Bill Anderson

Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Award Date


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department / School


First Advisor

Louis Williams


Robert F. Weir, in Death in Literature, begins his study by writing about "a Buddhist parable which nicely illustrates the inevitability of death and the perennial problem of accepting death as a fact of human existence". A Buddhist woman, distraught over the death of her child, seeks help from Buddha, who instructs her to collect mustard seeds from any house where death has not occurred. Full of hope because she thinks she will find such a house, she embarks on her task only to learn that death strikes every family; finally she accepts the death of her son. Weir then suggests that by using literature-as a reflective device, "Novelists often succeed in focusing our attention on that part of nature we most want to ignore: the inevitability of death". Death - sometimes through natural and accidental causes, but primarily through the violent causes of suicide and murder – permeates the novels that John Steinbeck wrote during the decade of the depression. Steinbeck's contemporaries, Hemingway and Faulkner, also focused on violent themes. In fact, Frohock, in The Novel of Violence in America, writes that most novelists of that period wrote books that "run to violence". In one book like The Sun Also Rises action takes place over a period of time, "characters tend to be passive victims who change and evolve according to the will of time, and who act less than they undergo". On the other hand, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the hero, Robert Jordan "has four days to work out his destiny". All the action in the novel takes place in those four days. Frohock states that when "time appears as a limitation . . . it provides a sense of urgency" and he calls this kind of novel the "novel of destiny". The hero finds himself in a predicament such that the only possible exit is through inflicting harm on some other human being…He accepts the way of violence because life, as he sees life, is like that: violence is man's fate. With the exception of To A God Unknown, the action in Steinbeck's novels under study takes place in a relatively short time and his characters are actors and not victims. Gorer, writing in 1955, observed a phenomenon which he called "the pornography of death". He writes "in the twentieth century … death, has become more and more unmentionable as a natural process". Although death scenes were a common Victorian theme, Gorer writes that he does not recall a major character in books written after 1935, whose death occurred by natural causes. Yet he notes, in agreement with the observation of Frohock, that "violent deaths" abound in those same books. Although Steinbeck primarily concentrated on "violent deaths", the natural death of Gramma and Grampa in the Grapes of Wrath shows his ability to write tenderly and sensitively about death as well.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Steinbeck, John, 1902-1968 -- Criticism and interpretation

Death in literature



Number of Pages



South Dakota State University