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by Paul Celan

Deathfugue Theme of Mortality

Death is a tricky subject in "Deathfugue." The Jewish prisoners, who make up our group of speakers, must constantly confront their mortality, as the moment of their deaths could come at any hour. But the speakers treat death with dark irony, noting for example that they will have so much more space after they have died. The situation in the camp has become so dire and hopeless that, for all the fear it inspires, death might be considered a release from an even worse condition. The prisoners are also reminded of death by the Nazi guard, who is like Death incarnate. Instead of a guy in a black robe holding a scythe, we are unexpectedly asked to see Death as a cultured, blue-eyed soldier. Also, Germany as a whole is associated with death. The poem suggests that many of the landmarks of German culture, like Goethe's Faust and the fugue form, have been contaminated by the death-obsessed Nazi ideology.

Questions About Mortality

  1. Do the speakers see any hope for survival, or do they view death as inevitable in the short-term?
  2. Are the speakers afraid of death? Do they look forward to it?
  3. What kind of meanings does the word "master" have for you in the phrase, "Death is a master from Germany"?
  4. What is the relationship between the "man" who "lives in a house" and Death? How are the two associated throughout the poem?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The prisoners view death as a liberation from a fate worse than death: life in a Nazi concentration camp.

The prisoners fear death and even drink "black milk" just to stay alive, but the guard tries to seduce them into thinking that death will be a release.

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