Death Becomes Him
Houghton Mifflin, $24, 182 pp.
The fifteenth-century morality play Everyman tells of a man confronted by death, deserted by friends, family, wealth, strength, beauty, his wits-finally only knowledge and good deeds accompany him to the end, after he has received the last sacraments. This is “a pilgrimage he must take which cannot be escaped.” It is a grim and rather predictable tale, but the idea that it is true for all of us is at once obvious and scary; we want to avoid it.
Of course we can’t, and some fine writers are there to make sure we don’t. After I read Philip Roth’s Everyman I re-read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Both are short and have a similar narrative structure: they begin with the funeral of the protagonist, which allows some vital (well, formerly vital) things about the deceased to be established before the business of his movement toward death is taken up. Then the story is seen from the protagonist’s point of view, ending up where we knew it would all along. Both men suffer through their new and sharp awareness of mortality: they resent many of the living, often unreasonably, and find something terribly unfair about the fact of death itself. The difference in the endings is that Ivan Ilyich, who has been for all of his life only conventionally religious at best, finds release from fear and even from death itself in attempting forgiveness and reconciliation. There is no such release or hope for Roth’s protagonist,...
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About the Author
John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.