The Nature of Death in because I Could not Stop for Death


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Death is a theme often explored by writers for its dueling mystery and commonality. Its mystery being that no one living can experice death, and its commonality being that everyone living will experience death in the end. It is an untouched inevitability that all of humanity shares, and unceasingly contemplates. However, it is a wonder that something that unifies mankind in its equality has the power to lead artists into such varied responses as to its essence. Both Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’, and Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Because I could not Stop for Death’ display unique contrasting views on the personal experience of death. They explore concepts of spiritualty and draw on ideas of an afterlife for the reader, along with contemplations of the characters life from the viewpoint of death. However, in their contrast, they display opposing opinions as to the very nature or spirit of death. Coming from very different points of view as to the characters response to death, and the atmosphere attached to the passing transition.

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Emily Dickinson’s gives the reader of her poem ‘Because I could not stop for death’ a very personal poetic description of the experience of passing away. The overall account of the transition seems to be told in a reflective, and serene temperament. In contrast, Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’ Depicts a much more detailed narrative, recounting the final hours of the character of ‘Granny Weatherall’ or ‘Ellen’. Her experience of death is lacking a sense comfort, stability or reassurance. She presents Granny Weatherall as to almost have this back-and-forth emotional battle with the concept as she contemplates her demise. Dickinson introduces death in her poem as a character unto itself, ‘his’ role being humbly to transport her into eternity. As the reader you get a sense of how she interprets deaths personality or nature as well as his significance to Emily herself. Unexpectedly, He is not shown as sinister, or to have any dark characteristics. He instead depicted a kind stranger, moreover almost a friend. We see this in the very first lines of the poem –

“Because I could not stop for death-

He Kindly stopped for me-

The Carriage held but just Ourselves-

And Immortality.”

Here Dickinson paints the picture in the readers mind of death coming the form of a human driver of a horse drawn carriage that pulls off the road and picks up the poet almost as though she was a hitchhiker. He is the ‘kind stranger’ merely offering her a ride to her ultimate destination; Eternity.

Overall the journey is presented as generally peaceful, and without any sense of apprehension or fear, as seen the second stanza;

“We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –“

Dickinson describes for the reader, a great sense of tranquility as she dies. She’s put away her labor and her leisure, willingly traded the realities of everyday life for Deaths civility. She is not working, nor on a holiday,

Conversely, Porter’s character of Granny Weatherall, experiences a less amorous view of death. She battles with the idea through the narrative, shifting from a calm into an anxious wait. Early on, she recounts an earlier time in life when she believed she was going to die; “When she was sixty she had felt very old, finished, … That was all just a notion like a lot of things, but lucky too, for she had once for all got over the idea of dying for a long time. Now she couldn’t be worried. She hoped she had better sense now.” In this quote of inner dialog, it is almost as if Granny Weatherall is comforting herself with this past memory of coming close to death. She initially displays this sense of clam in the mist of facing death again with this notion ‘she had once for all got over the idea of dying for a long time’. However, her demeanor appears to change as the story progresses; “So, my dear Lord, this is my death and I wasn’t even thinking about it. … But I can’t, it’s not time. Oh, I always hated surprises.” Her earlier display of calm and tranquility seems to slowly disappear as death comes nearer, unlike the stable sense of calm found in Dickinson’s poem.

Each narrative also displays opposing positive and negative atmospheres surrounding death. Dickinson describes the ‘journey’ of her passing as there were two characters in participation. She continually refers to a ‘We’; being herself and death in the carriage –

“We passed the School, where the Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We Passed the fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us – “

Here we can clearly see Dickinson is not alone in death. Death himself is her companion for the transition to the afterlife. However, in the case of Porter’s Granny Weatherall transition is presented as more complicated. -“God give a sign! For the second time there was no sign. Again, no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away.”- Here, Granny Weatherall reaches her climax of apprehension, fear and even grief in her very last moments searching for meaning in her death. Even though she is surrounded by her family and loved ones, she is largely experiencing the move of death alone within her own mind.

In conclusion, across these two very different literary accounts of individuals passing into death, although they share common aspects of a spiritual experience for the characters, the emotional journey the reader experiences from narrative to narrative vary greatly in their depiction of atmosphere and nature of death. Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘The Jilting of Granny Weatherall’ being a story of heartbreak, fear and loss and finding these both reflected in her recount of her last hours. She is alone in spirit, and uncertain as she passes. In contrast to this Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Because I could not Stop for Death’ Shows no fear, or sense of loss or loneliness even though she technically is ‘alone’. She only presents a calm tranquility as she surrenders to death as a friend, and his interaction with her represented as a ‘kindness’. Even though death is one of the few events in life that truly unifies mankind, our perception of its nature and the light we cast it under will always be subjective to the artist painting the picture in either a negative or positive light.

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