Dead Children, Metaphysic and Literature

If there is something that we all human beings have in common is for sure the dramatic experience of death. Human existence is in a sense 'tragic' since we are all doomed to die at some point. Yet this same dramatic force may also become more acceptable in some cases as in the case of the death of an old person or a terminal patient who had been suffering greatly because of his or her illness.

This is not the case for the death of children. Dostoevsky, for instance, in his "Brat'ya Karamazov" (1880) uses children’s sufferings as a device to question the main existence of a truly good God. Ivan Karamazov says in this regard


Listen: if everyone has to suffer in order to bring about eternal harmony through that suffering, tell me, please, what have children to do with this? It’s quite incomprehensible that they should have to suffer, that they too should have to pay for someone else’s mill, the means of ensuring someone’s future harmony? I understand the universality of sin, I understand the universality of retribution, but children have no part in this universal sin, and if it’s true that they are stained with the sins of their fathers, then, of course, that’s a truth not of this world, and I don’t understand it. (Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Karamazov Brothers", p. 306).


One could argue that this is an instance of a modern perspective and that in the past societies were more accustomed to the presence of death in their everyday life, but this is not completely true. In the Middle Ages, the matter seemed to have attracted a certain interest on the part of intellectuals. Two instances highlight this perfectly. The first is the Breton lai "Sir Orfeo", in which the protagonist, having accessed the fairy underworld found an uncanny series of terrible images of inexplicable deads, among those, one can find people who suffocated while eating ("And sum astrangled as thai ete", l. 396) and, particularly, cases of miscarriage and stillbirth ("Wives ther lay on childe bedde, // Sum ded and sum awedde", ll. 399-400). In the face of this, the medieval poet establishes a parallel: both are, in fact, natural actions ‒to eat and to deliver babies‒ that can result in something in a sense unnatural because illogical, namely death. If one eats to survive at the individual level, so one gives birth to children for the same reason but on a more general level. And probably, this sense of inability to understand is provided with even more intensity by another medieval poet, the author of the "Pearl" (BL ms. Cotton Nero A.x), in which "that pryvy perle withouten spot" (l. 12) is generally identified as the young daughter of the lyrical persona. The whole poem is centred on the elaboration of mourning from the part of the father, who, falling asleep, meets her in his heavenly dream receiving the theological consolation he was perhaps not capable to find with his own strengths.

So, my idea is that there is no substantial difference in the way human beings ‒in every epoch‒ respond or are able to cope with such (un)natural events as the death of a child; and, moreover, they can be a fruitful source for metaphysical reflection as well as literary and poetical inspiration.


References


Dostoevsky, Fyodor M. The Karamazov Brothers, trans. by Ignat Avsey. Oxford: OUP, 2008.


Laskaya, Anne & Eve Salisbury (eds.). The Middle English Breton Lays. "Sir Orfeo." https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/laskaya-and-salisbury-middle-english-breton-lays. Accessed 22 Oct. 2022.


Stanbury, Sarah (ed.). Pearl. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001. https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/stanbury-pearl. Accessed 22 Oct. 2022.



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