Death as a Description

“He slowly emptied it of its contents, taking out each article separately, and laying it carefully upon a chair by his side. He handled the things with a respectful tenderness, as if he had been lifting the dead body of his lost friend. One by one he laid the neatly folded mourning garments on the chair. He found old meerschaum pipes, and soiled, crumpled gloves that had once been fresh from the Parisian maker; old play-bills, whose biggest letters spelled the names of actors who were dead and gone; old perfume-bottles, fragrant with essences, whose fashion had passed away; neat little parcels of letters, each carefully labeled with the name of the writer; fragments of old newspapers; and a little heap of shabby, dilapidated books, each of which tumbled into as many pieces as a pack of cards in Robert’s incautious hand. But among all the mass of worthless litter, each scrap of which had once had its separate purpose, Robert Audley looked in vain for that which he sought—the packet of letters written to the missing man by his dead wife Helen Talboys. He had heard George allude more than once to the existence of these letters” (Braddon Ch. 19).  

The first thing that stood out to me in this passage was the overwhelming presence of death in such a short period of time. It caught my attention because death was used to refer to something that was not dead or dying. Variants of death are used throughout the entire passage: dead, death, passed away, dead and gone. When death was not directly being used to as a description, old was. Everything was either old or dead. There were old newspapers and meerschaum pipes, shabby, dilapidated books, and crumpled gloves. Braddon describes Robert’s action as though he was “lifting the body of his dead friend.” This feels very intentional to me. I can think of a lot of different ways to describe someone handling an object with care that do not involve death. But Braddon is certainly trying to create a deathly mood and she does not do it discreetly. This description is of the trunk that Robert has acquired from George Tabloys. I believe that by putting such an emphasis on the presence of death in the trunk, Braddon is reaffirming the fact that George is dead. No one has confirmed that he is dead, but this passage gives me the feeling that he is.  

The one contrast I found was in the description of the crumpled gloves. She noted that they “had once been fresh from the Parisian maker.” Fresh just felt out of place to me in this passage. I know that she says that they used to be fresh, but fresh was the one word that didn’t sound old and run down. I can’t help but wonder if this is intentional and if it is, what purpose it serves. 

2 thoughts on “Death as a Description”

  1. The section you chose immediately made me think of how during the Victorian era it was common to be descriptive due to the desire to learn more about the world. Much of the novel is written in extreme detail but this passage in particular. The Victorian era wanted to learn more about the world as Robert wanted to learn more about the disappearance of George. The descriptions of death associated with Robert I think had to do primarily with his mind set at the time, which he believed George was dead and wanted to know what happened.

  2. I think it’s really interesting to hear you talk about “old” in this passage. I agree that death is a prominent theme and something that can be found reoccurring throughout the story, I spoke about a similar tone in my post. However, I had just glanced over the line talking about Robert “lifting the body of his dead friend” but now using what you shared about death, I think it only adds to the eeriness of this story.

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