Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Death and Morality

As one of only two expedition survivors, Albanov experienced the slow, painful deaths of numerous companions and witnessed the excruciating physical and mental deterioration of his comrades. In the Land of White Death depicts, to my knowledge, the greatest number of casualties we have yet experienced in an adventure novel. The story’s gruesome details beg the question—How did the survivors, Albanov and Konrad, cope with the continual encounters with death throughout their ordeal? I imagine the imminent threat of death must have consumed their thoughts not only in the Arctic, but after the event as well.

After the death of Nilsen, Albanov discusses in his diary the effect that multiple death experiences have on the expedition members. No one wept for Nilsen; he writes, “It appears we have become totally insensitive; we have seen death so often, it has become our unfailing companion and cannot frighten us anymore” (134). He mentions the danger of succumbing to emotion in such circumstances and his deadened sensibilities after living in deathly conditions for so long. Death, it appears, had become as normalized as daily biscuit consumption.

As we have witnessed in other adventure narratives, life-or-death situations often obscure day-to-day standards of morality. Both Touching the Void and Into Thin Air, for instance, display almost unimaginable acts of self-preservation in which one sacrifices another’s life for his own. In the Land of White Death depicts similar moments of questionable moral judgment: After the irrecoverable physical deterioration of Arhireyev, his comrades left him behind on the ice as to keep up with the rest of the group and not jeopardize their own chances of survival. To justify the decision, Albanov explains, “Such brutal behavior exasperated me greatly at first; then I reasoned that it would have been impossible to take the dying man with them, and even we ourselves could not have helped him. However painful the event, we had to accept the inevitable” (125). Contrary to his description of death as his “unfailing companion”, he describes Arhireyev’s death as painful with evident emotional impact. Perhaps the inner struggle came not from the death itself, but rather the surviving men’s integral roles in leaving Arhireyev behind and inadvertently accelerating his death. 


  1. I think death in this text functions in a significantly different way than it did in our previous books, based on the fundemental differences between this type of "adventure" (I feel the need to use quotes now apparently) and the ones we've looked at before. As Matt said in our discussion yesterday, this narrative functions as much as a survival narrative as it does an adventure story. In this case (and unlike most of the others we've read), the crew set out on their voyage without any intention of facing life-threatening conditions, and they weren't specifically prepared for the physical and emotional realities that they would face. In this case, it definitely is surprising that Albanov and his men don't seem as broken up about their comrades' deaths. On the other hand, the crew that set out with Albanov are all doing so under the basic understanding that its their only hope for survival, and that they would all die if they stayed on the boat. With that in mind, it may not have seemed so tragic to have lost men during their three-month trek, because they would have been doomed anyways. From another perspective, Albanov and Konrad are able to cheat death with their successful escape from the arctic, and the others died because of their basic physical inability to save themselves. Basically, they found themselves in a situation where logic states that they all should have died, so it seems appropriate to celebrate those who overcome their fates rather than mourn the ones who couldn't. Maybe that's morbid, but I don't think it is.

  2. I partially agree with Jack. I think the fact that this text functions a survival story, as opposed to Into Thin Air, which began as the story of a planned adventure that, due to human error and weather conditions, led to a tragedy, changes the nature of the story and the deaths that it relates. Whereas some of the people that died on Everest in 1996 may have been the result of immoral or selfish actions on the part of other climbers caught on the storm - I'll leave aside the question of morality on the mountains because we've talked about that so much already - Albanov and his companions have no control over their situation. As the Epilogue and footnotes make clear, all of the men began their trek in a debilitated physical condition. Many of them suffered from scurvy or a dangerous lack of other vital nutrients and, as a result, were in poor health already. Malnutrition only continued on their trek across the Arctic and even became worse as their food supply dwindled and they were forced to subsist almost entirely on seal meat and biscuits, which are hardly conducive to good health. One of the footnotes mentions that Nilsen and the others that collapse and die probably died as the result of vitamin B deficiency, which Albanov could hardly have prevented. Additionally, others disappear when the group is forced to separate because they do not have enough canoes or sledges to transport all of the members across the water and the second canoe is blown out to sea by a storm. I cannot see selfishness or immorality as the cause of these deaths, as Albanov was forced by circumstances to separate the group and he could not control the weather. I agree with you about why Albanov finds Arhireyev's death so painful. I think it is the idea that his companions could abandon one of their own, which Albanov clearly cannot do, as he pardons the thieves and spends time searching for lost companions, that hurts Albanov more than Arhireyev's death. He is justified, for, as the Epilogue reveals, Arhireyev was never found and the party that returned to look for him failed to tell Albanov that he likely drifted out to sea as the result of their abandonment. If Arhireyev awoke after his collapse, I cannot even begin to imagine the emotional toll that that would've taken on him.