‘The Second Death’ by Graham Greene: Short Story Analysis
‘The Second Death’ has a lot of direct and indirect references to two miracles of Lord Jesus Christ. One miracle is concerning the cure of the widow’s only son and the other is of the healing of the blind man. The references to the gospel of Saint Luke and then Saint Mark are as follows:
“Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” —Luke 7:11-15
“And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” —Mark 8:22-25
The story is of a man who is on his death bed for the second time in his lifetime. The first time was when he was the widow’s son as mentioned by Saint Luke, and was being carried for his burial. A doctor came and stopped the hearse. He realized that the man who was then a mere boy was still alive. The boy sat up on his own and came back to life. This is a subtle mention of the similarity of the situation with Lord Jesus’ time. Maybe Greene wanted to make it clear in the story that it was not the doctor but the Lord Jesus Christ who cured him. However, even though the boy was given a second chance to live, he spent it drinking in pubs and entertaining women. He is now on his death bed again, and vaguely remembers the incident when he was a boy. Graham Greene in this masterpiece of a story shows the parallels between the Gospel readings and the life of the prodigal son of the widow. It also tells the story of the prodigal man’s best friend and comrade who was blind in the past. It was again someone mysterious who touched his eyelids and gave him his sight back, very indicative of Lord Jesus’ healing of the blind man. Lord Jesus cured many blind men in the four gospels, but we know that it is the Gospel of Mark Chapter 8 that is being referred to here because when the alleged blind man’s eyes were opened, he saw humans as if they were walking trees, a direct quote from the holy text.
The literary value of this story is immense. There is a reference at the beginning of the story to a caterpillar on a torn leaf trying to reach a twig. This too is a hidden reference to the Lord Jesus being the true vine and Father God the gardener who would prune the tree and decide whether the caterpillar was to survive or die in the pool of red clay or the realm of Sheol. The prodigal man has little chance of survival, the odds are against him. We are not told what he is dying of, but that death is close is made very clear this time. However, the best friend wonders whether the mother was being deceived, and yet again on her way to bury a ‘living’ son. But we are aware that the second chance of life given to the prodigal man was not used by him wisely, and so he was going to die and then enter a realm where:
- There wouldn’t be an unconscious state forever.
- He would have to remain in a land of tormenting dreams and thoughts about the misdeeds of his life.
He recalls this state of ‘being’ when he was ‘asleep’ as a boy until he was woken up on the way to his burial. He didn’t like the dream, and now raves and rants to his best friend mixing Gospel passages with his past life as well as his afterlife. The best friend is selfish and conceited. He wants him to die quickly so that he can go and visit a girl called Rachel who lived a mile down the road. The best friend is brash, unkind, and very earthly bound. He too seems undeserving of the gift of sight given to him by the touch of the Lord Jesus.
The widowed mother is finely portrayed by Graham Greene. She is overprotective but has a nasty tongue. She can’t control her son because she never had a husband to control. She loves her son, but the best friend finds her to be a ‘vixen’ who was almost going to bury her baby boy alive. He has no respect for her. It looks like even the prodigal man had no respect for her, for he prefers his best friend to be at his side in his last hours rather than his mother. Most likely he knew that because of their parallel encounters with the supernatural in the form of the Lord Jesus, the two men were closer to each other than mere drinking partners and womanizers. The best friend pities the mother because she is helpless and clueless about the atrocities of her prodigal son. There is a mention in the story ‘The Second Death’ that the prodigal man was such a good faker of death that he would even fool the Patriarch Moses who is the Jewish symbol of strictness. It is also an indirect reference to how for mere mortals, it was easy to ‘trick’ Moses but not ‘Lord Jesus’ and certainly not the God of the Old Testament. The widowed mother is friendless and only has a sister-in-law living in the area. She was not a murderess but yet she is someone who tends to worry too much.
The best friend does not close the eyes of the prodigal man after he breathes his last. He doesn’t do it because he doesn’t want to bring the man back to life. He is remorseful toward the end of the story and after hearing the frightened babbling of the prodigal man. He is uneasy because he realizes that the prodigal man has become religious on his death bed. If it were not for my knowledge of the Bible a casual reader would have overlooked the fact that the entire short story is strewn with Biblical references. The best friend tries to nullify the foreboding of the prodigal man but fails. It’s his stony heart that does not let him feel any emotion on the death of his best friend, which is ‘his second death’ and from which this time he will not arise.
The story is enchanting, mysterious, and has a sacred edge to it that makes it a lovely story which seems like a mirage. The images of the caterpillar on the torn leaf are beautiful and very poignant as well as the fact of the whole story taking place at night when nature, apparently according to the best friend, was at its glory. It was a sad shame for anyone to die on such a fine day. ‘The Second Death’ was a pleasure to read and analyze.
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