Death Delayed

Classicist examines the tragic fate of living too long.
April 25, 2006

“Why do I overlive?” Adam laments in Paradise Lost. Author Emily Wilson, in Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton, uses Adam’s dark lament as the basis for a literary analysis of living too long. Wilson, an assistant professor of classical studies, probes the fate of living on when death seems preferable in works by Milton and four of his literary predecessors: Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca and Shakespeare. Each writer composed works in which the main character undergoes unbearable suffering or loss, and calls out for death but goes on living. The tragic tradition, she argues, sometimes finds its energy in a character’s living on rather than in dying when readers would expect. “Why am I mocked with death, and lengthened out/To deathless pain?” Milton’s Adam moaned. Certainly in our time, we sometimes hear echoes of Adam’s anguished cry in patients hooked up to life support or from those enjoying the mixed blessing of a longer life. “Tragedies of overliving disturb the … reader,” Wilson writes, “by reminding us that life may feel too long and endings may seem to have come too late.”