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Death Be Not Proud

John Gunther

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


When Johnny was six, he stated that God was "what's good in me," and his drive to do good stays with him through his short life. What makes this inherent goodness more exceptional is his abundance of other supreme qualities. He is exceptionally intelligent, devoting himself to the sciences with both his mind and heart; his wit is pointed yet gentle; and he is mature beyond his years. He combines the best of childhood and adulthood—a child's endless curiosity about the world and an adult's maturity in understanding what to do with that curiosity. But two other qualities shine through in Johnny, and they often connect: his selflessness and his courage.

Johnny is certainly selfless in the conventional way, as a considerate, polite young man. But it extends to his attitude toward pain. He never lets anyone else pity him, not out of pride, but to spare their feelings; when he first discovers he has a tumor, he wonders how to break the news to his parents. There are only a few instances in the memoir when he reveals a deeper hurt, and even these are likely tamed versions of what he is really feeling. Gunther believes that Johnny leaves his diary out on occasion so that he, indirectly, can communicate to him and Frances about matters he'd rather not discuss, but his entries, too, never descend into self-pity.

It is unclear at times whether Johnny's stoicism is the result of his selfless attitude or of his everlasting courage. While his parents continually hold out hope that a miracle cure will be discovered, Johnny rarely puts stock into the next big therapy; a part of him seems to know throughout his illness that he will die soon, which is why he twice says, "But I have so much to do, and so little time!" Courage is not attained by ignoring death—although Johnny does seem to do this from time to time, as when he turns away from poetry on death while reading with his father—but by accepting it with dignity, and this is the way to defeat, not defy, death. His resistance is to go on living and doing as much good in the world as long as possible, not to overlook his fate. Of all his qualities, his courage and selflessness inspire others most, and Death Be Not Proud can be read not only as a story of how to defeat death, but how to live a life.


Gunther renders every step of Johnny's march toward death with heartbreaking detail, but he rarely reveals his own feelings, only abstractly disclosing that they were horrific. Still, it is impossible to leave Death Be Not Proud without the feeling that Gunther is a father who loves his son dearly. At times, the two seem more like peers than parent and child; Johnny seems to be Gunther's best journalistic editor, often forcing him to revise his work with penetrating questions.

But this friendship sometimes comes at the expense of filial intimacy. Gunther cannot talk as easily with Johnny about death as Frances can and, while he is not envious of their closeness, he does seem to regret not having been able to provide a stable marriage (he and Frances are divorced) for Johnny, which may explain his slight disconnection with his son. Nevertheless, he empathizes deeply with Johnny, feeling the pain of his surgeries and making us feel it, too, with lucid, generally unsentimental prose. The entire experience makes Gunther a more philosophical writer than his journalism background may have permitted. He wonders at the tragic irony that a tumor should inflict itself upon Johnny's most refined body part and understands that this cannot be explained, nor can death's many other mysteries.


Frances is a beloved fixture for Johnny; she, more than anyone, grounds him and remains a source of constant love. Gunther believes Johnny inherited his intelligence and maturity from her, and their many bedside talks only solidify these traits. Johnny discusses death only with his mother, and while Gunther does not transcribe these conversations, one gets the impression that Johnny gains much of his courageous attitude toward death through them. Likewise, her boundless energy in exposing him to culture—plays and literature especially—makes him a more complete person.

As the more intimate parent, Frances also has the responsibility of guiding Johnny through an interrupted adolescence; Johnny is growing up within hospital walls. When he is worried about the possibility of dancing at his senior prom (an event he does not later attend), Frances practices with him. When he wants greater independence, Frances and Gunther must decide whether to let him walk around on his own, with the looming threat of a life-ending injury, or more safely restrict him. They do let him have as much freedom as he can handle, and her note at the end of Death Be Not Proud seems to justify this. She poignantly reminds us that what was precious about Johnny was not his death, but his life, and that what she hopes will pass on to others is Johnny's love of life through both sickness and health—a love she helped cultivate.

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