I’m reading the collection titled The Best American Short Strories of the Century and sharing my thoughts about the stories it contains.
There are short stories that you enjoy because they are great works of art. Or at least passable ones. But there are also stories that communicate valuable information, and Mary Lerner’s “Little Selves” (1916) belongs to that category. It tells us about the death of Margaret O’Brien, a 75-year-old spinster, who realizes that her end is near and embarks on a journey towards death.
Margaret lived her life in a world in which everybody existed until a little over 100 years ago. It is a world where there is no firm boundary between the magical and the real. God is everywhere, spirits are everywhere, leprechauns and fairies are all over the place. People were the closest to the world of the spirits in childhood and then returned to it at death’s door. Death meant something completely different. It wasn’t an unrelieved horror but more of a return to a state of complete enchantment. This kind of a relatiosnhip with death is impossible today, and that’s really sad. Outside of the rapidly shrinking religious circles, we no longer have any narrative whatsoever about the meaning of death. We don’t deal with it at all and pretend it is not there. People who are terminally ill or were recently touched by a relative’s death are avoided. We assign moral value to sickness and death, trying to dupe ourselves into thinking that if we are good enough death won’t come for us.
In the end, we are a lot less happy than Margaret O’Brien whose now outdated and despised worldview gives her a much more dignified and even enjoyable way to die.