Mortality, Suicide, and the Affirmation of Life
The characters vary greatly in the extent to which the life force and the desire to live flows through them. Leonard, with his physical fitness, well-defined muscles and constant munching of “energy bars,” has a strong hold on life, as does the aggressive Carla, with her desire to dominate and control her husband. Howard, by contrast—uncertain, diffident, trapped in a bad marriage and an unsatisfying job—has a much weaker grip on life, and Svea Johnson, who appears in the story only as a corpse, has lost her hold on life altogether. In this story that is saturated with the sense of human mortality, often presented in explicit ways, the characters represent extremes of affirmation and negation of life. As a waverer, a man who seems unsure of his path and his purpose for living, Howard must acquire some of the trust in life that will enable him to keep going. As the story unfolds, it seems unlikely that he will succeed. His is the clear case of a man who is suffering from undiagnosed depression, a kind of mental illness that can in severe cases lead to suicide. This depression is strongly suggested by Howard’s recollection of the time he spent volunteering at a suicide hotline. He wanted to tell the callers that he understood how they felt and that “ I’m just like you .” When they hung up, he felt he had failed again, the word “again” suggesting that Howard has a habit of blaming himself when things go wrong. He is, he knows, “full of guilt and too many character faults to count.” Howard even feels that Svea Johnson’s suicide represents a failure on his part, simply because he and the dead woman were about the same age, went to the same high school, and lived in the same neighborhood. This inappropriate sense of guilt can be one of the symptoms of depression.
Howard’s unhealthy mental state is also indicated by his morbid fascination with death, as shown by his visits to the coroner’s lab and his more than professional interest in the fate of Svea Johnson. He feels responsible for her, whether her death was a suicide or an accident. Although Howard and Svea Johnson are of different genders, she is in a sense doppelgänger , or double, a kind of ghostly second self that haunts the first self. It is she who gave in to the desire to die that Howard himself also feels. It seems to manifest in him as a longing to escape from the confines of the physical body, that “menagerie of flawed parts . . . [that] could and would fail.” Because Svea Johnson has acted out his secret desire, she is a figure of fascination for him, which explains his need to see the house that she lived in and talk to her parents, as well as the guilt he feels that he cannot remember her from his schooldays.
Just as he imagines Svea Johnson doing, Howard also—driving around the neighborhood, stopping, going to the bridge from which the woman jumped or fell—seems to be waiting for the right moment to extricate himself from the sorrow and the difficulty of life. He imagines that it takes a moment of “necessary grace to fall,” as if picking the moment to die, even in this manner, requires a sense of timing, a knowledge of when such an act may be permitted.
But what he finds at the crucial moment, when he seems about to emulate Svea Johnson, is something else altogether, not the necessary grace to fall but the necessary grace to live. Suddenly, at that crucial moment of decision, he finds value in the small opportunities that life offers that he had formerly dismissed as unimportant or irritating. He also regains a sense of the mystery of life and its infinite possibilities (“the appearance of new suns”). No explanation is offered of how or why this happens, since by definition a moment of grace has no discernible cause and is certainly not the result of any effort put out by the beneficiary. It is a mysterious sign of the benevolence at the heart of the universe that affirms life rather than death.
Howard is alienated from his wife and from his co-workers. He is self-absorbed, aware of his own conflicted feelings, and also aware of disconnecting from the relationships he has with his wife and her son and with his physical fitness pro of a supervisor. While he is detached from the living, he seems to gravitate toward the dead and toward the past. He wants to visualize Svea Johnson as a student in his high school, wants to see her house in his own neighborhood, wants to view the water from the bridge where she fell or jumped to her death, wants to see her body. It is as though just as he pulls back from interacting with people around him, he is drawn toward the dead, toward imagining the dying process, toward experiencing the kind of moment when one chooses to jump. The monotony of his job, his wife’s nagging, his failure to connect with her son, all of these contribute to his inability to relate to his work and familial context. The resolution of this pattern happens in the moment when he has his shoes off and steps up on the railing of the bridge; through an act of grace, he has an inexplicable change of heart, and he turns from his obsession with death to a willingness to see what life has yet to offer him. The story seems to suggest that no matter how much one is drawn to suicide, the anodyne lies in considering what life has yet to offer.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Gina Ochsner, Published by Gale Group, 2006