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Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve by Sandra M. Gilbert. W.W. Norton, 2006; $29.95; 580 pages


Prominent critic, poet, and memoirist Sandra M. Gilbert explores our relationship to death through literature, history, poetry, and societal practices. Does death change -- and if it does, how has it changed in the last century? And how have our experiences and expressions of grief changed? Did the traumas of Hiroshima and the Holocaust transform our thinking about mortality? More recently, did the catastrophe of 9/11 alter our modes of mourning? And are there at the same time aspects of grief that barely change from age to age?

Seneca wrote, "Anyone can stop a man's life but no one his death; a thousand doors open on to it." This inevitability has left varying marks on all human cultures. Exploring expressions of faith, burial customs, photographs, poems, and memoirs, Gilbert brings to the topic of death the critical skill that won her fame for The Madwoman in the Attic and other books, as she examines both the changelessness of grief and the changing customs that mark contemporary mourning.


From Publishers Weekly : Many readers will relate to Gilbert's grief following the unexpected loss of her husband in 1991: "Death suddenly seemed...urgently close, as if the walls between this world and the 'other' had indeed become transparent." In the process of mourning, the acclaimed coauthor of The Madwoman in the Attic returned to a project she had abandoned in the early 1970s and invested it with the candor of recent loss.

From the Boston Globe : Drawing on history, literature, and contemporary culture, Death's Door is far more than a memoir. It is a sprawling, sophisticated, and somber meditation on mortality and mourning in America.


Sandra M. Gilbert, born in 1936, is the author of seven books of poetry and the co-editor of Norton Anthology of Literature by Women). A professor of English at the University of California, Davis, she lives in Berkeley. On the afternoon that we talked, each from the desks in our California homes, I said to Ms. Gilbert, "This is a massive undertaking. What a huge book."

"Yes, it got to be so much bigger than it was supposed to be. It surprises me. I started out to write a book called The Fate of the Elegy that was going to be a work of fairly pure literary criticism. But I found that, following my husband's death in 1991, I couldn't write literary criticism the way I used to. I had to write in a new way.

"Everything got bigger because of that. I had to speak about myself, I had to be personal, I had to be memoiristic or testimonial, but I also had to be historical and think about the culture I was living in."

"You write that after great sorrow that one's reading of poems that one has read early in one's life often changes."

"Absolutely. There were so many things that I discovered that other poets were doing that I hadn't read in the way that I now read them. Quite early in the book I remark on ways in which Lawrence talked about looking at the body of his dead mother. I wrote a pretty good analysis of the poem in my dissertation, but I don't think I understood it in my own body.

"Grief is physical. I was talking with a group of people about the physical symptoms of grief, the ache, the sore throat, the inability to breathe, the fluttering pulse. All of those are things that happen to me, and I think they happen in such a wrenching way that they change you permanently."

I suggested, "They change your interpretation of what life is."

"Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In one sense you treasure life more, but in another sense, life gets scarier, you feel you've looked through a superficial shimmer and seen something dark and frightening and painful. You have to write about that, too, if you're a writer."

"And," I said, "for people to whom great suffering comes, the construct of the future changes."

"Absolutely. The first six months after my husband died, I didn't believe there was a future. The future died with him. I didn't believe that there could be a future. And this, despite the fact that I was surrounded by wonderful children and, at that time, one grandchild -- all incarnations of the future. But for me, it seemed there was no future. I had to be remade myself."

"Your husband, in a sense, in his life carried your life forward."

"We went forward together. He was the other half of me, he was bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, and how then if I had lost this part of myself could I have a self? How could I have a future? It's interesting that you ask that question because I haven't thought about it or talked about it, and that's probably a kind of a failure in the book. I had forgotten that sense of losing the future. But it was very powerful at the time.

"I think maybe all these efforts at writing, writing the book how he died, Wrongful Death, which was my memoir, or his death through him and about him and for him, and finally writing this book, were ways of trying to recuperate some sort of future."

"What you wrote after your husband's death were stones, markers set on his grave."

"I think it's true that they were all things that I was doing, to begin with, for him, tributes and markers, grave markers in a way. This last book,

Death's Door, I was doing to explain the whole process to myself. For years he had been my first reader. He was the ear that heard, he was the eye that saw, and I had to keep on speaking to him until I learned to speak to him and for myself in a more solitary way."

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