The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Death and the Woman" (1892)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Death and the Woman” was written by Gertrude Atherton and first appeared in Vanity Fair (U.K.) (1892). Atherton (1857-1948) was a notable American novelist and won the Légion d’Honneur for her hospital work during WW1. 

“Death and the Woman” is the story of a nameless woman sitting a final vigil over her dying husband. He is wasting away from a fatal disease and is near death, and she has asked a final boon of her friends and doctor, that she be allowed to be alone with him as he passes. She mourns for him, wondering what happened to the friend and companion and lover she had known for five years. His body is so wasted and shrunken and disfigured by the disease that she cannot recognize the man she loves. She begins to wonder where his true self is—it is in him still, while he dies, but she cannot find it. Then she begins to wonder where Death is. He is supposed to come for the dying, but her husband lingers on and Death has not appeared. She is frightened of Death but will not leave her love. Then she hears a muffled sound, as if someone were trying to climb the stairs in the house without being heard. The footsteps draw ever closer, but painfully slowly, and very lightly, and she is quivering with tension, concentrating to the footsteps gradually approaching the room. Then comes a knock on the door, and it opens, and she throws herself into the arms of her dying husband. When the maid enters the room she finds the woman, dead, lying across the body her dead husband.

“Death and the Woman” is a somber and affecting story. Atherton excellently portrays the woman’s grief, and through her thoughts the reader sees how strong the relationship had been between the woman and her husband, and why she feels such sorrow at his loss. Any reader with a heart is likely to be moved by her grief, thinking of the potential loss of their own love. Despite being told in an almost stream of consciousness fashion the story is economically told. But Atherton also includes several vivid descriptions which add to the mounting sense of tension and fear, which mingles with the emotion of the story to produce a powerful ending.

“Death and the Woman” is often labelled Gothic,” which is a misnomer. It is true that “as late 19th-century gothic fiction reshaped sensibility from positive emotions toward a realistic complexity, Atherton established a strand of American Gothic.”1 And certainly a number of Atherton’s works, like “The Striding Place,” have American Gothic elements in them. But “Death and the Woman,” which is only ambiguously supernatural, is not one of them, and those who apply such a label to it show a paucity of (or ignorance of) critical vocabulary. Nor does “Death and the Woman” show the influence of Bierce, as several of Atherton’s stories do. And “Death and the Woman” is not one of Atherton’s feminist stories. No, “Death and the Woman” is more properly seen as a fictional recreation of some of the feelings Atherton felt upon the death of her son and her husband in the mid-1880s, mixed with the terror that Atherton liked to add to many of her short stories. Atherton’s feelings for her husband were ambivalent at best, but few mothers could lose a son and not mourn him, and Atherton seemingly transposed the grief she felt for her son on to a fictional, ideal husband in “Death and the Woman.”

“Death and the Woman” is psychological rather than supernatural terror, but beyond its fear effects are its strong ability to communicate the power of grief.

Recommended Edition

Print: Gertrude Atherton and S.T. Joshi, The Caves of Death and Other Stories. Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2008.



1 Mary Ellen Snodgrass, The Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature (New York: Facts on File, 2006), 33.