Mortality Salience On Reading The Year Of Wonders

A new genre of fiction can be constructed by analysing narratives in a pragmatic level. A literary work can be labelled as “Finitude Narrative” if it is found having two basic requisites. The first of these conditions would be that the syntagm of the narrative should be a collection of signs (words) that stem to convey the thought of death. The syntagm is of primary importance to deliver a particular impression upon the reader. The “Finitude Syntagm” is fundamental, yet, the syntagm can be given a proper context only when it is accompanied by an “Unbiased Machinery of Death” which would be the required second condition. The various of machines of death include war, plague and all terminal causes of death. Thus, the research paper would attempt to establish a working genre with these set of conditions. The novels of Geraldine Brooks take precedence in this hypothesis. Her novel Year of Wonders seems to be found with all the above-mentioned conditions to be crowned as a “Finitude Narrative”. The primary objective of the hypothesis, on being proved, will be to catalogue the psychological response of the reader on coming across such narratives.

The psychological effects of reading a genre of narrative that tries to use its structure to reverberate the thought of death calls for elaborate study. These works can be called “Finitude Narratives” and this genre can be defined by two unique conditions. These conditions are established in order to form a hypothesis to prove that narratives which do contain the said conditions could in fact create Mortality Salience. Creating a classification of this genre can help in developing a didactic literature. This new genre of writing, hypothetically speaking, has the capacity to stimulate the reader in strengthening his world views. Death in general is seen as something that is a horrible negation in the whole scheme of things. Many fail to understand that death is a valid and an all- encompassing finitude. This proposed hypothesis tends to construct a genre of narrative that stimulates the thought of death on the part of the reader. This reminder of death is termed as “Mortality Salience”.

A genre is defined by the language and vocabulary that is employed in the narrative. Words are powerful tools to inflict meaning. The first condition that needs to be fulfilled for the proposed hypothesis to work is that the narrative should be built with the “Finitude Syntagm”. A syntagm is a collection of signs that is constructed based on a pattern. Daniel Chandler tells that a syntagm is “. . . an orderly combination of interacting signifiers which forms a meaningful whole within a text . . . “. The “Finitude Syntagm” is a collection of words that tend to remind the reader constantly and consistently the thought of death. The syntagmatic structure of the narrative is crucial in supplying the reader with an overall effect or impression. The narrative strives for an effect and to achieve this feat the narrative uses a certain palette of words much preferred than others. This may be the syntagm. Pragmatic analysis confers the importance of analyzing the role of the syntagm in expressing the overall effect of the narrative. The syntagm is taken from the novel Year of Wonders, a historical novel written by the Australian writer Geraldine Brooks. The “Finitude Syntagm” taken from the novel would remind the reader about the concept of death.

The syntagm of the narrative Year of Wonders is as follows: “death”(Brooks, 9), “soul”(9), “pulsing flesh” (42), “Illness” (42), “died” (44), “sickroom” (45), “death” (68), “ill” (81), “suffering” (95), “sickening” (97), “plague”(101), “body” (140), “died” (159), “agony”(189), “Plague” (212), “disease” (215), “body” (Brooks, 263). The above mentioned syntagm is merely a sample and does not represent the entire syntagm of the book. As one could see, it is a chain of words that stretch throughout the novel, always reinstating the stress on mortality.

The second condition is very much important for giving the “Finitude Syntagm” both context and meaning. The context to the syntagm is provided by the “unbiased machinery of death”. Death can be found in almost every plot of a literary work. Yet, unbiased machines of death like war, disease, plague or any other calamity that should terminate humanity on a major scale are more effective. Freud says that human beings in general do not accept death. They know it exists and they have witnessed them. But death of the self is something that is unconsciously denied. Death when applied in this unbiased way could really make it much probable. Freud says that, “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no longer one by one, many, often tens of thousands, in a single day.” When it comes to war (unbiased machinery of death) death is no longer seen as a chance event but a realistic inevitability.

The conditions could be very much be instrumented as the parameters to test and categorize all narratives. A genre is defined by the language it employs. Pragmatic analysis indulges in the careful scrutinizing of the words employed in a narrative. These collaborations formed by the different parts of the narrative effuse meaning and effect. Thus, it is settled that if a narrative is found with a “Finitude Syntagm” accompanied by an “unbiased machinery of death” can be termed as “Finitude Narrative”.

Year of Wonders is the first novel written by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks has placed this novel on a historical time setting that dates to the seventeenth century. The novel is plotted with the great plague of 1666. Brooks has carefully illustrated the dark times of the period based on intense survey and research. It is written in the perspective of the protagonist Anna Finch. Brooks uses the voice of Anna Finch to elucidate the different episodes in which the villagers go through death. The plague brings out the worst in people. Elinor Mompellion seems to be the mother figure that Anna looks for to purge herself of the vacuum created by the loss of her own mother. Anna has since spent her entire life under the harsh circumstances provided by her own father and her stepmother Aphra.

At first the story took on a strong catholic route to salvation and survival. But those who were keen in making such religious virtues as tools to peace, seem to give up on it entirely in the end. This loss of faith is caused by various tragedies that befall these characters throughout. The plague kills a member from each family and the novelist has described in brief, the various ways in which the people cope with it. Anna was married at a very young age and she was gifted with two sons. Sam, Anna’s husband, was a miner who was very much loving towards Anna. He died in a mining accident after which she becomes a single mother. On the outset of the plague she eventually loses both her children Tom and Jamie.

Soon Anna’s father Josiah Bont became so greedy enough to dig graves and bury the living. He was punished accordingly and was tied to a pole to be let prey for the animals of the night. This incident marks the psychotic overtone that reaches its peak in the character of Aphra. She loses all her children but for her daughter. The plague finally ends and in the midst of a happy gathering Aphra slices the throat of Elinor in rage. This is the turning point of the story. Michael could not get over his grief that filled his being after his wife’s death. The only person who stuck around him was Anna. It was unexpected to find Anna and Michael giving vent to their lusty passions after such a tragedy.

Anna decides to raise the baby herself and she is helped by Michael to go to Liverpool to the estate of Elinor’s father. Anna decides to take a different route and she lands in a gulf country filled with Arabs. Anna gets herself married to Ahmed Bey, a practitioner of herbal medicine known far and wide. She gets to become one of his many wives, but they only seem to have a relationship that is of a student and master. At the end of the novel Anna seems to have found meaning in her life with the ability she has to save the lives of people. Brooks ends the novel with the description that Anna will continue her life with Aisha (the bastard child of Mrs. Bradford) and Elinor (born to Michael Mompellion).

The psychological impact of reading such narratives are to be documented in order to deem this genre didactic. Death is mostly seen as something more pessimistic rather than anything that could be moralizing. It is a topic that is often avoided as to save people from discord and fear. But understanding and realizing the concept of death is beneficial to have a better understanding on life. In Terror Management Theory, a product of social and evolutionary psychology was developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. “… all human behavior is motivated by the fear of one’s own demise, giving rise to a state of anxiety that arises when we confront the awareness of our own mortality (MS: Mortality Salience) with the desire to survive.” Mortality Salience is aroused in the reader when he or she is reminded of death. “In supporting terror management theory, mortality salience research demonstrates that unconscious concerns about one’s own death motivate a wide range of judgments and behaviors to bolster the individual’s faith in his or her worldview and self-worth.” Having acquired Mortality Salience, people could immerse themselves in stronger self-worth due to a heightened sense of self-esteem. Thus, it could be a possible inducer to change one’s worldview as well as way of life.

The ultimate question this hypothesis is prone to answer is whether the “Finitude Syntagm” present in the narrative could possibly influence Mortality Salience on the part of the reader. If it should, then this hypothesis should help to generate a newly working genre. The genre of “Finitude Narrative” is not entirely new. There are works that belong to other genres that focus on the implications of death like the “Quest Narrative”, “Tragedy”, “War Poetry” etc. The narratives that exclusively deal with death can cause Mortality Salience in the reader.

Works Cited

  • Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, 2003, pp. 80- 84.
  • Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. Harper Perennial, 2008, pp. 3-308.
  • Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Hogarth Press, 1957, pp. 290-291
  • Greenberg, Jeff. “Mortality Salience”. Psychology,
  • Gordillo, Mestas, et al. “The Effect of Mortality Salience and Type of Life on Personality Evaluation.” NCBI, 5 Jan. 2020,
16 August 2021
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