Literary and Critical Theory Grief and Comparative Literature
Bootheina Majoul
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0133


Grief is defined as “very great sadness, especially at the death of someone” (Cambridge Dictionary). Studying grief entails digging into the very meaning of bereavement, its impact on human behavior and on relationships and interactions, and excavating its unbearable nature. Rodgers and Cowles’s article “The Concept of Grief: An Analysis of Classical and Contemporary Thought” (cited under General Overviews) is an attempt to understand the very meaning of grief as a concept. Grief indeed is a widely explored topic in literature as it pertains to death studies and is affiliated with literature of loss, literary grief, and literature and emotions. In Death Representations in Literature (under Death Studies), Adriana Teodorescu examines the way death is dealt with in literature. She digs into death studies as a field to highlight how literature portrays human conditions and allows us to be aware of our humanity, highlighting the challenging role of literature as means of survival. Grief across literature(s) and culture(s) is examined through Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning (under Comparative Literature: On Mourning and Grief (Grief across Literature[s] and Culture[s])) by Nouri Gana, who analyzes the significance of loss and its impact on human life and psyche, by referring to selected works by James Joyce, Jamaica Kincaid, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Elias Khoury, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Derrida. Other publications advocating a comparative approach to understanding grief are Jennifer Rushworth’s Discourses of Mourning in Dante, Petrarch, and Proust and the anthology The Routledge Companion to Death and Literature edited by Wang, Jernigan, and Murphy (both cited under Comparative Literature: On Mourning and Grief (Grief across Literature[s] and Culture[s])). This research will have a particular focus on grief and comparative literature; it will provide an overview on bereavement as a field of study, theorizing it as a concept, examining its manifestations and rituals in different cultures and writings, and citing different narratives dealing with grief across literatures and cultures, such as the works of Atiq Rahimi, Elif Shafak, Nureddin Farah, Ahlam Mosteghanemi, Young Keving, and Taher Ben Jelloun. It will also shed light on how literature and writing could be a way of coping with sorrow and grief. A compilation of works published by specialists in the field is shared at the end of the article, such as Fulton’s Death, Grief, and Bereavement: A Bibliography, 1845–1975 and Szabo’s Death and Dying: An Annotated Bibliography of the Thanatological Literature (both under Bibliographies).

General Overviews

Grief in comparative literature could be tackled from different perspectives. To begin with, examining the very meaning and nature of grief occurs in Adams 2003 and Gustafson 1989. Bonanno and Kaltman 2001, meanwhile, explores it as more than a feeling but rather as a sensed and lived experience. Gilbert 2002 looks at recorded narratives of grief, while the different cultural manifestations of grief are examined in Catlin 1993 and Castle and Phillips 2003. Before investigating grief literature across cultures, it is crucial to attempt to have an idea about its scientific interpretations and medical/clinical representations as well. Indeed, it is first physically and psychologically ingurgitated and diagnosed, then linguistically regurgitated and expressed.

  • Adams, Christine A., ed. ABC’S of Grief: A Handbook for Survivors. New York: Baywood, 2003.

    The author emanates from her own grief experience to inspire readers and provide them with the coping mechanisms she developed throughout her journey.

  • Bonanno, G. A., and S. Kaltman. “The Varieties of Grief Experience.” Clinical Psychology Review 21 (2001): 705–734.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0272-7358(00)00062-3

    A scientific article that focuses on grief reactions and provides a grounded study of the field.

  • Castle, Jason, and William L. Phillips. “Grief Rituals: Aspects that Facilitate Adjustment to Bereavement.” Journal of Loss and Trauma 8 (2003): 41–71.

    DOI: 10.1080/15325020305876

    The article highlights the important role of grief rituals in alleviating its traumatic impact.

  • Catlin, G. “The Role of Culture in Grief.” Journal of Social Psychology 133 (1993): 173–184.

    DOI: 10.1080/00224545.1993.9712135

    The article consists of a case study of university students from the United States and Spain who responded to a questionnaire on their response to the death of loved ones. The main focus is on grief and culture.

  • Gilbert, Kathleen R. “Taking a Narrative Approach to Grief Research: Finding Meaning in Stories.” Death Studies 26 (2002): 223–239.

    DOI: 10.1080/07481180211274

    This article advocates a narrative approach to grief and attempts to show how stories give meaning to such deep feelings as sorrow and bereavement.

  • Gustafson, Donald. “Grief.” Noûs 23.4 (1989): 457–479.

    DOI: 10.2307/2215878

    This article attempts to define grief and understand its manifestations and philosophical implications.

  • Klass, Dennis. “Developing a Cross-Cultural Model of Grief: The State of the Field.” OMEGA: Journal of Death and Dying 39 (1999): 153–178.

    DOI: 10.2190/BDTX-CYE0-HL3U-NQQW

    The article provides a cross-cultural and multidisciplinary approach to grief. It examines its psychological, sociological, and cultural aspects.

  • Rodgers, Beth L., and Kathleen V. Cowles. “The Concept of Grief: An Analysis of Classical and Contemporary Thought.” Death Studies 15 (1991): 443–458.

    DOI: 10.1080/07481189108252771

    The article is an attempt to understand the very meaning of grief as a concept.

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