Dealings with death
August 22, 2003 at 10:40 AM ET
The Leaky Cauldron (via San Francisco Bay Guardian)
Death seems to be quite a popular subject these days. The Harry Potter books are filled with characters who have died, particularly Harry's parents and all the other victims of Voldemort. And then there's Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones - where the main character is killed off in the first chapter - and television shows like Six Feet Under and Dead like Me. The difference is in how death is treated in the various stories.
Rowling's novels tell us that death, like magic and adventure, is a fact of life. And Sebold's, like Harry's enchanted mirror, tells us that what we most wish is true: that death is not really death, and the dead are not gone.
The Lovely Bones begins gruesomely. Susie Salmon, the 14-year-old protagonist, is raped and murdered by a neighbor in the book's first chapter.
After she dies, Susie gets to do wonderful things. She transmigrates into the body of a classmate to lose her virginity to the gentle boy who loves her. She takes revenge on her murderer. In a scene that might challenge even those with an unusually high tolerance for the saccharine, she is reunited with her dog.
The Lovely Bones lets adults pretend that the wolves can't hurt us, that our lost little girls and dead childhood pets are still waiting for us. That fantasy is Sebold's gift to her readers – or rather, it's what they're paying her publisher for.
What Rowling is telling her mostly young readers is that death and grief are real; to deny them is to choose a kind of death in life.
I think this realism is why so many readers – children and adults alike – trust Rowling so deeply: she tells them the truth, and she reassures them they can handle it. Whereas Sebold's cheery shell game – Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, kids! Look at the puppy! – is actually deeply frightening, because it implies that reality is too scary to contemplate.