How does the modernist short story, brief, concise, symbolically dense, deals with death? A recurrent theme in the literature of the age, also owing to ‘the vast catastrophe of European war’, dying takes on new meanings and structural functions. A pure contingency, it is no longer the culmination of the action which brings about the ultimate sense of the narration, but rather an ‘event in the lives of the living’- a dot on the line of time - raising ambiguous responses and obscure emotions in the characters. According to Stewart, ‘death in fiction is the fullest instance of form indexing content’. Whereas in the modernist novel the narration not seldom mimes the long lasting process of mourning (Mepham), in the short story it exploits the characteristic intensity of the genre: death, often set off-stage, is experienced through epiphanies and glimpses or allows a fragmentary recollection of the past, shedding a glimmering light on the identities of the living and the dead alike. Starting from these premises, the essay intends to survey the occurrence of death in some mainstream modernist stories: ‘a sudden anthology of life’s impressions’ which flashes before the dying woman in Richardson’s “Ordeal” and “Death”, a sort of ‘blissful state’ where the female self can at last be whole and undivided; an event that both points back and forward in Joyce’s “The Dead”, where it changes Conroy’s perception of his past and present, but also hints at his own ‘journey westward’; a landmark in young Laura’s formation or an unexpected chance in the gloomy and miserable life of two old spinsters (Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”); the end of time, the termination of all experience, in Woolf’s “Sympathy”, which, none the less, leaves the dead at the mercy of the living, who shape their identities anew as if, as Benjamin states, there were a cognate relationship between death and the very process of narrating.
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