While the terms "life" and "death" are considered to be polar opposites by most standards, some authors view them as part of the same infinite cycle. For writers like Emily Dickinson and Jean Rhys, death is merely a transitional stage; it is not the end of existence any more than life is the beginning. Evidence of this view of death as a part of the ongoing cycle of life can be seen most prominently in Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" and in Rhys' "I Used to Live Here Once."
The most notable similarity between Dickinson's poem and Rhys' short story is that both of the narrators watch children play in the splendor of the natural world while they themselves are no longer a physical part of that world. The primary difference between these two works is that Dickinson is well aware of her demise, while Rhys' narrator only comes to that realization at the end of the story.
Dickinson's poem opens with a comment on Death causally stopping by, like a friend or a suitor, to take the narrator on a special journey toward immortality. It is perhaps because she views the impending destination as immortality as opposed to death that throughout their carriage ride, the narrator does not seem as concerned with where they are going as she does with the scenery she observes along the way. In spite of the fact that she "put away" her "labor" and "leisure," she is still distracted by things of the mortal world.
It is possible that she knows she is seeing these things for the last time, at least in her mortal existence, and she wants to take special notice of every detail that she might have taken for granted up until this point. The simple sights of children playing at recess in the schoolyard, wheat growing in the field, and the sun setting in the distance all change in meaning and significance as she looks at them through the eyes of a woman who is moving beyond them, even if only temporarily.
It is also possible that the things she sees while riding with death represent the different stages of life. Human beings begin their lives as children. The ways of the world are still a wonder to them and they have little to care about other than playing with their friends and soaking up the sunlight of their youth. Then, like the wheat in the field, they begin to grow and their experiences begin to cultivate a new way of "gazing" at their surroundings. Then they reach the stage of life that the narrator is currently experiencing, that of the setting sun that sinks below the earth when it is time to die.
There are also more specific observations to be made regarding the symbolism in the images that the narrator observes along the way during her carriage ride with death. For example, the children are described as playing "in a ring." The ring has long been known as a symbol of eternity, most notably in wedding ceremonies, but in other contexts as well. Therefore the mention of the ring may be a symbolic reference to the eternal cycle of life in which we are never truly dead and gone, we are merely transitioning to another phase of existence.
In addition, the observation of the setting sun may represent the eternal cycle of dawn and dusk. In other words, when the sun sets, it may seem as if it is dying, but it always comes back again in the morning. The narrator may be acknowledging that the same is true of the human soul; it may appear to leave the earth but it is never really gone, it just part of an ongoing sequence of events.
While the poem's symbolism may exist on multiple planes, the life cycle interpretation is the most in alignment with the author's general vision of death as a something not to be feared. The personification of death in the poem is Emily's own version of what she perceives death to be, which is kind and civil. This tends to imply that she may welcome death rather than fear it, which may be a reflection of suicidal desires, or may be just an acceptance of the inevitability of death. While most people would try to run and hide once they saw death coming for them, Dickinson gives the impression that she is actually quite relieved to see him and is happy about the idea of 'riding off into the sunset' with him towards her inevitable fate. She seems glad that death has stopped for her, even though she had not stopped for him. It is almost as if she did not know she wanted to die until he came for her, and then all of the sudden it just seemed natural and right.
For the narrator in Rhys' story, it is the sight of children playing in her old neighborhood that feels natural to her. Although many things have changed, like that "the road was much wider" and "the sky had a glassy look that she didn't remember," she feels the comforts of home both inside her and around her. While the narrator does not realize that she is dead until the end of the story, Rhys herself demonstrates that she views death as part of an infinite loop of existence, simply by depicting the narrator as being caught in limbo between the two states. If birth was the commensurate beginning of existence and death was the final end, then there would be no reason for the narrator's spirit to still be hanging around. The mere existence of the spirit captures the author's recognition of an afterlife, or at the very least, the transient nature of souls.
It is also possible that Dickinson had a similar belief in the afterlife that allowed her to accept the ride with death so graciously. If she had envisioned herself being buried in the cold, dark ground all alone, it is unlikely that she would have been so willing to treat death like a suitor who was carrying her away to some exotic place. However if she is envisioning either a heavenly destination or a return to earth of her soul in a different body, then her lack of fear or dread is understandable.
The belief in the afterlife or reincarnation is not specifically addressed in either Dickinson's poem or Rhys' short story. However the indications of these beliefs are undeniably present. Where the two works differ on this point is that Dickinson views death as warm and inviting, while Rhys perceives it as cold and "glassy." The word glassy, seems to represent an impersonal and detached feeling to the world, even though the thoughts and observations the narrator makes are quite personal. She is still able to see the hot sunlight, but there is no indication that she can actually feel it.
It is not until the young boy asks his sister, "Hasn't it gone cold all of a sudden?" that she realizes that her attachments to the neighborhood and to earth in general have changed. What she thought was a warm remembrance has suddenly become a startling realization of death. However, the narrator does not panic or become overwhelmed with emotion like many of us would imagine ourselves doing if we were to suddenly find out we were dead. Instead, she just calmly lets her outstretched arms fall to her side and lets the realization marinate. This seems to indicate that like Dickinson's narrator, Rhys' storyteller does not fear death because she views it as part of an ongoing and natural process. Otherwise, why would she even be in the spiritual state that she is in? She may no longer be able to reach out and touch the physical beings that exist in her old life, but she is still able to observe them reflectively from another dimension. This likely gives her a feeling of comfort and peace that helps to ease the shock of recognizing that she is no longer alive in the physical sense.
Another interesting observation that can be made about these two works is that Dickinson mentions absolutely no colors in her poem, while Rhys use of color is abundant. Specifically, Rhys uses blue, white, yellow and grey, in that order, to describe various aspects of her observations. The three brighter colors are all used to describe life, while the dismal grey color is used to describe the boy's eyes when he feels the chill of her presence. Overall, Rhys story uses a wide palette of highly descriptive adjectives up until the last few sentences. Once she realizes she is dead she just identifies actions and objects as they are, i.e. "running" "grass" and "the house." She could have easily added descriptive adjectives or adverbs such as "running swiftly" or the "green grass" or the "inviting house." After all, throughout the…