Amy Hempel reveals the truth of the fear of death and as human nature our inability to accept death. In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried. Hempel goes through the concept of death and how as people we constantly separate ourselves from it. In this story, Hempel uses symbolism, ironic humor, metaphors and foreshadowing to help highlight the theme; fear of death, and our conflict within ourselves to accept when a loved one has passed. The story opens with the unnamed narrator visiting her friend, who is also unnamed, in a hospital near Hollywood, California, where the friend is dying, presumably of cancer.
Hempel’s major symbols used in the story, come from the name in the title, Al Jolson who was a white actor in the fifties who would paint his face black for films, he did this to portray a dark- skinned character because black people were not allowed to be actors then. Jolson wore a physical mask of black paint, and the women in the story wear both metaphorical masks.
They do this to hide their true feelings about death. In the opening line of the story, the dying friend says, Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting, make it useless stuff or skip it (Hempel 1). The dying friend does this because she doesn’t want to listen to anything important because she knows she’s going to die, so she hides behind her mask while putting off the situation. Hempel creates this mask and symbol to highlight the theme of avoiding death.
The narrator, also referred to as the best friend, tells the friend strange facts about the world and both friends are making jokes at the hospital. From the very beginning, the narrator, and her friend talk about their fears which lead to her fear of flying and earthquakes. However, the main fear she is fearing is losing her best friend. Ironically, the sick friend states that she is not afraid of anything, but the narrator is constantly afraid that her friend is dying and doesn’t know what do. Was I the only one who noticed the experts had stopped saying if and now spoke of when (Hempel 5). The dying woman makes jokes in dealing with the fact that she is dying. For example, she loops a phone cord around her neck and exclaims end o’ line (Hempel 3). This story is full of complex reactions to death. The narrators dying friend is constantly telling jokes about suicide, and the two friends talk about the five stages of grief. The dying women mentions Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief. She wants to know why Kubler-Ross left out Resurrection; God knows, I want to do it by the book (Hempel 3). When she says that the narrator says nothing, in the denial stage herself can’t bring herself to tell her the other stages because she can’t speak to her friend about death. Hempel’s clipped style and the ironic humor of the friend is only to emphasize the seriousness of the situation she is currently in. As her friend makes jokes, the narrator becomes conflicted to stay and watch her friend die. She knows it’s the right thing to stay but can’t help feeling she’s missing out on life. I have to go home,’ I said when she woke up (Hempel 8). The narrator knows that her friend will spend the time she has left at the hospital and wants to live her own life to the fullest before her time is up. She’s afraid of death and not having the chance to do the things she wants to do before she dies. Furthermore, this story has many metaphors hidden in it. Hempel uses two techniques to gain credibility. The first seven lines are all action and dialogue. Following, the narrator expresses how nervous she is about being at the hospital. She does this by telling stories which this strategy is used to hide the metaphor for what she is actually afraid of. Which is visiting her dying best friend. For example, On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried, I enrolled in a Fear of Flying class.’ What is your worst fear? The instructor asked, and I answered, That I will finish this course and still be afraid (Hempel 9). This passage is a metaphor for the narrator’s view of her own life and fears after her friend passes away. The narrator’s Fear of Flying is her fear of letting go and learning how to live without her friend. She wants to take care of all the concerns she has with death. However, the narrator also fears just the thought of death itself and fears that when it comes time for her to die, she will still be afraid to give up her life. Before the friend’s death when the two friends are making jokes and telling stories the doctor enters the room and the dying friend begins flirting with him. He is known as the good doctor because he makes jokes about death with her. He suggests the narrator go the beach so that he can be alone with her. At the beach the narrator begins to think about other forms of danger, remembering a time in college when the two friends thought they could forestall an earthquake by repeating earthquake over again. It never happens when you’re thinking about it (Hempel 4). Repeating earthquake did not prevent an aftershock during 1972 earthquake the friends witnessed in college. This thought foreshadows the friends impending death. At the beginning of the story the narrator tells her friend a story about a chimp and the first thing the chimp did when they taught it to talk is lied. That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back the name the janitor. And that when they pressed her, she said she was sorry, that it was really the project director. But she was a mother, so I guess she had her reasons (Hempel 1). Throughout the story, the narrator continues to go back to the story about the chimp who had been taught sign language, which could be seen as a symbol for the narrator. When first taught to sign the first act of freewill was to lie. When the chimp loses her baby, it is able to express grief through language. The story of the chimp’s behavior foreshadows the narrators from the very beginning of the story. The theme of this story is fear of death. Every approach used by the narrator expresses that. Hempel uses symbolism to Hempel creates this mask to hide the real feelings of the narrator and dying friend. Ironic humor is used to emphasize the seriousness of the situation she is currently in. The narrator also uses metaphor to hide what it is she is actually afraid of; death. Lastly, Hempel uses foreshadowing.
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