Grey Wolf by Sapphire [...] theme of death and dying in the story. "The Grey Wolf" starts out like a Native American legend story, but takes a disturbing turn by the end of the tale. It seems the women in the story are afraid of the grey wolf, but in reality, they are afraid of death, and of course, what they most fear is what they experience in the end. Death and dying is the main theme of this story, and that is frightening to just about any reader.
Initially, this story seems to be about the wolf and the fear he inspires in the person watching. The author uses symbols and imagery to illustrate the fear in the narrator and to make the reader feel what the narrator is feeling. Sapphire writes, "[a]n electric feeling like fear but not fear passes through me causing sweat to run in rivulets from my armpits as I stare across the field at the large grey wolf passing through the dew-studded grass at the foot of the black hills (Sapphire 53). The opening paragraph of the story instills fear in the reader, but the story's end brings another kind of fear, one that is far removed from the grey wolf, but it does stalk each of us every day. The ultimate theme of this story is death and dying, and the culmination of the story is something everyone fears - sudden death.
Death is a constant threat in this story. The grey wolf inspires fear of death. Later, the narrator says that her partner looks like "some ghost" (Sapphire 53) when she appears on the porch each morning. Later, the narrator explains she has cancer, which is "running a produce farm in her bowels" (Sapphire 53). Clearly, the woman is dying, and it has changed her personality and desires until she seems more dead than alive to the narrator. They have not had sex in fifteen years, and their relationship has settled into a kind of monotony and passionless existence that clearly seems like death to the narrator. Thus, the story carries the theme of death and dying to new lengths, because it shows that even being alive can be a kind of death if life does not mean anything or does not include any passion or caring. The two women have had a good relationship, but that has withered away and died, just as they are withering away and dying, too.
The theme continues throughout the story, and throughout the women's lives. They come together after the narrator buys her partner's lands. She bought them after her partner's husband lost them in a poker game. Perhaps her partner (Mary Alice) came together with her and stayed with her to get her land back, but the narrator never gives it to her, and she is not sure why. It is almost as if she punishes her partner with the land, and with her owning of it. She says, "I don't know why I never gave her back her property. I guess 'cause I bought it making it mine" (Sapphire 54). Mary Alice and the narrator got together before the sale of the land, but it has always been an issue between the two women, and it could be the underlying reason the passion died in Mary Alice. There is something between them that is keeping the passion in check, and perhaps it is the selfish nature of the narrator, hanging on to the land because it is "mine." The narrator does not seem to take any responsibility in the relationship or in Mary Alice's lack of passion, and yet, it always takes two people to make a relationship, and the narrator may have contributed to the death of their relationship without really thinking about it. Again, the narrator thinks she should give Mary Alice back her land, but she does nothing, and so, it will never happen.
The narrator talks about dying throughout the story, but makes it seem as if she really does not believe it will happen. She says, " I mean neither of us is ancient. She's seventy, I'm sixty-five. I could live to be ninety then again I could to tomorrow" (Sapphire 54). The narrator's words are prophetic, in that any of us could say the same thing, but they are also prophetic in that she is right, she does not know how much time she has left on earth, and none of us knows that. She is being realistic, but the underlying theme to her thoughts is that she will certainly outlive Mary Alice, because she is the one with the terrible disease, not the narrator. The reader expects Mary Alice to die, as well, because the narrator builds up to that assumption. However, this story is not what it appears, and the story takes another twist when the narrator dies. It is unexpected and sudden, and that makes it all the more frightening.
Cancer, one of the most fearful causes of death, is almost like a character in the story, as well. The disease is wasting away Mary Alice, and the narrator says, "The disease, I admit for the first time, is going to win" (Sapphire 55). She will never say this to Mary Alice, because it would be too cruel, but it is the truth - cancer will win, but the narrator will not live to see it. That is the ultimate twist in the story. The narrator finally admits that Mary Alice will succumb to the disease, and then she dies, and does not have to witness the awful death of her friend. Cancer is a dreaded and feared disease, and just mentioning it in the story brings up that fear for the reader. Cancer is fearful and dreaded, but the narrator's death is even worse, because it is so sudden, violent, and unexpected.
The grey wolf makes an appearance again in the novel just to continue the theme of death. People fear wolves (like they fear cancer), and so, the wolf symbolizes fear and fear of death. People are always trying to kill the wolves that stray too near human populations, and the description of the salt lick and the bloody tongue is a continuance of the narrator's fear of cancer, but also a preclusion to the narrator's own bloody death. No one seems to feel sorry for the wolf or the terrible way it is killed, and it is hard to feel sorry for the narrator as well, because she describes her death so matter of factly, and because her last thought is that she still owns everything. That is a sad thought to die with, because it only underlines her selfish motives and her lack of real concern about Mary Alice or anyone else. She says that she "usually don't get hung up on how things was" (Sapphire 55), but it seems that she really does, because she hangs on to that land no matter what, even when she knows it would give pleasure to Mary Alice to have it back. She can give physical pleasure, even if it is not satisfying for her lover, but she cannot give other pleasure or well-being, and that points out her selfish and self-serving nature. She is detached from everything around her, even Mary Alice, and so, she is in a way already dead, even though she is still alive. She is dead inside, and that is an even worse form of death than dying from a brain hemorrhage, because when you are alive but dead inside, your life lacks everything meaningful and important.
Another surprising twist is that the two women are black, something that does not appear until near the end of the story. It does not make a difference to the story, and it makes the reader wonder why the author had to add that detail. It is clear the women are already on the fringe of their society because they are lesbians, and clearly do not have many close friends in the area. They live a solitary life, and making them black just seems to add to their troubles and uniqueness, but it does not seem to add anything really important to the story. It is the one element of the story that does not carry on the theme of death and dying, but seems instead like a loose end just waiting to be tied up, which it never really is. With so much attention to the theme of death and dying, this is the most incongruous portion of the story, and it almost jars the reader into thinking "so what?" instead of continuing with the theme. If anything, this minor detail points out that the theme of death and dying is so overwhelming, small details like the women's skin color really does not matter when it comes to something as important as death.
Ultimately, this story makes the reader confront their own ideas about death, dying, and life.…