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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 9, Issue 2 (June 2011) : 267-83
“What wilt thou do, old man?” — Being Sick Unto Death
Scrooge, King Lear, and Kierkegaard
Géza Kállay
Rubric A: Literature and Ethics
Rubric B: Dickens



At the end of A Christmas Carol, the Last of the Spirits points its finger towards “One” gravestone, upon which Ebenezer Scrooge can read his own name. His vexing question is whether he has seen “the shadows of things that Will be” or “the shadows of Things that May be, only”; he takes a solemn oath that he will “sponge away the writing” on the stone. At the end of The Tragedy of King Lear, Lear appears howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. He puts a looking-glass to her mouth and declares that, if she lives, “[i]t is a chance which does redeem all sorrows” he has ever felt. At the beginning of his Sickness unto Death, Søren Kierkegaard claims that to be “sick unto death is, not to be able to die — yet not as though there were hope of life”; “when the danger is so great that death has become one’s hope, despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die”. This paper examines the question of death via juxtaposing Dickens’s and Shakespeare’s respective texts in a Kierkegaardian framework. Is it possible to face the death of one’s self at all? Or is it only the death of someone whom one loves most which reveals the meaning of death (and life)? Is death a part of life, or does a “living death” permeate our whole life? How can watching people die in a tragedy be elevating? Or is it the muting of death, as in comedy, which liberates us to live?


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