10 Secularized Resurrection Stories
Religion has always addressed the question of life after death. Thus, old mythology is full of protagonists that undergo resurrection such as Orpheus´ Euridike. And probably the most famous figure that finds his way back to life is to be found in the Bible.
However, one does not need the help of God to come back to life after death. Even more modern and secular literature and movies still address the topic of resurrection, not being able to free themselves from this old fascination. Here are some secularized ways in which creative authors have made resurrection work.
10. The Matrix
“The Matrix”, written and directed in 1999 by the Wachowskis, is often characterized as a deeply philosophical film, praised for its richness of references that range from Platonic to postmodern theories. However, it is not only philosophy but also the motif of Christ that plays a significant role in the movie.
When Neo, the movie´s cyber-hacker-hero, gets shot right into his heart several times by the system´s agents, no viewer can possibly doubt that he is dead. Simultaneously, while this is happening in the Matrix, his passive body in the real world is shown in agony. Then, his heart stops beating. Neo stops breathing. “He is gone”, one of the agents confirms.
Trinity, nonetheless, a rebel against the simulation-system just as Neo, does not trust in the eternity of his death. She leans over Neo´s body and presents him the reason for her doubt. Neo cannot be dead because, first, the Oracle told her that she would fall in love with “The One” and that, second, she loves Neo. These two are enough to revive Neo: Logic and Love. Here, resurrection and the gain of even more supernatural powers go hand in hand.
9. Romeo and Juliet
“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare contains the probably most tragic resurrection-scene – because its coming back to life does not end well. It does end, in fact, in death.
Juliet takes a sleeping-drink which lets her appear dead for 24 hours, in order to escape the planned marriage with Paris. That is because Juliet is in love with Romeo who later finds her in her grave and, out of despair in face of her sudden death, kills himself with poison.
In that moment, Juliet, who by almost everyone was assumed to be dead, awakens. However, seeing her beloved Romeo poisoned, she kisses him and now takes her just regained life – this time, without chance of resurrection.
Though Juliet´s resurrection has been called a “pseudo-resurrection” because she was never actually dead, Shakespeare´s figure cannot be missed on this list for both the play´s big impact on other resurrection scenes and for Shakespeare´s clever way of making resurrection rationally explicable to secularized readers.
8. Snow White
Ferocities and murder were not anything alien to the Brothers Grimm, who during the 19th century collected and published some of the now best-known folk stories. Their first collection „Children and Household Tales“ was published in 1812.
Though a lot of good figures have to die in their stories, the chance of them resurrecting later is actually pretty high, as in the classical fairy tale usually everything turns out well.
There is not only Sleeping Beauty who due to an evil curse falls into a deep sleep and will not be awaken until 100 years later by the kiss of a prince. One also has to think of “Brother and Sister”, the story of dead Sister returning home from death every night to care for her child and for her roebuck until one day her husband revives her by directly addressing her as his “dear wife“. If someone still loves you though you are dead, if one even loves you as a corpse, then this love has enough power to give you back your life, these fairy tales seem to suggest.
Even more popular than Sleeping Beauty and Sister is another female figure, Snow White, who gets poisoned by an apple that the envious queen intentionally gives her. After eating the apple, Snow White drops dead immediately. The dwarves she lived with bury her in a glass made coffin but death does not hold its pray.
After “a long, long time”, a prince appears who wants to take her corpse home. No, it is not a kiss that revives her as we sometimes tend to think but his stumbling over a tree-stump, the coffin in his hands. The poisonous piece of apple comes out of Snow White´s throat, she opens her eyes and is „once more alive“. Marriage and happiness follow.
Again, it is not God but love that brings this figure back to life. A martyr-like figure that is innocent and that had to die simply for being good and beautiful, overthrown by evil. Luckily, evil does not have the last word here.
Often claimed to be not only the best film of director Alfred Hitchcock but also the best film ever made, „Vertigo“ from 1958 definitely is a classic of psychological suspense. Like in “Romeo and Juliet“, it also contains a double-murder: the resurrection is only temporal and later leads to an even more cruel, real and unchangeable death.
Detective Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, his friend´s wife, who he is supposed to follow. Because Scottie suffers from acrophobia (fear of heights), he cannot prevent Madeleine´s death, when one day she jumps from a church tower. Scottie feels guilty, breaks down and even becomes clinically depressed.
However, years later, he sees a girl who reminds him a lot of Madeleine. Still obsessed with his dead love, he forces Judy to change her clothes until she resembles Madeleine.
A flashback tells us that Scottie is not only fantasizing due to his trauma, but that Judy and Madeleine are in fact the same person. Scottie had been the victim of a murder-complot arranged by his old friend: He had to witness Madeleine´s “suicide” which was in fact his friend´s murder of his wife. Judy, who had acted as if she would be Madeleine, was never dead.
For Scottie, of course, this resurrection must remain ambivalent: On the one hand, he finds out that he is not guilty of Judy´s death because this loved woman never died, but on the other hand, he has to face the fact that Judy has never been the person he thought she was. Driven crazy by this fact, Scottie forces Judy up the bell tower. There, she admits her deceit and begs Scottie to forgive her because she loves him. However, suddenly a shadow appears on the trapdoor of the tower. Judy steps back in fear, falling into death.
Scottie has to live through the same traumatizing experience twice. He looses Judy twice. Her resurrection does not lead anywhere else but to a second death.
One popular way of staging resurrection without having to employ God is to let not the real person come back from death but his ghost or spirit. No one has let this ghost revive in such an active and world-changing way as Shakespeare did.
His tragedy “Hamlet”, one of the most powerful and influential tragedies of world-literature, begins with two sentries encountering a ghost that looks like the old King, Hamlet´s dead father. Later, Hamlet is even able to talk to the Ghost who is indeed his dead father and who tells him that he was poisoned by his brother, Claudius, who was driven by lust for the crown and for Hamlet´s mother, Gertrude. Then, the ghost disappears letting Hamlet swear to revenge his murder.
This revival-scene changed literature forever. By many critics it is considered to be the beginning of modernity, as it lead to the birth of the modern subject, to Hamlet´s split between himself and society, between inside and outside, between thinking and acting. The revival from death causes time´s being „out of joint“, thus, existential doubts, nostalgic memory and the young protagonist´s inability and immobility to act.
The end of this tragedy then could not be more tragic: Though Hamlet manages to kill Claudius, he accidentally kills Polonius and Laertes, too. His mother Gertrude poisons herself by accident and Ophelia kills herself in sorrow. Thus, the King´s revival from death leads to the death of everyone else.
5. The Green Henry
“The Green Henry” is one of the most important novels of formation (Bildungsroman) of the 19th century. Written by the Swiss author Gottfried Keller, it focuses on the development of young Henry who wants to become a landscape-painter.
However, Keller has written two versions of this novel, the first published in 1855, and the second, an extensively revised version of the original one, in 1879.
What is most astonishing about both versions: In 1855 the novel ends with Henry´s death due to an unbearable suffering and feelings of guilt. Surprisingly, more than two decades later Keller decides to let Henry live. He ends his second version of Henry´s adventurous but pessimistic journey with a happy love-story and Henry´s success in work. Thus, Henry was dead for Keller´s readers for exactly 24 years but finally achieved resurrection and even happiness via his author who just made up his mind.
Keller´s fascination for death also gave birth to one of the most striking child-characters in literature: the abused girl Meretlein, whose story prefaces Heinrich´s main narrative and who gets buried alive. Literally rising from the dead, she wreaks a last moment of anxiety in the village by running around, followed by plenty of kids who want to catch „the corpse”, and finally dropping dead again.
Steven King´s psychological horror novel “Misery“ from 1987 does not only tell the story of the writer Paul Sheldon who is imprisoned by his crazy fan Annie Wilkes and who is violently forced by her to write a new book modifying the old story of his romance novels about the Victorian-era character of Misery Chastain.
King´s „Misery“ also deals with an author´s duty towards his fans, with his God-like power to let his characters die and revive.
What is so astonishing about King´s novel is exactly how it ends and which conclusions we are supposed to draw from that. One understands perfectly well that Paul tries to write „Misery´s return“ after his kidnapper got so mad at him about Misery´s death in the end of „Misery´s child“. In order to please Annie and to escape his own death, he lets Misery return to the world. In a highly dramatic scene, she rises from her grave.
However, Scottie does not only let Misery live for Annie. After Paul finally manages to kill Annie and to escape from the horrors of her house, he indeed publishes „Misery´s return“, for everyone to read it. By that act he admits that Annie was right, that Misery should never have died. Thus, after Misery was dead for the world of Scottie´s readers, he gives her back to them. Misery´s resurrection required Scottie´s suffering, his survival, and Annie´s death.
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award for the Best Novel, “Misery“ was made into a Hollywood film and a Broadway play of the same name, making this remarkable resurrection-story public to an even wider audience.
One cannot truly die if one has not yet completed his mission in life. Death has to send one back. At least, this is the case in Tolkien´s ‘Lord of the Rings“. Gandalf, one of the most important figures of the novel, dies in a battle with the last Balrog. He falls and slides „into the abyss“, his last words being “Fly, you fools!” while in horrible fall. Then he is gone and his companions believe him dead.
However, Gandalf does not remain dead and later gets send back to Middle-earth with increased power and authority in order to kill Sauron.
After he finally accomplishes this task, Gandalf never faces a second death. At least not literally. One could still see his and his companions final departure from Middle-earth in a ship as an infinite death or a never-ending dying, as they all pass to a new unknown world, to stay there forever.
2. Harry Potter
Harry Potter´s death is hovering above all seven books of J.K. Rowlings famous fantasy-series. In the first book, Voldemort tries to kill Harry when he is still a baby but Harry´s mother achieves to prevent that act by sacrificing herself. However, Voldemort´s goal throughout all books is to see Harry dead.
For years, readers have feared and trembled with their favourite protagonist, waiting for Rowling to write him an adequate end. – An end in which he would live or die?
Rowling was clever enough to satisfy all of us, the drama-addicted and the harmony-seeking: Harry both dies and lives. After Voldemort kills him in front of his crew, Harry finds himself in a sort of middle-state between life and death: There, he encounters his dead schoolmaster Dumbledore´s spirit who tells him that the Horcrux inside Harry has now been destroyed but not so has his life and that it would be up to him, Harry, whether he wants to resurrect or continue his way to death. Harry decides to live – and has his surprising revival in front of all his friends who already believed him dead.
After being left on earth by his crew, E.T. is found by the 10-year-old Eliott and establishes a close relationship with him. Helped by his sister and brother, Eliott cares for E.T. and hides him from government-agents.
Still, one day the agents break into Eliott´s house and find the Alien. At that moment E.T. is already weakened by his suffering from homesickness. He dies, while he is getting examined by the agents and their machines.
However, when the government-agents want to carry his corpse away, Eliott notices that the dead chrysanthemum, the plant that E.T. had previously revived, is coming back to life. He realizes that E.T., too, returns to life and his people to earth.
In the last scene, the kids bring E.T. to the forest, where he boards his space-ship, not without having tears in his eyes and not without taking his chrysanthemum plant with him – the plant that died and resurrected with him.
By Marie-Luise Goldmann – a PhD-student in German Literature at New York University.