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Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve

A-Death’sDoorDeath is the one inescapable conclusion to every human life. For thousands of years, the living have created ceremonies and elegies to deal with grief. Sandra Gilbert draws upon theology, autobiography, cultural studies, anthropology, and, most vividly, literature—from Sylvia Plath to D. H. Lawrence—to fashion this survey of the many ways society mourns and the significance that those rites have held throughout time. Though no prescription for dealing with bereavement exists, Death’s Door reveals the universality of suffering and, perhaps, provides a modicum of solace for the moments we must shoulder its burden.
Norton. 576 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0393051315

Harper’s Magazine 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Here, quoted, ruminated, cogitated, is almost everything we have ever thought about dying—and a lot of good it didn’t do us. Perhaps most usefully of all, Gilbert reminds us that grief is a boomerang. The harder you try to get rid of it by throwing it away, the harder it will return, right back at you." John Leonard

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Like Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, Gilbert rejects self-pity, plumbing her own grief for what links it to the larger human predicament of death and mourning. Unlike Didion, who wrote that the literature of grief is ‘remarkably spare,’ Gilbert finds the library packed with Books of the Dead." Thomas Lynch

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"This is not a matter of finding solace in works of literature. I suppose Gilbert herself has done so, and would not begrudge it to anyone else. But her argument, rather, is that elegiac poetry has been more clear-minded about confronting ‘the literal impossibility of speech about the unspeakable.’" Scott McLemee

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Even to stare into a void we cannot stare down, she concludes, perhaps to convince herself as well as her readers, even to look at death’s door, which is ‘perpetually open, is in itself a victory.’" Glenn C. Altschuler

Critical Summary

A few reviewers refer to a letter of William Butler Yeats in which he stated that "sex and the dead" are the only topics of interest "to a serious and studious mood." Sandra M. Gilbert famously tackled the former in her landmark study of women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic (coauthored with Susan Gubar, 1979). Following the death of her husband as a result of medical malpractice, Gilbert picked up an academic study of elegies she had begun in the 1970s and created this "graduate seminar on mourning" (Harper’s). Critics praise this extraordinarily learned rumination on the nature of death for its empathetic tone and its refusal to resort to navel gazing. With death in vogue in entertainment circles (from Six Feet Under to The Year of Magical Thinking), Gilbert delivers a book as ageless as its subject.