Study Guide

Cutting for Stone Mortality

By Abraham Verghese


"Marion, remember the Eleventh Commandment," he said. "Thou shall not operate on the day of a patient's death." (P.25)

Stone's advice to Marion is an allusion to the Bible's Ten Commandments. It's as though doctors have their own set of God-given rules, and this one is more about saving the doctor than saving the patient. It's about knowing when to give up and when to recognize that the doctor's powers are limited.

As she bent over the child she realized that the tragedy of death had to do entirely with what was left unfulfilled. (1.3.54)

Hema has an epiphany on the airplane heading back to Addis Ababa after her vacation in India. She realizes that she does, after many years without knowing it, want to have a child. For her, it's about cheating death: if she were to die in a plane crash with no descendants, her life would not go on in the form of her children.

She was already in appalling shape, pale and clammy, her pulse so thready that he believed anything he did would send her over the precipice. (1.4.16)

In this quote, life and death are given a spatial dimension. The precipice (which is a steep cliff) is a metaphor for the division between the two states, and Sister Mary Joseph Praise is teetering on the edge of it like a boulder hanging over Wile E. Coyote's head.

The passengers' relief turned to bewilderment and embarrassment, for the most godless among them had prayed for divine intervention. (1.5.4)

This is basically the Cutting for Stone version of "there are no atheists in foxholes." Basically, everyone can act like they're all tough and like they don't believe in God when they're just walking down the street playing with a yo-yo, but when they're looking mortality in the face, it's a different story.

"Perhaps she felt she deserved to die," Matron said, guessing at my mother's thoughts. (1.7.19)

Why would Sister Mary Joseph Praise feel she deserved to die? Well, go back and reread her name. Her parents didn't name her "sister"; the Church did. She's a nun, which is code for celibate, which is code for never getting it on. Ever. And we're pretty sure you all know where babies come from, so… you do the math.

Matron wondered if it scared my mother that she might die in Africa, a continent away from her birthplace. Perhaps deep in her—perhaps deep in every being—there lingers a desire to bring the circle of life back to its starting point, which in her case was Cochin. (1.7.20)

Death is final, as far as we know, so we can kind of see what Matron is getting at when she wonders about Sister Mary's feelings about dying far from home. Going back to where you started, to your birthplace, gives your life a feeling of being a never-ending cycle rather than a line that just drops off abruptly.

Matron, Gebrew, the nurse anesthetist, and others who had gathered were weeping around Sister's body. Word had spread to the maids and housekeepers. Now a funeral wail, a piercing lululululululu ripped through the heart of Missing. The ululations would continue for the next few hours. (1.10.66)

When Sister Mary Joseph Praise finally dies, it's like a public spectacle. There are so many people in the room where she lies naked, bloodied, and cut open by more than one surgeon that death is not a neat, tidy thing that they can just sweep under the rug. The lululu is a noise made to mark an important event, happy or sad, and it sounds like this.

"Lord help us all, but she is dead." Almaz was sobbing now. "She died giving birth to twins. Dr. Hema arrived but could not save her. Dr. Hema saved the twins."

Ghosh stopped hearing after her first mention of Sister and death. He had to have her repeat everything she said, and then repeat again everything that she knew, but each time it came down to Sister being dead. And something about twins. (2.11.103)

Death can be such a surprise, and it's not fixable. Ghosh has missed his chance to say goodbye to his friend, to understand what has happened, and to help. It's all over. Maybe that's why he "stops hearing." It's as though the finality of death were unacceptable to his brain: it does not compute.

Farther down were the graves of young Italian soldiers: NATO À ROMA, or NATO À NAPOLI, but no matter where they were born they were DECEDUTO AD ADDIS ABABA. Matron's vision turned misty as she thought of them having died so very far from home. (2.12.38)

Remember Matron's musing about dying far from home? The cemetery in Addis Ababa is filled with the bodies of soldiers who did just that fighting for Italy. "Nato à" means "born in," so the stones say "BORN IN ROME" and "BORN IN NAPLES." But all of them say DIED IN (DECEDUTO IN) ADDIS ABABA."

"Ghosh, if you bury me in Gulele, I'll never forgive you," she said. Ghosh decided silence was the best strategy. "We Christians believe that in the Lord's Second Coming the dead will be raised from the grave." (2.12.53)

Even though Matron is worried about Sister Mary Joseph Praise dying far from her birthplace, we see now that she doesn't actually believe that death is the end. Her belief isn't in reincarnation, exactly, but more in resurrection. The difference is that reincarnation involves being born again as a new being, whereas resurrection means being raised from the dead as the same person.