Postmodern Approaches to the Short Story

By Farhat Iftekharrudin; Joseph Boyden et al. | Go to book overview

4
Death and the Reader:
James's [The Beast in the Jungle]

Arthur A. Brown

In his 1936 essay, [The Storyteller,] Walter Benjamin writes:

The reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the
[meaning of life.] Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will
share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—
but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death
is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is
the question which feeds the reader's consuming interest in the events of the novel…
The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else's fate to us, per-
haps didactically, but because this stranger's fate by virtue of the flame which consumes
it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader
to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about. (101)

For Benjamin, the [actual death] of a character is preferable to the figurative death of the end of the novel because in our modern world death has been hidden from us, and in our search for the meaning of life we cannot do without it. [[Not] only a man's knowledge or wisdom,] he writes, [but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of—first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death…This authority is at the very source of the story] (94). When we consider, however, that the [actual death] of a character is a representational death, that it takes place in a world where death is an impossibility, we might begin to wonder in what way precisely the authority of the dying enters the narrative act. The death of a character is most effective in literature that is aware of its own nature as literature, as [the life that endures death and maintains itself in it,]1 so that the contradiction between literature and real being becomes part of the drama—and the reader one of the participants.

-39-

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