The agony, the disease, the fatal injury, the last breath, the cold corpse, the burial or the neglect: death and dying are two important themes. They are two important facts of life that everyone has to deal with at some point, whether they are facing a loved one’s death or their own death. The thought of a hopeless death can tear at men’s souls, or the thought of a death that is simply a passage to paradise can uplift men’s hearts and inspire them with the incentive to live the worthiest life that they possibly can. Some people view death as the worst possible evil. Other people view death as a welcome escape. With the rise of suicide it might seem that more and more people are simply looking at death as a welcome escape. Often, however, an individual views death both ways. For example, they might welcome death as a release from suffering but they fear death because they do not know what lies beyond it or they do not want the people they leave behind to suffer from their passing. While the basic views of death have remained the same throughout the centuries, certain aspects or the ways in which the fundamental views are expressed have changed with the evolving culture of this post-modern society.
A hero’s death: it was lauded in ancient Greek literature, and it was looked upon as one of the ultimate sacrifices and yet achievements during the two World Wars during the last century. The people who survived the wars looked upon the poor boys who died in the battle fields and in the trenches with a sort of detachment. Comfortable in their own homes and in their freedom that those same boys died defending, they were removed from the personal agony of dying in the war even if they had to suffer the loss of a loved one on the Allied front. Dalton Trumbo in his novel Johnny Got His Gun describes this propagated view of the heroic death. However, Trumbo believes that this view of death is false and misleading. In his novel, Trumbo creates a character named Joe, who is a war veteran without limbs and without any of his senses except for that of touch. He has no face – no eyes, no nose, no mouth – but just a large bandaged hole there. Joe was so horribly maimed in an explosion on the Western front in World War I. He is a living dead man. Through the character of Joe who represents all those young men and boys who died horrible deaths out on the battle fields, Trumbo projects a voice from beyond the grave and tries to give an “insiders look” at death and the great waste that it is. In the beginning of the book Johnny Got His Gun, Joe wishes he could have just died along with the boys in the battlefield who had sustained lesser wounds than he did. He believes that war with its enormous death toll should be avoided at all costs. Trumbo, through Joe’s thoughts, feelings, and dreams, shows how carelessly the lives of human beings are treated. For example, the he believes that the doctors who supposedly saved him would have been more humane and merciful to just let him die. Then he would no longer be tormented by thoughts and memories and his inability to see or do anything. He was consumed with the desire to just try to communicate. Joe, representing the men who are already completely dead, expresses the fact that everyone wants to live, if they can live a full life. He thinks, “[the young soldiers who died] died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live, I want to live, I want to live. He ought to know. He was the nearest thing to a dead man on earth. He was a dead man with a mind that could still think. He knew all the answers that the dead knew and couldn’t think about. He could speak for the dead because he was one of them. He was the first of all the soldiers who had died since the beginning of time who still had a brain left to think with,” (Trumbo, p. 121-122).
Joe shows the despair, misery, and ugliness of death. He tries to convince the people who will listen to him through his voice in the novel Johnny Got His Gun that life is the only thing worth grasping for. He pleads in his head, “give me back my life!” (Trumbo, p. 122). This is similar to the picture that Elie Wiesel paints in his memoir styled novel Night. In this story, the narrator is a young boy named Eliezer. This boy, a student by nature who loved learning the Jewish law, a kind and generous boy who believed in his God to begin with and believed he had something to look forward to after death, a boy who believed that he was a part of a chosen people with a special purpose, comes to lose his faith and his hope and has only one thought consuming him: the wish to live. The quick over view that Spark Notes provides for the novel Night succinctly shows Eliezer’s growing concern with his own life to the point he almost regrets his father’s ability to survive because it means that Eliezer still has to try to take care of the older and frail man.
Viktor Frankl was, like Wiesel, an inmate in a concentration camp during the Second World War. He lived through death and hell as only those inmates were able to. If anyone could lose their faith, their hope, Frankl would be one of those people to do so. While walking through the filth and the ash heap that made up that hell on earth called the Nazi concentration camps, however, he saw the flower in the mud. Frankl himself was almost like a living dead man as Joe in the novel Johnny Got His Gun is described. Of course, he still had all his limbs as well as his mental faculties, but while he was in the concentration camps everything physical was taken from him that could constitute a life. His possessions, his freedom, his wife, his friends – he had nothing left besides faith and intellect. However, Frankl never gave up. He did not give in to despair. Instead, he philosophized. Unlike the young narrator in the novel Night, Frankl does not lose his faith in something bigger than himself. Instead, he promotes the idea that for every single person that is suffering there is someone – a fellow human being or God – who is looking down on the sufferer and who expects to not be disappointed in how the sufferer carries himself or herself through the difficulty, no matter how immense that difficulty is. Frankl believed in the freedom of choice, and he believed that no matter how dire a situation is you always have the freedom of choice. For example, the most basic choice you could make in a situation of such suffering as the concentration camp was the freedom to hold on to hope or to let it go and to slip into despair. Instead of viewing living as the ultimate goal and death as something completely opposite to life, Frankl viewed life and death as part of a continuum. Life and the way you lived your life, he came to believe, had meaning in good times and in the times of intense suffering and even death. However, life becomes a simply an existence – a hellish existence at that – when you lack one of the fundamental things that is worth living for: love. He writes in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that, “love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. . .the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and believe have to impart [is that] the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved” (Frankl, p. 31). Frankl, then, thought that death that promised love in an afterlife was better than fighting for a life without love. Such an existence he considered to be a living death.
Frankl’s view of life only being worth living if you have love in it is similar to the view that Edgar Allen Poe holds. Poe believed that life without love, or some other passion such as revenge or hatred, was not worth living. Passions, raw and deep seated emotions, were the things that gave life meaning in Poe’s mind. The characters that Poe creates in his stories of darkness and mystery finding meaning in their life only so long as they love, as they hate, as they burn with passion and desire. Once that “flaw” of passion is extinguished, they die. For example, in “The Cask of Amontillado” the only reason that the vengeful narrator has for living after he has been frowned upon by fate is his desire for revenge upon the man who was the instrument of his bad luck.
Many people who are facing death feel like little Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when Alcott writes, “She could not say, “I’m glad to go,” for life was very sweet for her. . .Like a confiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature,” (Alcott, p. 383). They have a mixture of warring feelings inside of them. For people who believe they have led a good life and who believe in and look forward to a life after death, they embrace the concept of ending the suffering of their life and finding a new life of perpetual love afterwards. Yet, they are also saddened at the love they leave behind, granted that they have had love and happiness in their lives on earth. This was the view of Frankl, Poe, and Alcott. There is a new, modern and post-modern view, however, that is represented by the writings of Trumbo and Wiesel. It is a grasping, desperate view that says that fighting for life just to have life is worth it, whether or not the life you might live has any meaning or any love or warmth in it. This view, of course, has merit, but it is a cold, bleak view of life and an even colder and bleaker view of death and dying. To be able to die peaceably, a person has to be able to believe that a life full of love is the life worth living and that life will only have a new nuance of meaning when the time of death comes.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. eBook.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search For Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press. eBook.
Night. Spark Notes. Retrieved from
Poe, Edgar Allen. The Complete Works. Bookbyte Digital Edition.
Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1991. eBook.