Death Be Not Proud is a 1949 memoir written by American journalist John Gunther, about his son Johnny, who was a Harvard-bound teenager when he was diagnosed with cancer. He fought bravely to try to help doctors find a cure for his ailment, but died at age 17.
The book's title comes from a sonnet by metaphysical poet John Donne:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Here are some quotes and questions for consideration from John Gunther's Death Be Not Proud.
"God is what's good in me."
Johnny Gunther said this at the age of 6, and it shows that even as a small child, he had a desire to do something meaningful and good for the world. Why do you think his father chose to include this in the novel? Does it give us a better understanding of who Johnny is and the person he might have grown up to become?
"I have so much to do! And there's so little time!"
Rather than wallow in self-pity, this is Johnny's reaction after the first exam shows the tumor that has been giving him neck pain. He says it to his mother Frances, and it seems to suggest that he knew his diagnosis was terminal. What do you think Johnny meant by saying he had "so much to do?"
"A primitive to-the-death struggle of reason against violence, reason against disruption, reason against brute unthinking force--this was what went on in Johnny's head. What he was fighting against was the ruthless assault of chaos. What he was fighting for, as it were, the life of the human mind."
His father realizes that Johnny's battle is not just his own, but that he's seeking answers that will benefit others who may suffer the same illness. But even as he tries to think of a solution, the brain tumor is affecting Johnny's mind and his memory.
"Oh how tired I feel."
What a gut-punch for Johnny's father to read this entry in the young man's diary. Johnny often tried to shield his parents from the depths of his suffering, and even this only touches on a fraction of what he must have been going through at the time. Did this make you think perhaps the treatments Johnny was enduring were not worth the pain he was enduring? Why or why not?
"Scientists will save us all."
Taken out of context, this could be read as an ironic or angry statement about medicine's failure to save Johnny from the effects of the brain tumor, but it's actually a statement from Johnny himself, written in a final letter to his mother. He feels confident that his battle will not be in vain, and that even if he's not cured, the treatments the doctors tried for him will prompt further study.
"My grief, I find, is not desolation or rebellion at universal law or deity. I find grief to be much simpler and sadder… All the things he loved tear at my heart because he is no longer here on earth to enjoy them. All the things he loved!"
The devastating reaction of Johnny's mother Frances as she comes to terms with his death. Do you think this is a feeling commonly shared among the bereaved? How much more acute do you think this feeling is for bereaved parents?
These quotes are just one part of our study guide on John Gunther's Death Be Not Proud. See the links below for more helpful resources:
Overview of 'Death Be Not Proud'
Characters in John Gunther's 'Death Be Not Proud'
Terms / Vocabulary
Review: 'Death Be Not Proud'
Questions for Study & Discussion