Summary: Epigraph

The novel is introduced with an epigraph from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. This poem explores the impermanence of life and the value of artistic beauty, like the artistic beauty found in the song of a nightingale. The particular section used in the epigraph comes from lines 24-27 of the poem, where Keats focuses in on the effects of old age and the “death” of youthfulness.

Summary: Section 1

The story begins with an omniscient narrator describing in detail the scene of a funeral for the unnamed protagonist (the everyman). The everyman’s grave is surrounded by mourners. Present at the grave are a few of his former colleagues, his daughter Nancy, some elderly people who live at the retirement village where the everyman had been living, his two sons Randy and Lonny, his older brother Howie, and Howie’s wife. The second of his ex-wives, Nancy’s mother Phoebe, is also present. Phoebe has had a stroke and her right arm hangs down limply at her side. Nancy asks Phoebe if she wants to say anything at the funeral. Phoebe refuses, and says that she is finding it hard to believe that the everyman is gone. Maureen, the everyman’s former private nurse, who was not invited, has also come to mourn his passing.

Nancy gives a long address to the mourners. She provides context for the everyman’s connection to the cemetery, telling them that the everyman’s grandmother and grandfather are buried there, and that the everyman’s grandfather was one of the cemetery’s founders in 1888. Nancy describes how her great-grandfather owned and ran a boarding house in Elizabeth, New Jersey and how he served as first cemetery chairman. She draws attention to the neglected state of the cemetery as it is in modern day. It has been vandalized, many of the graves have fallen over, and it is hemmed in by both the airport and the New Jersey Turnpike. Despite this, Nancy has chosen to bury the everyman in this graveyard because she wants him to be buried close to his loved ones and relatives. She drops a clod of earth on the coffin, says a few sad words to his coffin and begins to cry.

The everyman’s brother Howie is next to drop earth on the coffin. Howie is 77 years old, in good health and has been all his life. He whispers to his wife that it doesn’t make sense that his younger brother has died before him. To the mourners, Howie describes the everyman’s last years, when the everyman was in poor health and was lonely. Howie describes how they used to speak on the phone until near the end of the everyman’s life, when he cut out Howie for reasons that Howie doesn’t understand. Howie then reflects back on the everyman’s character and work life. The everyman had loved painting from high school onwards. When he retired from his advertising job, where he had been successful first as an art director then creative director, he painted every day. Howie says that the everyman should have lived longer. This, he says, is something almost everybody who has buried a loved one in the cemetery has said about them.

Howie recalls the details of the everyman’s childhood growing up and helping out in their father’s jewelry and watch repair shop. He says that watching the artisans at work as well as looking at the facets of diamonds through their father’s jewelry loupe (a small magnifying glass) gave the everyman the inspiration to become an artist, while for Howie, the diamonds simply made him want to make money. The everyman got on well with the nice, pretty sales assistants his father hired for the shop, and he was good at the tasks he was set. Their father sold wedding rings mostly to local working class immigrant families, and was popular with his customers for his generous pricing and credit. Customers sometimes invited him and his family to their weddings. Howie says that although times were hard, from the Depression to World War II, life was made lively by the weddings, salesgirls, trips to Newark carrying valuable diamonds to the diamond workers, and the ritual of putting away the jewelry trays at night.

When their father died, Howie says, the everyman chose to take their father’s watch, which he then wore all the time except for swimming. The everyman took it off 48 hours before the funeral, in order to keep it safe while he underwent the surgery that killed him. Howie says that Nancy is now wearing the watch. After Howie is finished speaking, Randy and Lonny come forward. Lonny shakes at the grave’s edge, overcome with conflicting emotion. Randy, the older brother, rescues him by taking the clod of earth from Lonny’s hand and throwing it down to the coffin. Randy gives a kindly sounding address to the everyman, but there is no emotion in his voice. Maureen is the last to approach the coffin. She drops the clod of earth in a suggestive way, which, the narrator says, indicates she might have given the everyman a lot of thought.

From this point on the funeral is concluded and the mourners walk away. Being left behind, the narrator says, is humanity’s least favorite thing. While some of the mourners are very upset, others are relieved, or even pleased.


An epigraph establishes the tone for the story which is to follow. In this case, it provides a melancholy, morbid entry into a novel which tackles themes of illness, aging, isolation, and death. Keats’ poem “Ode to a Nightingale” explores the idea of the transitory nature of all life. In particular this section of the poem explores how the sweet song of this bird can help the author to forget what the bird itself does not know, which is the suffering that humans, in their self-awareness, experience in growing old and infirm. Even with this epigraph setting the mood, the opening of the novel with the funeral of its protagonist is startling. The reader might expect that this is an opening that will be undercut by the reanimation of the everyman’s life in its retelling, and to a certain extent this is true. Throughout the novel, we are given insight into the life of the everyman, his feelings, foibles and failings. However, this chapter provides the first glimpse of the everyman. The reader will therefore view the everyman, knowing he is dead, through the lens of eulogy.

The everyman is dead, and everything that is told about him by his loved ones is posthumous. Every detail that is recounted about the everyman’s life has already happened and cannot happen again in a different way. This gives the section, and the novel as a whole, an air of inevitability. The narration throughout the novel is for the most part told in past tense, and third person limited, meaning that we only have access to the everyman’s inner thoughts and feelings. The past tense adds to the sense that this is a story being told of a person’s life that has already concluded. Another factor which lends weight to the feeling of melancholy inevitability is the fact that the protagonist, the everyman, goes unnamed throughout this section. We might expect a dead man’s name would be spoken at his funeral, if for no other reason than to distinguish that burial from others happening on the same day, but this does not happen. In fact, the narrator tells us that this particular funeral varied from these others only through Lonny’s awkward hesitation and Howie’s very precise, nostalgic account of the everyman’s childhood. The narrator says that the commonness of death is what makes it most overwhelmingly poignant.

Everything we learn about the everyman in this opening section places him within the scope of ordinary humanity. His funeral is modest in size and location, in the run-down Jewish cemetery his family helped found. The mourners present are mostly family and work colleagues, all of them subdued and respectful, and none obviously shocked or devastated by the everyman’s passing. Nancy, the everyman’s daughter, provides an image of duty and submission to the inevitable as she talks about the family connection to the graveyard and drops a clod of earth on her father’s grave. Nancy is not without emotion, as she appears bewildered and childlike, though ultimately stoic. The everyman, in his attitude towards life, has prepared her for the unstoppable force of reality. Meanwhile Howie is able to use his memories as a cushion for his grief. The narrator establishes Howie as someone who is exceptional in many ways. Howie has lived a life of perfect good health, is an excellent sportsman, a natural leader, and full of kindness. But Howie is not the protagonist of the novel, his unnamed, deceased brother, the everyman, is.

It is through Howie’s recollection that we begin to understand the character of the everyman and the driving forces of the everyman’s life. We learn through Howie’s eulogy that the everyman loved the responsibility of transporting his father’s diamonds on the bus to Newark. We learn that he was fascinated by the old, irreparable watches his father kept in a drawer for parts. He loved the rituals of shop work and the beauty of the things he saw, from diamonds to watch parts and the beautiful sales girls hired in part because their beauty made them ideal to model jewelry for customers. We can link this awareness of beauty to the everyman’s later successful career as an advertising agent. Early on, the everyman learned about the dazzling surface of beauty as well as the beauty in small, dutiful and detail-oriented work like pulling down shop blinds and sorting through envelopes.

As we have seen, the small awkward details of the funeral are what set it apart from other funerals. The everyman’s two sons, Randy and Lonny, appear to have had a difficult relationship with their father. When they stand at the grave, they appear to struggle between dutifulness and feeling inauthentic in the complexity of their feelings. However, their resistance to the ritual of burial is brief and resolved without much incident, allowing the funeral to proceed smoothly. Maureen provides another moment of oddness when she lets the earth slip suggestively, almost sexually, from her fingers onto the coffin. However, we do not see the responses of the other mourners to this behavior. It appears that the gesture was private, only for Maureen’s benefit. This sets up Maureen as a sexual agent in relation to the everyman, separate from the others who knew him. The funeral comes to an end, and the life of the everyman has been formally marked by those who knew him. Yet it appears we still have a lot to learn about the details of his particular, unremarkable life.