that ‘honesty is not always the best policy.’ In the poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died Today,” Dickinson describes that the smallest things can take precedence over more important matters at the most inconvenient times. In Dickinson’s poem, “Success is Counted Sweetest,” she explains that the least successful people are often the ones who understand and appreciate success the most. While there is no singular right way to live one’s life, Dickinson and Hemingway both propose that there are certain measures that can be taken into account along the way to attain the greatest meaning from and appreciation of life while living it.
Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is so named because Macomber does not start living his life to the fullest and happiest potential until the final moments of his life. Similarly, at the conclusion of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a character, known as the misfit, explains that the grandmother, “would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” This is a dramatic way of saying that it is often in the final moments of one’s life, that one’s best and truest self is revealed. In the grandmother’s and in Macomber’s fictional lives, they are both seen as their best selves just prior to the end of their respective lives. Hemingway’s story illustrates that, since there is no telling when one may die, everyone should live their life to the absolute fullest—every day. In Macomber’s final moments, he finally conquers his two great fears—one of ‘the beast’ he was hunting and the other of ‘the beast of a wife’ that he had. Once his wife sees this significant change in him, she knows that he will no longer be too cowardly to leave her. To prevent what is bound to happen, she shoots him. Macomber’s hunting coach, Wilson, puts it eloquently when he quotes Shakespeare, “By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next” (502). Essentially, Wilson is saying that everyone dies eventually; if not today, then another day. Therefore, everyone should live life to the fullest while they still have life within them.
In Dickinson’s poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” the speaker is so busily doing this that, throughout every stage of her life, that she hardly even notices that the life she is living is quickly passing her by. So much so, in fact, that she is completely unprepared to face death when the moment arrives. The unexpected visit from the Grim Reaper catches her off guard. Though she has lived her life, it is unclear whether or not she really accomplished everything she had set out to do. The fact that she is so surprised to learn that she is not immortal and cannot control death shows that she may have been going through the motions of living, instead of actually living in the moment each and every day. Dickinson points out the importance of stopping to smell the roses in life, to cherish the small things along the way. The speaker in the poem is so busy that she did not stop and notice life as it was happening, and, before she knew it, life was over. Death is the one thing that she cannot control or put off until the next day. Just as Sarah MacLauchlan’s song, “I Will Remember You,” suggests, “Don't let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memories.” Moments should be savored before they are gone. Similarly, Harry Chapin’s song, “Cats in the Cradle,” is all about the regrets of a father who did not spend his time wisely and who prioritized all the wrong things while he was raising his son. He regretted not being more active in his son’s life, and, when he finally realized his mistake, it was too late and he regrettably noted that “my son is just like me.” Peter Meinke’s poem, “Untitled,” also exemplifies a father who has regret and remorse after he realizes the effects his abusive behavior had on his son, Peter. Sometimes, acknowledging the truth of a situation can be more difficult than the situation itself was.
It is revealed in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Tell the Truth but tell it slant,” that telling the true is not always a good thing. In fact, telling a little white lie may be the best option, for both the liar and the one to whom the lie is being told. The person who is hearing the lie may not say it aloud, but he or she does not want to hear the truth. The person would rather believe what he or she wants to believe. Sometimes, in the face of painful truths, it is easier to look the other way than to have to face what has happened. “The Truth must dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind---” (lines 7-8). If the truth were to be spilled all at once, that might cause someone to have a heart attack. Like the saying goes, “What mama don’t know won’t hurt her.” Some things are better left unsaid, especially when it comes to the truth of what certain children have done (line 5). It is not always easy to control what comes out of one’s mouth in times of great stress. Likewise, it is not easy to control one’s thoughts, chiefly at the most frantic, hectic times.
The poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” written by Emily Dickinson, reflects upon the peculiarity of how the smallest things can take precedence at some of the most significant moments in one’s life. At times, the small thing can become the main focus until, it starts to eat away at one’s brain and leaves no room for any of the important things upon which he or she should be focused. Once the person is focused on that small, unimportant thing, there is no letting it go, and then he or she is completely distracted from attending to the more important matter at hand. For example, the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is so fixated on the idea of leaving the room in which she is forced to stay and getting rid of the wallpaper that she eventually goes insane. She becomes so obsessed with the thought of getting rid of the wallpaper that she cannot think of anything else. She initially goes to the house to improve her behavior and to get better, but she ends up doing the complete opposite. The same thing happens to the person in the poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.” The speaker is on her deathbed, yet the only thing to which she pays any attention is the fly buzzing around her. It is odd that, at such a crucial moment, the thing that comes to mind is a measly fly. Such odd fixations occur in life at critical times, often to take the focus off of the current situation at hand. It enables a person to take his or her nervous energy and place it somewhere else. In psychology, this human behavior is called displacement. According to Freud, people use displacement as an unconscious defense mechanism in which the mind redirects from an object felt to be dangerous or unacceptable to an object felt to be safe or acceptable. For example, if someone gets fired, the person might go home and hit his or her child to get out anger, even though it is misdirecting the anger at the wrong person. It is easier for the person to focus on being upset at a child, than to face the fact that they were fired. Life is not just all of the time; people get treated unfairly, even when they have done nothing to wrong to deserve their mistreatment. However, sometimes, in the midst of experiencing an injustice, persons can develop qualities that are useful—such as appreciation and motivation.
Success can be most enticing to those who do not have it, as demonstrated in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Success is Counted Sweetest.” The speaker describes that success is “sweetest” for those who do not succeed (lines 1-2). This is best understood when someone wants something so badly that he or she is willing to put everything into it. Then, to have that someone or something taken out of his or her clutches can be completely devastating. It does not matter if it is a relationship, a championship, or a plastic toy ship. Others may not be able to relate, but the significance is in eye of the beholder. For example, in the movie, Dan in Real Life, the young daughter of Steve Carell’s character exclaims that her father is a “murderer of love” because he thinks that his daughter is too young to be in a relationship with her current boyfriend. To the father, it is a silly, adolescent crush, but, to her, it is serious, true love; being denied it is devastating to her. When people already have what is important to them, they can take it for granted. Once it is gone, they then realize how valuable the thing was to them. For those who have success, it may be taken for granted, but for those striving for it, and who have had and lost success, it becomes the most important thing in the world to them. The people who have never had the thing most desired, or, worse, as in a situation such as in, Flowers for Algernon, when one has had and then lost what one most desires, the sense of loss is tremendous, and, along with that, the depth of appreciation for what was lost, is great. In Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” the main characters, Missie May and Joe, want what they cannot have—gold. Once they obtain some gold, they no longer can even look at it. It is not as glamorous as it had seemed. Before they had the gold, they were much happier. The saying, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” suits their situation very well. As the poem, “Success is Counted Sweetest,” suggests, the defeated understand victory better than the victorious. They have more of an appreciation for their un-reached goal than does the one who has reached it. Falling short of their goal, in the end, will motivate them to work harder to achieve their goal, even if, once they obtain it, it no longer is as satisfactory as they had expected.
Through Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” and “Success is Counted Sweetest,” various, untraditional life lessons are illustrated. The lessons vary from learning: to start living once death is near, to not let life pass by while just going through the motions, to see lying as a positive action, to be distracted by small things during intense times, and to long for what one does not have can lead to constructive outcomes. These abstract ideas may not seem logical, some are counter-intuitive, and many are exactly opposite of what has been taught to believe. They question the way people live their lives and often point toward taking an unbeaten path, which they may or may not choose to do, but they can truly benefit from considering these alternate points of view. The richness of learning about life through literature is that it enables the reader to observe the character’s foibles and experimentations that which they need not themselves try. This is a wonderfully low-risk way of exploring new ideas and arriving at conclusions for their own lives.