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3. Utopian Promise   

3. Gothic Undercurrents

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Activities: Context Activities

"Sleeping Beauty": Sentimentalizing Death in the Nineteenth Century

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Allegorical Representation of the Dying Christian

[2651] N. E. Talcott and J. H. Bufford, Allegorical Representation of the Dying Christian (1847),
courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-3150].
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In the mid-nineteenth century, death was less often seen as the occasion for a final judgment of the sinning soul and more often as the passage to a comforting "home." As it had always been in America, death was still a family affair, much more a part of everyday life than in our own day; rather than in hospitals, people died at home, cared for by women relatives. With events like Unitarian Minister William Ellery Channing's repudiating the Calvinist theory of infant damnation in 1809, however, death--especially the death of children-- became more an occasion for melancholy than an opportunity for pious reflections on depravity.

The cult of sentiment that continued from the eighteenth into the nineteenth century suggested that sympathy with another human was a paramount virtue. Especially associated with literature written by and for women--and the cult of true womanhood in general--the sentimental tradition taught that the homely virtues of empathy and pity were the route to moral edification for both sexes. This movement produced many tearful deathbed scenes in literature and art: the death of little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin is only one of many examples of angelically innocent children dying gracefully in order to rend the hearts of the onlookers and readers (in fact, childhood mortality was 30 to 50 percent in this era). On the other side of the Atlantic, Mary Shelley in Frankenstein and Charles Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop employed this image as well. Through a sympathetic reaction to such a death, it was hoped that people would become more virtuous by tapping into their sentimentality, which would ease the demands of callous reason. Starting in the 1830s, "consolation literature"--roughly comparable to today's self-help books on dealing with grief--became popular, and life insurance companies took root. As Stanley B. Burns shows in Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, by 1841 the brand-new technology of the daguerreotype was encouraging a vogue in post-mortem photography. In an age without public records, the dead could, in a way, be captured and held onto indefinitely.

Gothic literature responds to this era of sentimental death in a number of ways. Some writers, like Stowe, exploit the trend for socio-political purposes. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the sentimental deaths of Eva and Uncle Tom are meant to edify the reader: as Stowe wrote in the novel's concluding chapter, "the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race." Writers like Poe and Brown inject death scenes with graphic physical descriptions to transfer the intense emotionality of sentiment into an aesthetic effect of horror. Dickinson, however, frequently writes about the moment of death--or its anticipation or aftermath--in decidedly unsentimental terms, as if to under-cut the usual effect of the sentimental death.

  1. Comprehension: What seems to be the message of the "Allegorical Representation of the Dying Christian"? How do you imagine it meant to make its viewers feel? How do Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died" or Melville's Moby-Dick (e.g., the death of Pip) challenge this allegory?

  2. Exploration: Can you spot the use of sentimental death-scenes in literature or film today? How do they function in films like Titanic, Steel Magnolias, and Terms of Endearment? Why are films like these sometimes called--sometimes with affection, sometimes with disdain--" chick flicks"?
[2651] N. E. Talcott and J. H. Bufford, Allegorical Representation of the Dying Christian (1847),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-3150].
This lithograph shows a man on his deathbed making a peaceful transition to the afterlife. He is surrounded by Jesus Christ, angels, and women.

[2654] James S. Baille, The Mother's Grave (1848),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1842].
Here a rosy-cheeked brother and sister dressed in mourning are joined by a dog at their mother's tombstone.

[2656] D. W. Kellogg, Woman Mourning by Tomb (c. 1842),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4- 1840].
Painting of crying woman lean-ing on tomb inscribed with the words "to the memory of Capt. John Williams, died April the 1, 1825."

[3111] James William Carling, The Raven (c. 1882),
courtesy of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia.
This illustration, created by James Carling for an 1882 edition of "The Raven," reflects the dark and foreboding tone of Poe's classic poem.

[8658] Priscilla Wald, "Dickinson Reading " (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Wald, associate pro-fessor of English at Duke University, reads Emily Dickinson's "There's a cer-tain Slant of light."

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