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Death is a common theme in Women’s Literature to demonstrate the different obstacles that women faced. In poetry, fiction and drama, death was seen as a central theme that gives way to other themes ranging from justice to rites of passage to grief. The women in the short stories, poems, and essays later discussed in the paper will express tragedies, lessons, and sacrifices. Death was experienced in several ways in these writings; death of family, the death of themselves, and the fear of life after death.
Death is a crucial fact of life and from the emotional response to death to the various religious frameworks through which it is interpreted, it is obvious why death is used as a theme in literature so extensively. Death is a part of life and these authors and poets wrote about death to express the empowerment of women and how they used death to establish their roles in society.
In the poem “Eurydice” by Hilda Doolittle, the speaker uses death as an escape from the confinement of an unwanted marriage.
Death, rage, and despair were used to express the feelings and emotions of a husband who was upset because his new wife was killed on the day of their wedding. Eurydice died after fleeing from another’s man lust and was bitten by a snake. Some women feel as if death is the only way to escape from an uncomfortable situation. In this poem, death had to happen twice in order to free herself from such despair.
The unfortunate thing is that the first time her death was unsuccessful because her husband who loved her so much wanted her to live. All he had to do was to obey the commands of Hades and not look back so that she can return back to earth, however, he looked back so she did not return back to earth. “I had grown from listlessness into peace, if you had let me rest with the dead, I had forgot you and the past” (lines 16-19). This poem shows how Eurydice claimed power over her life after letting her husband know that in order for her to come back from hell, he had to agree to let her go. Like most men, egoism was a dominant trait so he did not listen to his wife and she returned to hell for eternity. “So far your arrogance and your ruthlessness I have lost the earth and the flowers of the earth” (lines 82-85). Death was transformed into a celebration because Orpheus and Eurydice were eventually reunited. Death can be considered physical or mental. To physically die is to never return and the grieving process varies for different people, but to die mentally you have to be able to live with or without a person for eternity.
“How It Is” by Maxine Kumin was a very emotional poem about a woman who is mourning the loss of her dear friend as a result of suicide. She died in a tragic way by locking herself in her garage and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning “back from death car idling in the garage” (line 15). Guilt played a huge role in this theme of death. People deal with death in many different ways. In this case, Kumin felt guilty because she was the last person to see her dear friend alive and she wonders what she could be done to prevent it if she had known that she had plans to kill herself. This poem was a great example of the different challenges that women artists faced. Dealing with mental illness played a huge role in her suicide. Instead of mourning the loss of her dear friend, she decided to honor her legacy and not let her memory fade. “A month after your death I wear your blue jacket” (line 2). Even though her death was a tragedy, it was not in vain. Her legacy was shared by Kumin to others to enlighten people on mental illness and to help those who suffer from depression. Kumin wanted to have a positive impact on people and be the voice for those who did not have the courage to use their own voice. Death gave her strength to be empowering.
Margaret Edson wrote a play called “Wit”, and the women characters in this played powerful roles. This an amazing play where the patient, who was a professor, took to readers on a journey through her battle with stage 4 ovarian cancer. This was a huge transition for her because she went from being a professor to being a student because she has to learn about the treatment and side effects of this horrible disease. Vivian said “One thing can be aid for an eight-month course of cancer treatment: it is highly educational. I am learning to suffer” (Edson 1465). Professor Vivian’s courage, strength, and power shoed when she was in severe pain, nauseated, and lost her hair during chemotherapy treatment. She did not give up and fought to the very end until her death. She remained positive throughout this battle even though she did not feel it was fair that she got diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. She was never married, did not have children, nor did she have any friends because she dedicated all of her time and life into her career. Because of this, she had to fight the battle of ovarian cancer alone. Fortunately, she had a great nurse who became her advocate when she was too sick to speak up for herself. When the end was nearing, Vivian decided to make herself a DNR, do not resuscitate. This means of her heart stops beating or if she stops breathing, she does not want to be saved. The time came and her wishes were not honored so her nurse spoke up and carried out her final wishes after the doctor called a full code. “She’s NO CODE! Order was given-DO NOT RESUSCITATE” (Edson 1486). Professor Vivian left a positive influence on those who knew her and that positive influence still remains. She is now resting in peace and free of cancer pain.
In 1954, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem called the “[The courage that my mother had]”. This poem also was about death. Edna used this positive remembrance of her mother. This poem symbolizes the courage of her mother as well as the lack of courage that she had. In this instance, fear of death was not from the mother, it was from the daughter who was afraid to lose her mother. The mother in this poem was considered to be a strong woman who had courage her entire life. She was not one of the ladies who were inferior, she possessed power. The daughter in this poem wished that she had what her mother had, courage. Then her mother died and she took her courage with her and her daughter was not ready for this. “The courage that my mother had Went with her, and is with her still” (lines 1-2). Even though the daughter was left with her mother’s material possessions, all she wanted was her mother’s courage. Women and courage is normally not a think of the past. Most women did not have the chance to have courage. They were expected to follow the rules of their husbands or in some case slave owners. It was very obvious that this woman had such a positive impact on her daughter and she wanted to inherit her courage. “Oh if instead she’d left to me Think she took into the grave!” (lines 9-10). The daughter was willing to trade all of her inheritance to have her mother’s courage.
Marilyn Monroe was a woman who was known as a sex symbol, “saw the shape of her breast, flattened by gravity, under the sheets” and she often abused her body with drugs (lines 7-8). “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” is a poem written by Sharon Olds and it tells how Marilyn Monroe died. She used her bod to gain a lot of fame and fortune. She married and had affairs with several famous people such as Joe DiMaggio, a famous baseball star, playwright Arthur Miller, and was said to have had affairs with President John Kennedy. At the age of 36, she died from a drug overdose. The poem also describes how her death had a long-lasting effect on the first responders who transported her body, “These men were never the same” (line 11). Marilyn Monroe was such a beautiful and famous woman of her time. Her life was cut short by the choices that she mad. She was a woman who lost her life at the hands of her own actions and not at the hands of a man, unlike other female characters.
“The Shawl” by Louise Erdrich was a short fiction about death in a tragic yet powerful way. In this story, death was used as an example of sacrifice. It was a tragic death. The women in this story had different roles. One was a mother and a wife and the other one was a responsible young lady who sacrificed her life in order for her mother and baby sister to live. “She understood that the baby she loved would not live without a mother” (Erdrich 1413). Many will ask why the mother did not give her life for her children. After all, she was the reason why they had to leave their home and be placed in danger because she had a baby by another man and was in love with him. Her husband was aware that their marriage was over so he sent her away to live with the man she loved. “At last, even though he lobed Aanakwad, the husband had to admit that their life together was no good anymore” (Erdrich 1409). During the travel to their new home, a pack of wolves attacked them and that is when her oldest daughter sacrificed her life. She was the empowered woman in this story, not the mother Aanakwad.
These writings are similar because death was a part of each of the characters. The author used death as a theme to let readers know and understand that everyone has to face death one day. The most distinctive things about death and these characters were the manner in which they died. Death came in many forms such as suicide, accidental, murder, and illness and the authors did an amazing job with each descriptive piece of work.
The writing that was the most compelling to me was the play “Wit”. This writing compelled me the most because I have had family and friends die from many forms of cancer. Just this year lost a great friend to ovarian cancer. It was very hard to see someone you love go through such a horrendous disease. Watching this play and seeing Professor Vivian Bearing suffer through the treatments and getting so sick during and after brought back so many memories and emotions. I am also a Certified Medical Assistant at the Longstreet Cancer Center and cancer is something that I see every day. Seeing how caring and compassionate her nurse Sarah was made me want to become a better nurse to my patients. It was also an eye-opener on how patients are being treated by doctors. This play had me in tears but it also gave me a different on my career. Working in oncology is very hard and emotional and often times we have people like Professor Vivian Bearing who do not have family and friends to help them through this journey. A lesson to be learned from this that life is short and respect goes a long way. We all should value the time that we have with family and friends because we do not know when it will be our last time together.
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