Death: Allows Dying To Teach Living
In modern society, the deathbed scene is one that clings to the concept of resolution. Apologies are made, feuds end, grudges are let go. The deathbed is a place of acceptance, a place in which people can be honest, but also where peace can be made. It is there at the deathbed that the living listen to the dying more attentatively than ever. While from the nineteenth-century, this remains true for books throughout the collection. In many stories, death functions as a sanctifying and purifying component that turns the dying into saintlike role models and examples, who then provide advice and demonstrate holiness through their actions. Since the living listen so attentively to the dying, and since death is a such an emotionally charged and often traumatic experience, the lessons taken from the deathbed root themselves deep within the characters that receive them.
The Remarkable Experience and Triumphant Death of Ann Thane Peck offers an example of a dying character becoming an example to those around them. The main character of the book, the child Ann, epitomizes idealistic holiness, patience, and perseverance through pain, and models with her behavior the words of advice she gives to a friend: “Tell her to live a holy life; always to keep the Savior in her mind, and she will never be in trouble!” Ann and the dying characters of many of the other books demonstrate extraordinary patience, holiness, and trust in God’s will, and their virtue is a positive example for all in their lives. It is both by their example and by their own advice that they instill change in those around them, even after they are gone. In The Fretful Girl, the presence of death in her life instills a change within Sarah and influences her to change her life around.
[Her friend’s death] took a deep hold, and was the means of leading [Sarah] to see herself as she never had before. She thought of her whole life... Guilty and self-condemned, she was forced to cry out, in the deep anguish of her heart, "What must I do to be saved?... [the change in Sarah] was real and abiding… [her] new spirit showed itself in every little thing. There was no more any difficulty in her morning duties. There was no more complaining at the table. No more fretting about the long walk to school, or the long lessons, or the heat, or the rain.”
In Sarah’s case, it was only as a result of the advice her dying friend imparted on her that she saw the error of her ways. Dying characters like Ann have the ability to change and influence those for the better. The characters that are in turn confronted with death of those imparting their advice are taught to be better and use the time of hardship and suffering to grow in holiness. This is why there is such significance in those deathbed lessons. It is through them that Sunday Schools strive to show what people can learn from death. While it is certainly tragic that exceptional role models such as Ann die (since child mortality was simply part of reality within the nineteenth-century), those role models have the ability to influence and change the hearts of their loved ones for the better. While tragic, the emotions that come with death further instill within the readers’ minds the lessons which have been taught.
While deathbed scenes are also prevalent throughout secular books, the advice, commentary, and authority of the dying characters are not necessarily used to support Christian ideals, nor are their examples those of holiness. In Northanger Abbey, a dying character expresses their personal frustration and anger:
Does our education prepare us for such atrocities (death)? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetuated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intervouse is on such a footing; where every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?
The character’s bitterness and anger at dying offer a perspective that, while authoritative, does not exude the sense of holiness and virtue that the dying characters in the Sunday School books convey. While, despite the absence of advice, there is certainly the possibility for those listening to take something away from her words, there is no suggestion of instilling a higher sense of morality or devotion or duty. Rather, anger is what drives the conversation. Similarly, in Wuthering Heights, the words exchanged between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff while Catherine is on her deathbed are those of frustration, passion, and regret.
‘Let me alone. Let me alone,' sobbed Catherine. 'If I’ve done wrong, I'm dying for it. It is enough! You left me too: but I won't upbraid you! I forgive you. Forgive me!' 'It is hard to forgive, and to look at those eyes, and feel those wasted hands,' [Heathcliff] answered. 'Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer—but yours! How can I?'
Once again, there is no clear advice being imparted within this scene. Rather, the anger and regret that drives the conversation is emotional and suggests that Catherine lacks peace upon her impending death. Not only do the Sunday School books consistently depict characters that are at peace with their death and are, in turn, hoping to impart their advice to change those who are not ready for death, but those characters also converse and advise in a selfless manner. Both secular deathbed conversations suggest an air of selfishness as they mourn themselves, rather than hoping to help those around them that will survive them. This is the main difference between deathbed scenes in Sunday School books and secular works, thus furthermore emphasizing the virtue and morality that is encouraged throughout the books within the collection.
Deathbed scenes, in any context, inspire change. In the Sunday School books, dying characters are used as platforms to impart lessons of faith and wisdom. They are given authority by their suffering, and the brevity of their remaining time on earth gives a gravity to their words that lends a note of power to their voice. In the secular books, the authority and brevity of their position is poignantly felt, but there is no sense of a greater lesson or emphasis on faith. Rather, they die with bitterness in their hearts, longing for resolution, longing for peace when they believe there is none. In the case the Sunday School books, death is used to convert, demonstrate devotion, and prove the existence of a God. The impact of the deathbed and the words of the dying are powerful testimonies to the difference between secular and religious literature of the period.
For other Sunday School books that exemplify this theme, in addition to those mentioned above, see The History of Eleanor Vanner, Who Died, April 26, 1839, Aged Ten Years, Ellen; Or, the Disinterested Girl, Eliza Thornton, and Charlie Coulson: the Drummer Boy in the collection here:
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Oxford. 1969. Print.
Brontë, Emily, Fritz Eichenberg, and Bruce Rogers. Wuthering Heights. New York: Random House, 1943. Print.
Unknown. The Fretful Girl. American Sunday-School Union. 1850. Print.
Unknown. The Remarkable Experience and Triumphant Death of Ann Thane Peck. Sabbath Sunday School Society. 1851. Print.