As I was thinking about what I wanted to post nearing Halloween the topic of Death as a character rolled around in my head. It has always been something that I have wanted to be discussed on the blog but have never been able to. Once again as I was thinking about it I realized that I was not the right person to talk about that now. Instead I decided to ask my friend Carol, who introduced me to Discworld might I add, to write about Death as a character in books as I know she has read quite a few by now. We hope you enjoy!
Before I start, I would like to thank the amazing Annemieke for inviting me to write a piece for her Halloween themed posts. I’m really honoured, thank you so much my friend!
We’re nearing the end of October, and I can already savour the Halloween candy, and of course my delicious pan de muerto. So tell me, how do you celebrate around these dates? Me, I’m a Day of the Dead kinda girl, it’s our local festivity and it takes place during November the 2nd. After ‘Coco’ I’m pretty sure most of you will know what I’m talking about, we put up altars with food and drink for our departed ones, and sometimes we go to the cemetery and decorate their tombs. All around Mexico you can see marigolds all over the place and of course, sugar skulls which you can eat and are utterly delicious. Death is always with us, and we celebrate her with joy.
Death as a Character
So what about in literature? Have you ever read a book where Death is the main character? Do you find this a normal theme in your country, or is it a little weird? After my tiny introduction of what this season is like for Mexicans, I do have to admit this is rather common for me. But for the rest of the world, I’m not so sure. Let’s dive a little into the subject, shall we?
Death. I think for most people, the dark hooded figure with a scythe is probably the most common image and depiction of the character. The most well known example I know of would be Discworld’s Death, by Terry Pratchett. He had a thing of making Death the only character to appear in every single book, as a reminder that, no matter who you are, or where you lived, Death would always come. I’ve read a good amount of books from English speaking writers, and I found lots of similarities, like the hood, the scythe, the wanting to know what ‘to be alive’ means, the desire to get to know humans more, hourglasses to keep count of human lives, or candles sometimes. There’s also a sort of realm where he lives, usually way outside human reality.
This happens to be recurrent themes with Spanish speaking writers as well. It would probably be a safe bet to say that, since we don’t understand Death, he can’t understand us either. The gap that separates the living and the dead is so wide, that not even an anthropomorphic representation could jump through it. Death really doesn’t seem that much different across countries.
The Gender of Death
However, there is one thing that I know makes a huge difference in the tone of the books. Gender. I’ve noticed that English speaking writers tend to portray Death as a He or leave it genderless, while Latin speaking writers (Spanish, French, Italian…) can go either with a He or a She. The gender changes depending on what the writer wants to achieve with the story really. With Spanish for example, we associate an article to every single noun, and the noun for Death, Muerte, it’s feminine. This kind of language construct defines how you as culture see the world, and at least for me, Death tends to be a woman. She even has her own name, La Catrina. And she dresses in elegant long dresses, lots of feathers, and a huge hat.
Of course this gender issue is not a hard rule. Neil Gaiman, English author as he is, decided to make Death a female in his well known graphic novel ‘The Sandman’ and it works wonderfully. The thing is that, whenever I’ve seen Death as a woman, she tends to fall in love with a mortal man, and that changes the tone of the stories completely. I haven’t read yet a story where Death is a man, and he falls for a woman (if you know such a book, please tell me, I’d love to read it). But when she’s a woman, it happens at least 50% of the time. It’s one of those curiosities you tend to pick up on after reading quite a few book with Death on them.
Death and the Afterlife
This fascination for Death, be it a man or a woman, seems to come out of a need to understand what is completely out of reach for us, the afterlife. We need to believe that there’s something else out there. And having a character that comes to get our soul at the end of our time seems quite logical. Because the other option is that there is absolutely nothing, that once you die that’s it, and honestly, that feels a little terrifying. If we can imagine a Death then there must be an afterlife, maybe a place where all our loved ones are waiting for us, where we can see them again, and Death represents that hope.
Ever since ancient times we have been making up gods and entities for things we can’t explain, and I’m sure one of the biggest mysteries is Death itself. All cultures have a God of Death, they all have their own versions of what happens after you die. For some there’s heaven and hell, for others, there’s just the afterworld, or even reincarnations. And in their books, authors have decided also to explore all the possibilities that come with Death. And let’s be honest, we like reading about it. Seeing Death in its study, doing a list of the souls to be ripped for the day, or maybe going about a city having a nice curry, even seeing her falling in love, makes Death less of a stranger.
Despite the fact that most of our interest in Death as a character might stem from our wanting to know what comes after life, I think it also help us see it as a natural thing. As something that will come eventually, and reading about it might take the edge off our fear of it. Especially if they come in a satirical comedy fantasy like Discworld.
Books with Death as a Central Role
So to finish off this small piece, I would like to share with you all some of my favourite books where Death has a central role.
- ‘Hogfather’ by Terry Pratchett.
- ‘Death with interruptions’ or ‘Death at Intervals’ by Jose Saramago
- ‘The Sandman‘ by Neil Gaiman.
- ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Suzak.
Oh, just as a curiosity, I’ve got a list on Goodreads with 59 (so far) books classified as “Death-books”. You’re more than welcome to look into it.
Please feel free to direct any comments or questions at Carol at her blog, social media or here. Carol will also be writing a full list of Death book recommendations on her blog to be posted on The Day of the Dead (November 2nd). Please go check that out as well!