Magnificent Women in the Sick Room

Edvard Munch, "The Sick Child"

Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child”

As we maintain our vigil for our dying father, I don’t have much context for what we are doing other than what I’ve read in literature of the past, when this was a fairly common occurrence. My brother Jonathan jokingly remarked at one point that my blog has so accustomed him to apply literary images to our lives that he worries that we fit the picture of Old Featherstone’s rapacious relatives in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. They are anxiously awaiting his death so that they can grab his possessions.

There are more positive images that are closer to our own situation, however. For the most part my father has been quiet, bringing to mind a John Donne image. In “Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” the poet writes of virtuous men who are so calm in their passing that their friends cannot tell whether they have died or are still alive but in a state of peaceful acceptance:

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.” 

There have been other times, however, where my father has been frantic, pulling at his oxygen mask and at the tubes that deliver morphine and saline solution and that empty his bowels. At these moments, Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem comes to mind:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The literary work that I find of most comfort, however, is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with its extended scene of Nikolay’s death. I am recalling it vividly because it reminds me that I am married to a Kitty.

Kitty is the wife of Levin, Nikolay’s brother. They are newlyweds and Levin sees her as a sweet young thing. After witnessing her handle his dying brother, however, he comes to see her as magnificent.

As I watch my Julia respond to my father—and she has responded this way to other friends when they were dying—I offer up thanks that I am married to such a forceful woman. There are a number ways in which I am Levin, paralyzed in the face of death while my wife sees what needs to be done and does it.

Here is Tolsoy describing the intellectual Levin:

Levin could not look calmly at his brother; he could not himself be natural and calm in his presence. When he went in to the sick man, his eyes and his attention were unconsciously dimmed, and he did not see and did not distinguish the details of his brother’s position. He smelt the awful odor, saw the dirt, disorder, and miserable condition, and heard the groans, and felt that nothing could be done to help. It never entered his head to analyze the details of the sick man’s situation, to consider how that body was lying under the quilt, how those emaciated legs and thighs and spine were lying huddled up, and whether they could not be made more comfortable, whether anything could not be done to make things, if not better, at least less bad. It made his blood run cold when he began to think of all these details. He was absolutely convinced that nothing could be done to prolong his brother’s life or to relieve his suffering. But a sense of his regarding all aid as out of the question was felt by the sick man, and exasperated him. And this made it still more painful for Levin. To be in the sickroom was agony to him, not to be there still worse. And he was continually, on various pretexts, going out of the room, and coming in again, because he was unable to remain alone.

He can no longer feel superior to his wife when he watches her go to work:

But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out all the details of his state, and to remedy them. And since she had not the slightest doubt that it was her duty to help him, she had no doubt either that it was possible, and immediately set to work. The very details, the mere thought of which reduced her husband to terror, immediately engaged her attention.

Levin’s greatest surprise in his marriage is how it introduces him to new depths in the world. To his credit, he is ready to learn:

…he could not help knowing that he had more intellect than his wife and Agafea Mihalovna [Nikolay’s companion], and he could not help knowing that when he thought of death, he thought with all the force of his intellect. He knew too that the brains of many great men, whose thoughts he had read, had brooded over death and yet knew not a hundredth part of what his wife and Agafea Mihalovna knew about it. Different as those two women were, Agafea Mihalovna and Katya [Kitty], as his brother Nikolay had called her, and as Levin particularly liked to call her now, they were quite alike in this. Both knew, without a shade of doubt, what sort of thing life was and what was death, and though neither of them could have answered, and would even not have understood the questions that presented themselves to Levin, both had no doubt of the significance of this event, and were precisely alike in their way of looking at it, which they shared with millions of people. The proof that they knew for a certainty the nature of death lay in the fact that they knew without a second of hesitation how to deal with the dying, and were not frightened of them. Levin and other men like him, though they could have said a great deal about death, obviously did not know this since they were afraid of death, and were absolutely at a loss what to do when people were dying. If Levin had been alone now with his brother Nikolay, he would have looked at him with terror, and with still greater terror waited, and would not have known what else to do.

Levin’s greatest new insight is one that Julia is reminding me of: death can spur us to engage with life far more intensely than we otherwise would. Tolstoy symbolically conveys this by first showing us Kitty’s heroic efforts and then revealing that she is pregnant:

The sight of his brother, and the nearness of death, revived in Levin that sense of horror in face of the insoluble enigma, together with the nearness and inevitability of death, that had come upon him that autumn evening when his brother had come to him. This feeling was now even stronger than before; even less than before did he feel capable of apprehending the meaning of death, and its inevitability rose up before him more terrible than ever. But now, thanks to his wife’s presence, that feeling did not reduce him to despair. In spite of death, he felt the need of life and love. He felt that love saved him from despair, and that this love, under the menace of despair, had become still stronger and purer. The one mystery of death, still unsolved, had scarcely passed before his eyes, when another mystery had arisen, as insoluble, urging him to love and to life.

The doctor confirmed his suppositions in regard to Kitty. Her indisposition was a symptom that she was with child.

Even as I grieve for my father, my bond with Julia grows ever stronger.

This entry was posted in Donne (John), Eliot (George), Thomas (R. S.), Tolstoy (Leo) and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete