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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Everyman is a novel about death. It is about the life leading up to one, specific death, and it is about the idea of death as something terrible that every person must experience. The novel opens with the funeral of the main character, before we are made aware that the man who has died is the main character at all. The novel is the story of a posthumous man, and therefore everything we learn of his life is cast in the shadow of his death. One of the first things we learn about the cemetery in which the everyman is being buried is from Nancy when she explains in her eulogy that the everyman’s grandfather helped found the cemetery and is buried there, and that the everyman’s parents are also buried in the same place. This establishes a chain of connection between ancestors and descendants, with the common links between them not shared characteristics or similarities in personality, but their place of burial and that they have died.
Even as a child, the everyman is acutely aware of death as both a concrete fact and a vague threat. He witnesses the body of a sailor washed up on the shore near his holiday home. The decayed body intrudes into the happy, carefree feeling of childhood summer. Later, before his hernia operation as a boy, the everyman sees the boy next to him and determines from the other boy’s parents’ reactions that the boy is destined to die. As an older adult, the everyman experiences the deaths of those around him, from his parents, to colleagues, to fellow residents at his retirement village. After yet another surgery, the everyman believes that evading death has become the primary work of his life and his slow descent towards infirmity his central truth. In a dramatic irony, we as readers already know that he has not been successful in his attempts to evade death, though we also know that the everyman is also aware when he comes to realize that “old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” In other words, there is no way to win against the inevitable victory of death.
The everyman’s motto in life is “hold your ground and take it as it comes,” a belief delivered to us by a grieving Nancy. We find the source of this stoic idea in the everyman’s father, who, encouraging the everyman as a child before his hernia operation, tells him that this operation is another kind of job that the boy must do. Throughout his many surgeries, the everyman faces his fear and his intense discomfort by telling himself to endure. Particularly awful and inescapable is his first carotid artery surgery, which he undergoes under local anesthetic, aware the whole time of all the sounds of the instruments cutting into his body. Stoicism, rather than tears or loud complaints, is his response. He tells her there is no way to fight, and that she should just accept pain and difficulty with quiet non-resistance. When his daughter Nancy is frightened by the sight of the everyman’s newly-inserted defibrillator bulging under his skin, the everyman explains to her that there is no need to be afraid, because the defibrillator is serving a useful purpose. He tells her precisely the same words that Nancy will echo to the others at his funeral.
Stoicism for the everyman is not a denial of suffering or a way to reshape suffering as a form of purification for the soul, but a simple method for proceeding through life without giving in to despair. The ultimate goal for the everyman is to endure, to be alive as long as possible. In response to the suicide of his friend Millicent Kramer, the everyman ponders, without moral judgement, the use of suicide as a relief from suffering, but ultimately rejects it, because life, and living, despite the suffering it involves, is better than the oblivion he anticipates awaiting him after death.
There are two types of lust in Everyman: sexual lust and a more metaphoric lust for life. Maureen, the private nurse who looks after the everyman after one of his surgeries, is the point at which both of these notions overlap. She and the everyman have an affair. This is, we learn, not the first time Maureen has slept with her patients. Far from presented as a breach of medical ethics, these relationships are a form of transaction, of bringing vitality to the ill via bodily contact. Maureen’s patients make full recoveries because of her gift of hopefulness. In middle age, the everyman is overcome with lust for the women around him, and his lust becomes a destabilizing factor and thematically linked, in the narrative, to physical decline, suffering, and death. He throws himself into affairs with first his secretary and then Merete, who will become his third wife.
With Merete, the everyman’s mistress and later third wife, his obsession with her “hole” becomes a substitute for the stability of his wife and family. It is a dangerous obsessiveness that ignores his age and situation in life, but at the same time he is energized by giving in to his lust for her, travelling to Paris and spending money recklessly. Their blissful holiday is disrupted by the illness and then death of the everyman’s mother and the anguish of his second wife Phoebe, who has discovered the affair. The everyman’s last attempt to make a sexual conquest is with the beautiful boardwalk jogger he lusts over as a visually-stimulating sex object. This also energizes him and similarly ends as did his relationship with Merete, in futility. After this failure the narrative turns to a string of illnesses, from Phoebe’s stroke, to the death and illnesses of colleagues, which in turn lead to a kind of malaise and morbidity in the everyman himself. When lust is absent from his life, the everyman is overtaken by the weakening power of old age, and vitality and enthusiasm for living slowly ebb away.