There seem to be an unreasonable number of dead animals in Big Sur. But don't take our word for it:
- "Your mother wrote and said your cat is dead." (11.1)
- "Look out there floating in the sea weeds, a dead otter!" (21.6)
- We both look at the fishbowl and both the goldfishes are upsidedown floating dead on the surface of the water. (31.2)
- I suddenly look at the fish and feel horrible all over again, that old death scheme is back. […] That fish has all the death of otters and mouses and snakes right in it or something. (35.3, 36.5)
All these dead animals function as "signposts" of Jack's impending madness. They are a constant reminder that, as good as things might seem at certain ecstatic, drunken moments, there's always something dead in the background waiting to be found. And they're a reminder to Jack that, as happy as might feel for a minute or two, he must confront his own mortality. And so must everybody else. Thinking of his dead cat, he says, "Ah death, and to think this strange scandalous death comes also to human beings, yea to Smiler even, poor Smiler, and poor Homer his dog, and all of us" (11.6).
Jack is tormented by the inevitability, by the randomness, and especially by the lack of good reason behind death. "Why did he die?" Jack wonders of his dead otter. "Why do they do that? What's the sense of all this?" (21.6) Later he writes, "Those poor little hunks of golden death floating on that scummy water – it reminds me of the otter […]. Why would they do that? Why? What kind of logic is that for fish to have?" (32.1) This issue of mortality is ever-present in Big Sur
– for Jack and for the reader.