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The Triumph of Death: A Prominent Theme in Gothic Literature

No species is more deserving of accolades than humans for consistently executing the dual role of creating problems and solving them. While some challenges predate humanity, many wrongs people seek correct are artificial. Mired in the endless maze of thanatophobia, the fear of death, people have grown overly preoccupied with a strong desire to disrupt or stall the treadmill of time that steadily rolls the living towards an inevitable expiry.

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Those in the chronic stage of denial of this existential fact often take the fight to their most favorable playground – the mind – where they can choreograph a script guaranteeing them victory over death, even if it is short-lived. Welcome to the darkest side of life, a taboo that only a few people dare to break. A commendable feat of such bravery remains a salient feature of gothic fiction. As is deducible from selected, award-winning works by Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Albert Camus, this genre is inundated by absurdity, mystery, eeriness, and utter darkness, often with a chilling touch of macabre, horror, terror, and the bizarre. Gothic fiction resoundingly affirms the triumph of death by showing that human intelligence and resources can only help in outmaneuvering death for so long.

Representatives of gothic fiction underpinning this analysis emphasize the egalitarian nature of death. Although these works show that death lurks behind plagues and deliberate human causes, such as execution, they all reveal that death is never too far, and it strikes with unprecedented democratic precision. Metaphorically equating the authority of death to “the liberal military code,” Bierce asserts that it “makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded” (11). Conversely, Fahrquhar is a wealthy, respected politician and a slave-owner, but death rips him of all earthly glory before consuming him.

The same theme of the inescapability of death remains the pillar of Poe’s story. When the Red Death wipes half the country’s population, Prince Prospero summons his friends into his abbey – “an extensive and magnificent structure, [girdled in with] a strong and lofty wall, and gates of iron,” welded shut to keep the infected from entering (Poe 1). Ironically, despite Prospero being at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy and utilizing his vast resources to escape the plague, it eventually crawls into the secure privileged castle and devours them with the same vigor it served the downtrodden villagers.

Albert Camus’s The Plague also affirms the indiscriminate force of death using the same concept of pestilence. Based on Oran, a modern town, the novel follows the life of Dr. Rieux to document the fatal consequences of the bubonic plague as it raves through the city, decimating the rats’ population before spreading to humans with unbridled viciousness. Camus and Gilbert recount that “the plague was no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule everyone, from the warden down to the humblest delinquent, was under sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned in prison” (83). Like Bierce, Camus views life as a prison whose warden is death, a tyrant with no regard for social hierarchy, religion, or age.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge chimes in with a terrifying depiction of life as capital punishment. It features Peyton Fahrquhar, who prepares for his execution after volunteering for a deadly mission for glory to be condemned to the hangman’s loop. In simple, straightforward, declarative sentences, Bierce asserts that Fahrquhar is standing on “a railroad bridge” with a cord binding his hands behind him. At the same time, a rope “attached to a stout cross-timber above his head” closely encircles his neck (10). This opening creates the image of a prisoner with full knowledge of his impending death. While the story swiftly transitions into a dream in which Fahrquhar survives, skepticism grips readers since it is illogical that anyone would escape under these circumstances.

Besides portraying life as a prison, the three works describe humans’ stubborn tendency to cling to life and the futility of such efforts. Time can outwait ingenuity and persistence because people delude themselves that they have time when, in reality, it holds everyone at ransom. A gory dimension, a timeless realm where death reigns as it patiently waits to gobble each person to service its insatiable appetite, exists at the end of human knowledge. It is not a secret per se but an uncomfortable reality regarding human’s helplessness against time, an inefficiency dealt with by activating the psychic numbing button, which shoves the fear into the deepest parts of the subconscious (Osaka par 4).

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Time reduces Farquhar to “a vast pendulum” that can only oscillate uncontrollably (Bierce 14). Sensing his helplessness, Farquhar grows desperate and escapes into a world of fantasy to regain control over his current situation by manipulating time. His brief reunion with his family is merely a vision, not strong enough to offset reality. Attempting to bend time proves pointless because living a few moments or days longer does not fatigue death. Prince Prospero, too, tried to buy more time in vain, proving that life is a metaphor for a terminal illness.

Gothic literature’s other chorus is that life is a hospice with patients at different stages of their infirmity. Bierce’s story comprises three parts, yet it is based only on one setting: the Owl Creek Bridge. The first section is a matter-of-fact scene, set in the present, and it introduces the condemned. The second part exploits the fluidity of time as it stretches to the past to acquaint the reader with necessary background information about the planter. The last interest rudely overrides this illusion by returning to the present, forcing Fahrquhar to embrace his expiry. The story effectively describes life as a prison into which one is born individually to instinctively trace the path to an inescapable death, which strikes at the individual level again.

Poe presents a more elaborate explanation of these life phases using the symbol of seven color-coded rooms. The chambers in the abbey are painted blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black, respectively.

Prospero chases the intruder with a drawn dagger through all the six chambers into the seventh, but no sooner does he discover that it is the Red Death than it gulps him. Arguably, each color symbolizes the prognosis of an infection, the different stages people ambitiously enter and exit along the life journey, unbeknownst to them that they are pursuing their ultimate demise (Yoon 3). The Red Death going through all the rooms emphasizes that death is never far away and can strike at infancy, adolescence, youth, adulthood, old age, or later.

Another standard message across all these texts is that death grips with terror regardless of how much effort one invests in preparing for it. It is “a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him” (Bierce 10). Bierce’s story reveals the devaluing effects of war, which reduces death to an occurrence, as reflected in the title. The Federal army has perfected and simplified the hanging process, but Fahrquhar’s execution still terrifies them into silence. Moreover, Fahrquhar seemed psychologically ready for his fate since he wore “a kindly expression, [uncharacteristic of a person] whose neck was in the hemp” (Bierce 11).

However, the tormenting reality of dying and the excruciating pain of the hanging process prove him wrong, and he seeks to distort time and reality to evade the brutality. Correspondingly, Prince Prospero is a prosperous, “bold and robust man,” who solely chases death to the dark chamber while the revelers remain frozen in terror (Poe 3). Despite his courage, he still wails before falling prostrate in death.

In conclusion, gothic fiction peers through humans’ gravest fears with surgical precision and terrifying brutality. The enduring relevance of the works classifiable under this genre comes from their bold approach to issues that society attempts to shun by branding them as taboo. The most remarkable results that dispel embedded myths about life and death are An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Plague by Bierce, Poe, and Camus. They view death as an inevitable fate, a despot that knows no boundaries of age, religion, wealth, or profession. Their chorus is that life is a prison and a hospice, not a hospital out of which one expects discharge.

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Works Cited

Bierce, Ambrose. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Vol. 1. Library of Alexandria, 1948.

Camus, Albert, and Stuart Gilbert. The Plague: Translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert. Penguin Books, 1966.

Osaka, Shannon. “Going Numb: Why We’re Ignoring the Rising Death Toll from COVID-19.” Grist. 2021. Web.

Poe, Edgar A. The Masque of the Red Death. 1850. Web.

Yoon, Sarah. “Color Symbolisms of Diseases: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’.” The Explicator, vol. 1, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1-4. Web.

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