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Are Gender Roles Fluid When Dealing with Death and Tragedy?

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Joanna Vulakh

Prof. Raymond Setters

COMP 111 – N21 (Fall 2016)

December 8, 2016.

                    Are Gender Roles Fluid When Dealing with Death and Tragedy?

        Death is defined as the cessation of an organism’s daily and necessary biological functions, including heartbeat, brain activity, and breathing.  Death and dying is considered an integral part of the life cycle, and is an event that happens to every one of us.  There are many causes of this natural phenomenon, such as biological aging, disease, homicide, suicide, malnutrition, or accidental occurrences.  This ordinary event evokes a variety of sensations, makes people generally uncomfortable, and arouses an array of feelings for both men and women, both positive and negative.  Some people are ridden with feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety, while others may feel relief, contentment, and happiness.  These feelings can vary between the two sexes, as well as their reaction to this completely natural event.

        Study after study have been done on this topic, and the results show that men and women do not report feeling any differently after being reminded of death. The empirical thinking is that people aren't emotionally impacted by subtle reminders of death, even though they frequently elicit a wide range of other feelings and emotions.  Men and women both have considerably different reactions to death, and this is extremely apparent in modern literature.  The titular characters in the short stories “The

Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “A Small Good Thing” by Raymond Carver, “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, and “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin can all be compared to the fluidity of gender roles, and how they may be swapped.  

Generally, women are known to discuss and verbalize their feelings towards death.  Their reactions are usually visible on their faces, in their eyes, and verbal cues are typically apparent.  To assist in the processing of the occurrence, discussions and the reliving of memories, events preceding the event, and trying to make sense of the happening are all quite common.  

Men, on the other hand, typically do not want to discuss or verbalize these feelings.  More often than not, men focus on acts, focusing on how to fix things and proceed forward.  Feelings may be withdrawn, which can cause frustration and chaos.  In the face of death and tragedy, men may feel the need to be stoic, self-contained, and express little emotion.  When seen as the protectors of a family, most men hold back their feelings when dealing with any kind of emotions.  

In the short story “The Birthmark”, the marriage of a scientist with extreme mental hubris and a woman is described.  The character of Aylmer is described as a natural philosopher, working in a number of different fields, and finally, deciding to make a beautiful young woman named Georgiana his wife.  Their marriage is described mostly in a positive light, seemingly harmonious and loving at first.  But over time, Aylmer beings to show gross disapproval and disgust surrounding a small birth mark on her cheek, and his true narcissistic nature become evident.  Becoming increasingly revolted and sickened, Aylmer continues to break down his betrothed, convincing her that their

marriage and lives will be much more fulfilled if he were to remove the birthmark from her face.  Aylmer is moved not by the vision of Georgiana’s potential perfection, but by his horror at her present condition.  His revulsion to the birthmark is insistent: he cannot bear to see it or touch it; he has continuous nightmares about it; he has to get it out (Fetterly, pg. 23). Georgiana ultimately agrees to allow him to do so, resulting in her abrupt and unexpected death.  

Generative Death Anxiety, which proposes that much of human behavior is unconsciously generated to deflect consciousness and fear of inevitable death, offers a most insightful approach to understanding the dramatic behavior of husband and wife and some of the central issues of the tale (Tritt, pg. 184).  This disorder helps describe Aylmer’s feelings of his wife and her passing, as the disorder is developed by the unconscious to disregard and disguise any feelings or fear of death.  Georgiana’s death is a result of the scientist’s hubris and extreme vanity.  Aylmer maintains his gender role his reaction to the passing of his wife.  He does not show any feelings of being distraught and upset, which can be considered very typical of his sex. The tragedy of the story is that he lacks tragic sense; it is said that he is a characteristic modern, the exponent of an age which has defied science and regards it as an irresistibly utopianizing force, and he fails to see the tragic flaw in humanity (Fogle, pg. 150).

“A Rose for Emily” is a short story based around the life and death of Emily Grierson, a southerner seen as an extremely mysterious and secretive person in her town.  The story begins after her death, and the town she lives in is abuzz with gossip over her past life.  The townspeople all attend her funeral in her home, which no one

has entered in the last decade.  In the past, the reader finds out that Emily was not well revered, making the town leaders increasingly irritated over her skirting their tax notices, unsuccessfully attempting to get her to pay her fair share.  More of Emily’s past is revealed, painting her to be a total recluse following her father’s death.  She was the apple of her father’s eye, and his passing is a traumatic experience for her mentally.  Mr. Grierson was a very commanding man, extremely domineering, and very discriminating when it came to finding a suitor for his daughter.  He deemed no one acceptable for his daughter, which explains why she was still single at the age of 30.

Emily’s initial reaction to her father’s death is not typical of most women: she continued to be truly in denial, never actually coming to terms with his passing.  Emily continued to not show any raw emotions regarding to her father’s passing for many days, despite having many visitors coming to offer their condolences.  After a few days and complaints of a terrible smell emanating from her home, she finally turns in her father’s corpse for burial.

Later on in the story, Emily is introduced to Homer Barron, a single Northerner who is brought into town to oversee the construction of new sidewalks.  Homer is described as a cad, eternal bachelor, and a man who isn’t meant for settling down, but despite all of these traits, he and Emily spend time together.  The fact that Homer and Emily dated without any talk of marriage was considered quite scandalous.  One day, Emily is seen going to the local store and purchasing arsenic, which she claimed was to kill rats, and soon thereafter, Homer disappears.

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