Death in the Details: Portrayals of this Character in Literature

Death is an omnipresent, completely guaranteed part of being alive. To live is to, eventually, also die. This is a fundamental truth that humans have had to come to terms with in one way or another, for the entirely of our existence. How, then, can we go about doing that?

One rather popular way is by granting death itself a kind of humanity. By giving it an identity, it becomes something we can get to know, something we can form a relationship with. If you can’t beat ’em…make them join you, so to speak.

Two authors, Markus Zusak and Terry Pratchett, have entirely different takes on what Death would look like, if it had a face. To capture something so abstract and give it a more solid form is a daunting task, but both writers rise to the occasion.

Markus Zusak: The Book Thief

This Death is one with compassion, which is a fairly unusual attribute to bestow on such a concept. Typically, characters representing death lack the ability to create or to appreciate the feelings that art conveys, but the Death that follows in the footsteps of war’s destruction during WWI and WWII speaks about beauty fluently, as if from personal experience. He pays attention to the colors of the sky, or of the irises of the man he is about to escort from life. He speaks with a certain poetic flair, and enjoys ironic, if dark, humor. Over the millennia, it seems that witnessing human destruction in its many forms has fostered a certain weariness, though it is a weariness he tries to keep at bay.

“Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born… I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed a distraction, this was it… I watched as the sky turned from silver to gray to the color of rain. Even the clouds were trying to get away.”

-Death, from Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

Gone is the typical imagery we associate with Death. Despite the artwork on the cover, there is no robe, scythe, or skeleton to be found here; only a figure who appears, for all intents and purposes, to be human.


Cover art for The Book Thief

While Death will never truly become a part of humanity, however, his understanding of people truly could have fooled me. He has emotions, and a wide array of them; he feels sorrow for the souls he must collect. Over the millennia, it seems that witnessing human destruction in its many forms has fostered within Death a certain weariness, though it is a weariness he tries to keep at bay. His rather gloomy outlook on life and existence makes perfect sense; he is constantly surrounded by the worst-case scenario. As he himself states, Death needs a vacation.

It seems that Zusak uses this character as a way to look at the darker parts of life, as well as the undying (no pun intended) compassion that can be found in even the worst circumstances. There’s a certain beauty that comes with enduring love for humanity, even from a figure who sees, for the most part, only destruction. This Death seems to stand in as a symbol of hope for that reason. As the “end of the tunnel,” so to speak, it may be comforting to readers to know that death may not only have a sympathetic heart and human face, but also open arms. Turning such a dark and frightful concept into something is a great challenge, but it is one that Zusak approaches with creativity.

Terry Pratchett: Mort

Though we see this classic scythe-wielding, robe-wearing, skeletal Death throughout the Discworld books, we really begin to get to know him in Mort, in which he is in need of an apprentice. It is through Mort’s eyes, as the main character, that we see who this figure really is.

In some ways, Pratchett’s version of Death reflects the professional and unadorned demeanor one might associate with a modern-day, businesslike interpretation of Hades. Practicality is central to his identity. He does not care about right or wrong; he has deadlines (no pun intended) to meet. “THERE IS NO JUSTICE,” says Death, with trademark straightforwardness, “JUST ME.”

Perpetually level-headed, because his mind is uncluttered with human emotion, Death has an outlook that is quite removed from the madness of living beings. Even so, I can’t help but love his attempts to become human, or at least to study humanity like a scientist outside of a rat’s cage. He admires us. He has a clear case of curiosity, he observes, he even tries a new job or two–but, ultimately, he is a figure outside of space and time. Though Death does make meaningful discoveries, he must remain an outsider, at least to some degree.

“Was that what it was really like to be alive? The feeling of darkness dragging you forward? How could they live with it? And yet they did, and even seemed to find enjoyment in it, when surely the only sensible course would be to despair. Amazing. To feel you were a tiny living thing, sandwiched between two cliffs of darkness. How could they stand to be alive?”

-Death, from Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man

Because of his more direct dealings with inhabitants of the Discworld, I believe that this incarnation of Death is far more relatable. He may represent the end of life itself, but he isn’t dark. He names his horse Binky, he eats curry, and he adopts both humans and cats when he feels they mean something to him.

from pinterest

Terry Pratchett with his idea of Death. Image from Pinterest

He tries telling knock-knock jokes, though they fall flat, to “lighten the mood” as he takes his clients from their mortal coils. Many readers of the Discworld series have stated that this character has removed much of their fears regarding death, or even of eternity, as a concept. Death’s position as an outsider also seems to provide insight into what it is to be alive. Perhaps this is what such characters are meant to do.

Regardless of what Death’s face may look like, it is interesting to note how human it appears at its core. While both of these versions of the same concept are completely different, they both reveal what we want from such characters. By taking the idea and making it seem more real, we remove the fear that comes with something so uncertain and vast. We make it look almost like a friend.

If you enjoyed this, try:

Dia de los Muertos: A Rich Tradition
Terry Pratchett: Men at Arms


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