In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Death

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Edited Collections
  • Primary Works
  • Death Personified
  • Elegy
  • The Undead

Victorian Literature Death
Claire Wood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0142


Death was a familiar part of life in the Victorian age. Infant mortality remained high throughout the 19th century and it was only in the late Victorian period that public health reforms and medical advances caused life expectancy to rise, gradually establishing the now common pattern of death in old age. This intimacy with death had a profound effect on the cultural imagination; death was a subject treated extensively and variously by writers across different genres, from elegy to condolence literature, novels, popular fiction, and journalism. Since the 1980s there has been increasing interest in the literary study of death. Early deconstructionist readings grappled with the fact that the experience of dying is fundamentally unknowable and explored the specialist rhetoric that emerged as a result. Death and representation continued to animate critical conversation in the 1990s, enriched by psychoanalytic and feminist perspectives, the latter bringing a new sensitivity to gendered experiences and drawing attention to the politics surrounding the female corpse. Literary-historical approaches, which read texts alongside the historical conditions that produced them, have deepened understanding of Victorian death culture. Frequently drawing on this methodology, the material turn in criticism continues to stimulate interest in objects associated with death, both as commodities and “things,” with a growing emphasis on relic culture. Debates about sentimentality and affect have also provided useful lenses through which to reappraise mourning and consolation literature, while medical humanities has invigorated interdisciplinary study of the corpse. As the field of literary death studies continues to expand, there has been increasing attention to nonelite experiences and genres, and cultural phenomena such as spiritualism, contributing to an ever richer and more nuanced picture of Victorian death and mourning. This article navigates the field by focusing predominantly on secondary critical material, organized in thematic sections that trace mortality and its aftermath from the deathbed scene, through to burial, commemoration, mourning, and persistence in undead forms.

General Overviews

The first two headings in this section provide a guide to the most influential historical, sociological, and philosophical accounts of death, dying, funerals, and mourning in Western culture, both period specific (19th-Century Historical) and across a broader sweep of time (Broader Historical). As essential reference points for scholarship in this field, these texts are recommended for scholars at all levels. The Literary subsection offers a short selection of introductory texts intended to acquaint undergraduate students and those new to the field with some of the major themes and preoccupations in the literary study of death.

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