Something to Do with Death

You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside. . . . Something to do with death.
– Cheyenne, Once Upon a Time in the West

I just finished watching Once Upon a Time in the West and all I can say is whoa. I’m new to Westerns, so maybe it’s no better or worse than any other of the genre, but I was struck by how minimalist, how existential, how macho, how repressed much of it was. This movie makes Hemingway seem self-indulgent, makes Cormac McCarthy look soft. After reading Richard Beck’s blog post about cultures of violence, I found myself thinking about honor and status and what these men seemed willing to die — and to kill — for. The quote above especially caught my attention. Cheyenne is warning Jill not to expect anything to come from a relationship with Harmonica (the “hero,” I suppose, if there is one), or with himself. He warns her to avoid becoming attached because these men have dealt with death all their lives; it follows them around like a particularly pungent smell. What interested me was that Cheyenne felt that he and Harmonica had “something to do with death” in a way that he implies is different than others. I mean, aren’t we all mortal? Regardless our religious affiliations, we all have to make our peace with the fact that one day we’ll pass away, no more substantial than memories to the succeeding generations. In that sense, I think we all have something to do with death. Our belief systems can comfort us, perhaps inform us, but we all have to face that eventuality.

Given that we all face death, and given the hypermasculinity of Westerns, I sought mentally for a feminine comparison. If the Western suggests that true men face death head on, unflinching, giving as good as they’re going to get one day, what stories suggest a model for true women facing that eventuality?  All I could come up with is the sacrificial virgin, and I find that singularly unsatisfying. I suppose perhaps males find the emotional constipation of the Western unsatisfying as well — but my (of course) taciturn husband and father-in-law seemed untroubled by the character’s philosophies. Maybe they’re just willing to accept that a Western is a Western, and not a model for life. 🙂 But I think the stories we tell and retell, the stories that resonate, like Once Upon a Time in the West, have meaning. Where’s my story?

That women are peripheral to heroic stories is nothing new. Penelope is just one of many women Odysseus has to deal with, Grendel’s Mother one more thing for Beowulf to kill, Morgan le Fay one more challenge against which Arthur proves his heroism. It’s difficult to see how a true woman faces death in literature primarily because there are so few true women. Perhaps Penelope’s example is the most common: she weaves and unweaves a shroud daily, waiting for Odysseus’ return. While her weaving is motivated by something other than fear of her own death, I think the action is symbolic. This myth argues perhaps that women have to wait patiently for the eventuality of death and prepare for its arrival, as opposed to men, who can shake their fists at the sky, figuratively speaking, or stare death down at a high noon duel.

Again, unsatisfying. I’m looking forward to seeing what True Grit might add to this conversations. Are there any literary examples of true womanhood I’m overlooking? Suggestions readers?

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One thought on “Something to Do with Death

  1. Susan, I miss you. I miss having these kinds of conversations in real life.

    One literary example that comes to mind is J M Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows. It’s his play adaptation of the ancient tale, and his Deirdre has a very different take on death than is usually allowed for women. But I can’t think of any other stories in which women are faced with death (in which they don’t simply swoon and die of shock or grief, which is just silly).

    I was going to suggest that you see True Grit. I’ll be interested to know what you think of it.

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