** SPOILER ALERT for A Tale of Two Cities, The Awakening, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Death of a Salesman.
Lately, the topic of suicide, or more accurately, the story of suicide, has unintentionally permeated my reading. It has been cast in many forms from the not so suicidal yet still self-inflicted death of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, to The Awakening end of Edna Pontellier, to the haunted existential romanticism found in The Sorrows of Young Werther, and now most recently in the tragic tale of Willy in the Death of a Salesman.
No matter the story, the context, or the reasons given, I’m reminded time and time again of the brutality of human death. As the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung stated, “Death is indeed a fearful piece of brutality: there is no sense pretending otherwise. It is brutal not only as a physical event, but far more so physically: a human being is torn away from us, and what remains is the icy stillness of death. There no longer exists any hope of the relationship, for all the bridges have been smashed at one blow.”
In the face of death, even the death of a rather unsuccessful and not so likable salesman, I cannot help but cry out, “No!,” like Willy’s wife Linda, at each fatal moment. Even when the reasons are clearly given and the story so revealing, I cannot help but state and ask, “I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that?” It’s a rough world… I don’t blame him, or them. But what is it that makes me pity and weep for these characters that I so often can barely stand? I struggle to think of Willy as a good man, in any sense… yet I do not hesitate to hate his demise, to wish that it were not so, to long for the bridge to be remade, the human being to not be silenced.
Recently, I finished a much different book, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Christian intellectual Timothy Keller, in which he offers a potent explanation as to why we feel this brutality as we behold the face of human death. Keller, referring to the first chapter of the Bible, states that, “The implication [of Genesis 1:26-27] is that no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they have done or failed to do in life, there is an irreducible glory and significance about every single human being.”
“No matter what they have done or failed to do in life”… those words echo in my mind continually as I reflect upon Willy, and Werther, and Edna, and Sydney. An irreducible glory… An irreducible significance… No matter one’s view of the Bible or Christianity there is something good, something powerful, something truly freeing in that idea. A value not rooted in success. A significance not enslaved to sales. And a powerful reason as to why there is no price that can be placed on a human life. Willy—I wish you were around to hear that.