In the short works, ‘The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following’ by Ramona Ausubel, ‘The Zombies’ by Donald Barthelme, ‘Bog Girl’ by Karen Russell, and ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ by William Butler Yeats, the authors delve into themes of death and the division of power. These pieces expose deep seated human tendencies which can be examined through a Marxism lens of theory and some Colonialism themes as well, as the two are often closely linked. While Marxism looks at the divide between those with urgency, and those without it, Colonialism often deeper explores the reasons behind why certain people have the resources to acquire said urgency over others. Simply put, this is an examination of the haves and have-nots in selected short works of literature in order to deeper view the works and human nature.
In ‘The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following’, Ausubel imagines the inner thoughts and feelings of mummified animals that were forcibly taken from their Egyptian pyramids. These include a sarcastic remark in which they thank “the British colonial government, without whom the animal mummies might still be at rest, deep in granite tombs, cool and silent” (Ausubel, 194). This mention of colonialism shows how the consequences of colonialism are made clear even among these animal mummies.
‘The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following’ effectively works as an annotated list, in which the mummified creatures at the museum offer thankfulness to the people who keep them tethered to the world. “If the cat mummies must be grateful for one thing,” Ausubel explains, “it is that they are forever-cats and not forever-rodents. The cat mummies can think of nothing so embarrassing as that — the great gift a vole gets is, finally, to die” (Ausubel, 196). Even in the afterlife, the hierarchies remain. The cats still hold power and superiority over the rodents, showing the social conflict and class relations that remain prevalent between the two species.
Ausubel describes some of the mummies as being so dead that they no longer possess bodies, dubbing them “nothing mummies”. These “nothing mummies are filled with prayers written on slips of papyrus, organs of faith. If the scientists came and cut them open, the nothing mummies wonder: Would the little piece of hieroglyphed papyrus rolling out be any less beautiful than the dried raisin of a heart? Aren’t they not only the container but the prayer itself?” (Ausubel, 199). The nothing mummies in this situation have no agency or control over their “lives”. They are alienated from other mummies that have identities and they are put on display to entertain the living.
In ‘The Zombies’, Barthelme makes great use of the list to get his point across. He makes substantial inventories with his list-making which is often seen as sloppy, or lazy, writing, but in Barthelme’s hands the list functions more like an elision; he makes staggering masses of nouns, evidence to the strength of juxtaposition. His lists feel noetic in the way that they bounce from idea to idea as he continues to dump more and more information onto the reader. In this piece, he uses a list to describe the many foods in a breakfast when “A zombie advances toward a group of thin blooming daughters and describes, with many motions of his hands and arms, the breakfasts they may expect in a zombie home” (Barthelme, 2).
The list that follows is the ideal vehicle for the situation. It’s an efficient tool for comedic purposes, but it also pulls back the curtain, letting the reader share in the wry humour that Barthelme likely felt as he wrote it. Humans eat so many things that the human experience has come to encompass “rice cakes” and “fried liver”, to say nothing of courtship rituals centered on ingestion. The zombies in this situation are doing whatever they can to impress the women, hoping desperately that their offers for breakfast are satisfactory enough to please the girls. This situation clearly depicts the the two parties of have and have-nots; the zombies are working hard to prove that the myths that accompany their social class are false, and that they eat more than just brains.
‘Bog Girl’ approaches the topic of power divide from a different approach. On a remote island in northern Europe, a 15-year-old turf cutter, Cillian, falls in love with a 2,000-year-old girl that he’s found in a peat bog. Believing himself to be the girl’s rescuer, Cillian brings her home and cares for her in what he considers to be a perfect romance until an unexpected gesture topples everything he thought he knew about her. The boy gave himself the power and agency in the relationship that he concocts, and he is happy until the bog girl tries to take some agency for herself. This story illustrates how the unknowable is present within everyone, as no one can ever fully know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
In ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’, the speaker, an Irish airman fighting in World War I, knows that he is doomed to die fighting among the clouds. He declares that he does not hate those that he fights against, nor love those that he fights to protect. His country is “Kiltartan’s Cross,” his countrymen “Kiltartan’s poor.” He says that no outcome in the war will make their lives worse or better than how they were before the war began. The Irish airman explains that his choice to fight was not influenced by any law or sense of duty, nor because of “public men” or “cheering crowds.” Rather, “a lonely impulse of delight” drove him to “this tumult in the clouds.” He says that he weighed his life in his mind and, in doing so, found that “The years to come seemed waste of breath,/A waste of breath the years behind.”
The Irish pilot is fighting for Britain in the First World War and he predicts that he will die in the war, but he feels no sense of patriotic duty towards Britain, the country that he fights for. He is fighting for Britain because, although he is Irish, Ireland was under British rule during the time of the war. The airman, therefore, identifies as an Irish patriot, rather than a British one. In doing so, he is effectively resisting against the dominant culture.
The author uses first person to portray the airman as he prepares to go into war in the sky. In the first quatrain, Yeats depicts the airman’s conflicted emotions that he harbours about his place fighting in the war. Even with these mixed feelings, however, he is sure that he will die in this adventure. Not only is death from enemy contact possible, but he also faces the chances of a mechanical error that multiplies the dangers that he faces in the air.
This ambiguity continues as the airman realizes the pointlessness of his participation in the war. He realizes that no matter the outcome of his own combat, it will not affect the overall war effort. The airman also acknowledges that the outcome of the war will not affect the lives of the Irish peasants that he identifies with.
In the last line of the final quatrain, the author leaves the first person when he says, “In balance with this life, this death.” Yeats’s shift to “this” life and “this” death as opposed to using “my” universalizes the airman’s experiences, going beyond the politics of World War I and highlighting the futility of all wars and any waste of human life. In the final line, Yeats shows how anyone can be in the same shoes as the Irish airman.
Throughout these short pieces of literature, a Marxist lens of theory can be applied to show the social conflicts and class relations that are present within them. A Colonial theme can also be seen in some of the texts as it can often be attributed to why a divide between social classes is present. The haves and have-nots of the world are represented in these stories as privileged people, who have agency, and have access to resources that those without agency or privilege lack. In Marxism, agency comes from wealth, education, and health; a focus on obtaining these resources is what leads to materialism. Marxism focuses on class divisions and how they lead to struggle, how certain jobs award levels of varying status, how those with agency can obtain what they need or want, and how people are placed in competition in a fight for resources.