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Upon arriving at Jack’s house, twelve-year-old Bee makes
the entire family feel self-conscious. Bee is elegant, worldly,
and self-possessed, and Jack says that he admires her but also feels
threatened by her. On Christmas day, Jack and Bee have a conversation
about Bee’s mother, Tweedy. Bee tells Jack that Tweedy looks anxious
all the time and that she believes Tweedy’s agitation stems from
the persistent absences of her husband, Malcolm. Bee says Tweedy’s
real problem is that Tweedy doesn’t know who she is. As Bee talks,
comparing Tweedy to Babette, Jack gets the disturbing sensation
that Bee is attempting to communicate with him in some different,
mysterious way and that she’s trying to pry secret information from
The next morning, Jack takes Bee to the airport. As they
drive, quietly listening to the radio, Jack notices that his daughter
is watching him carefully, with a compassionate yet condescending
expression on her face.
On his way back to the airport, Jack stops at a graveyard, marked
with a sign that reads “The Old Burying Ground.” The burying ground
is beyond the noise of the traffic, and Jack stands there for a
moment, waiting to feel “the peace that is supposed to descend upon
the dead.” Jack says that the dead have a kind of presence; an accumulated
energy that the living can detect.
Mr. Treadwell’s sister, Gladys, dies from what the doctors
call “a lingering dread,” resulting from the four days she and her
brother were lost at the mall. Jack says that whenever he reads
obituaries he automatically compares the age of the deceased to
his own age. He speculates how great men of history like Attila
the Hun must have felt about the prospect of death. Jack wants to
believe that Atilla the Hun met death without fear, accepting it
as a natural part of human existence.
Over breakfast, Babette comments to Jack that their life
is good. When Jack asks what brought on that observation, Babette
says that she felt it needed to be said, before telling Jack that
she has bad dreams. They once again discuss the question “Who will
die first?” Babette is adamant that she wants to die before Jack
but believes that as long as there are children in the house, nothing
serious can happen. Jack counters her, saying that he wants to die
first, because without her he would feel incomplete. They continue
to debate, back and forth, into the night.
Later, Babette leaves to teach her posture class. Murray
comes over to talk to the children, because he believes that children
are open to special forms of consciousness. Jack goes to make Murray
a cup of coffee, and Heinrich chastises him for not doing it efficiently, thereby
expending huge amounts of unnecessary motion. Jack admits to us
that he does not actually want to die first—though he doesn’t want
to be alone after Babette’s death either. Jack doesn’t know who
to plead his case to, because he doesn’t know “who decides these
Later, while watching television, Babette’s face comes
onto the screen. Everyone is frightened and confused for a moment,
until they realize that a local cable station must be televising
Babette’s class. The program doesn’t seem to be producing any sound,
but the family watches Babette’s image, awestruck, anyway. Jack
says that they’re being penetrated and irradiated by Babette’s image.
When the image of his mother vanishes, Wilder begins to cry softly,
while the rest of the children eagerly run downstairs to greet Babette.
The scene at the Old Burying Ground represents perhaps
the first moment in which Jack doesn’t find himself bombarded by
white noise of any kind. The small graveyard lies beyond the technological sounds
of traffic or factories, and the solitude frees Jack from human
babble as well. Here, Jack enters a meditative state, and a moment
of eerie stillness settles over the novel. For a man who claims
to suffer from an irrational, gripping fear of death, Jack spends
a lot of time surrounding himself with the object of his fear. He
specializes in the study of Hitler, one of the most murderous despots
in modern history, and he names his son—evocatively, if not intentionally—after
Heinrich Himmler, a cold-blooded Nazi leader. Jack feels soothed
by the presence of Hitler, just as he now seems to find tranquility
in the graveyard. Jack often speaks of hiding within Hitler, allowing
the tyrant’s huge aura to render Jack’s own anxieties small, insignificant,
and manageable. His meditative moment at the Old Burying Ground
might spring from a similar impulse: perhaps Jack wants to hide
among the dead, so as to avoid facing the painful prospect of his
own solitary, terrifying death.
Jack’s interlude in the graveyard ends with Jack entreating, “May
the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action
according to a plan.” In making this plea, Jack seeks to be released
from the structures of plot. In the literary sense, plot could very
aptly be defined as “the plan according to which the action is advanced.”
Plots are what lend stories their momentum; a good plot implies
that a novel will advance meaningfully, and a well-constructed plot
ensures a satisfying conclusion. However, when it comes to human
lives,only one conclusion is ever truly possible: death. The more
momentum Jack’s life gains—the more heavily “plotted” the action
of his life seems—the faster he speeds toward his greatest fear.
But if he can arrest his life, slowing it down and sending it on
a purposeless ramble, he might be able to avoid having to ever reach
a conclusion. Aimlessness becomes a defense against death.
Jack’s exhortation recalls the opening lines of Chapter
5, when, “fearing some kind of deft acceleration,” he tells himself,
“Let’s enjoy these aimless days while we can.” Soon after these
lines appear in Chapter 5, Jack jerks awake with a sudden muscle
contraction, which he initially confuses for a death spasm. Here,
as in the scene at the burial plot, the plea for aimlessness feels
like a mantra or a prayer, a feeble attempt to push back the terror.
However, in each case, the plea goes unanswered. In the earlier
chapter, Jack jerks awake and finds his mind racing, as he wonders
if death will be just as abrupt as a muscle contraction. Jack’s
questions are answered only by the blankly ominous sound of blue
jeans, tumbling in the dryer. At the Old Burying Ground, Jack’s
supplication similarly gets no answer, since the chapter ends just
after Jack speaks those lines. The very next chapter, however, opens
with a recitation of obituaries, suggesting that though death may
be delayed, it cannot be denied forever.