Christianity, Community and Crisis. A study of Stewart O’Nan’s novel "A Prayer for the Dying" and the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2021

21 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A faceless evil: Coping strategies for an invisible threat from a psychological point of view
2.1. Diptheria as a form of “test” by God in O’Nan’s novel
2.2. COVID-19 as an instrument for diverse conspiracy theories

3. Community: Of duty, selflessness and lack of compliance in social groups

4. “At all cost”: Ethical and inner conflicts concerning the measures to overcome crisis
4.1. Curfew, quarantine and the mentally ill
4.2. The self as “evil object”

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

„Man must have light. He must live in the fierce full constant glare of light, where all shadow will be defined and sharp and unique and personal: the shadow of his own singular rectitude or baseness. All human evils have to come out of obscurity and darkness, where there is nothing to dog man constantly with the shape of his own deformity.” – William Faulkner, the Mansion.

In the face of crisis, we face our demons. Or rather, when presented with live-threatening situations, such as disease or natural catastrophes, humans tend to act upon basic, archaic fear. However, primal survival instinct and a prominent social consciousness oftentimes conflict each other and demand the individual to choose between moral contingency, the greater good (society) and its own, specific needs. This can be well observed in the recent SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, where our consciousness of societal structures is heightened to an extreme every time we choose between meeting more than one friend and risking not only a potential infection, but also the possibility of becoming a transmitter for the disease, or staying home, slowly loosing mental stability, trying to cope with the loneliness we feel by endlessly scrolling through social media networks and drinking the third glass of wine. Is it selfish to preserve the own mental and physical existence by disobeying what would be the norm, or how philosopher Markus Gabriel calls it in this very pandemic, the virological imperative (virologischer Imperativ)?

[…] dass es unsere unbedingte Verpflichtung ist, um beinahe jeden ökonomischen Preis alles uns Mögliche zu tun, um die besonders gefährdeten Menschen vor den schweren Krankheitsverläufen zu bewahren und damit auch unser Gesundheitssystem vor einer Überforderung zu schützen. Diese moralische Einsicht bezeichne ich als »virologischen Imperativ«.1

The virological imperative as Gabriel defines it actually goes way farther than solely economical sacrifices to be made. In my opinion, it encompasses the entirety of limitations and restrictions we face day to day, not only those forced upon society by governmental directives such as curfews, but also, and especially, those we decide to follow out of our own judgment.

How challenging the fulfillment of one’s own role in society and the co-occurring responsibilities, as well as weighting up mental wellbeing against physical health, during an imminent crisis can become, is something the protagonist of Stewart O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying becomes painfully aware of. Set a few years after the Civil War, Jacob Hansen has just returned from the war and now holds the office of Sheriff, Pastor and Undertaker in the small Wisconsin town Friendship – he is a dutiful man who takes his roles very seriously. When a deadly epidemic, Diphtheria, starts to spread around the townspeople, Jacob struggles between keeping the town safe and maintaining his sanity, troubled by post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the townspeople are not very compliant and a threatening natural catastrophe further strains Jacob’s moral disposition as he has to decide between leaving the sick to die and saving those not struck by disease.

This paper aims to elaborate on how in general diseases may be instrumentalized to fit a certain persons or groups psychological needs, and how especially the question of responsibility, as well as the virological imperative, steers a community’s behavior in the face of an epidemic/pandemic. Further, it will discuss the ethical and inner conflicts concerning the measures taken to overcome the threat of a deadly disease. In concern to this, the self as “evil object” will be explained and, inter alia, measures such as isolative quarantine will be discussed exemplarily. Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, as well as recent literature regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will function as analytical basis for this paper. Lastly, I will try to formulate an assessment of the situation’s outcome in O’Nan’s novel and will provide a short outlook on a possible positive impact the Coronavirus pandemic may have on our society.

2. A faceless evil: Coping strategies for an invisible threat from a psychological point of view

In the classical sense, an epidemic is the outbreak of a certain disease, characterized by the OED as ‘[p]revalent among a people or a community at a special time, and produced by some special causes not generally present in the affected locality.’2 A pandemic in the same sense describes such an outbreak which is even wider spread, not restricted to a singular territory and affecting a large proportion of a population. As the spreading of a disease in these cases is in fact something natural, happening quite arbitrarily due to natural mutation of a virus, bacteria, fungi or even parasites, some scientists identify epidemics and pandemics among other natural catastrophes. However, there exist quite a few significant differences to earthquakes, hurricanes or floods which significantly affect the ensuing consequences, according to risk expert Alexander Esser from the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance in Germany: The dimension or scale of a pandemic is far wider – in case of the Coronavirus global – compared to natural catastrophes, which usually only affect a small area; the factor time in regard to the duration of a pandemic, which might last up to several months or years, and its predictability. COVID-19, for example, is a known unknown. Meaning, while the characteristics of the virus itself might not be fully researched or even if the virus itself was completely novel, pandemics and epidemics have been a part of history since the very beginning (e.g. Black Death, 1918 influenza pandemic) and are calculable events which occurrences can be prepared for. Natural catastrophes, while to some extent predictable, happen rather ad hoc with an oftentimes erratic intensity and only last for a short duration of time.3

Yet, the greatest difference lies in the form of the consequences. Natural catastrophes cause physical, visible damage to buildings, nature, and infrastructure. Diseases are more complex. While they might cause indirect damage to infrastructure due to quarantines, etc., which is something visible and measureable, the almost imperceptible and psychological damage to society and each individual is way greater. A disease, especially a virus, is something abstract, faceless even. As psychoanalyst Joseph Triest cites David Grossmann in his Corona-Time Notes :

»[E]twas an der Gesichtslosigkeit dieser Seuche, ihre brutale Leere, scheint damit zu drohen, unser ganzes Sein aufzusaugen, das plötzlich so zerbrechlich und hilflos erscheint.« Da sie so fürchterlich und so ungreifbar ist, muss man in seiner Vorstellung ein Gesicht für die Seuche erfinden. [...] Unbewusstes Grauen sickert dennoch in den »Raum, in dem wir leben« - und zwar nicht, weil etwas passiert ist, was die Menschheit nicht für möglich gehalten hätte, sondern gerade im Gegenteil, weil die Wirklichkeit jetzt das abbildet, von dem die Menschheit schon immer geglaubt hat, dass es eintreten würde.4

This act of creating a face for a disease makes it tangible and carries in itself to give it a meaning. Giving a disease a certain meaning can be done in many different forms. In the recent Coronavirus outbreak this can be well observed in a movement known as “Querdenker:innen” in Germany. Being a very heterogeneous movement, consisting of many different social groups5 (not solely right-wing extremists, Reichsbürger and general anti-vaxxers, as one might expect), it utilizes conspiracy theories to explain and generally surrounding SARS-CoV-2: inter alia the theory along with vaccination, the government wants to implant microchips into people to be able to further monitor them, or how secret organizations dictate political decisions and politicians are solely their ‘puppets’.6 This sort of coping mechanism enables the individual to project their fear unto something palpable, less abstract, which then might quench the horror of the utter arbitrariness with which the disease spreads.


1 Gabriel, Markus. “Das Virus als soziale Entität” in: Bernd Kortmann, Günther G. Schulze (eds.). Jenseits von Corona. Unsere Welt nach der Pandemie. Bielefeld, Transcript Verlag 2020. 139.

2 "epidemic, adj. and n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2021. Web. 9 March 2021.

3 Cp.: Fial, Katharina. “’Ein unsichtbarer Gegner‘ - Inter­view mit dem Risi­ko­ex­per­ten Alex­an­der Esser“. Gesamtverband der Deutschen Versicherungswirtschaft e.V. GDV, 11.11.2020., accessed on: 08.04.2021

4 Triest, Joseph. „Das Virus des Schreckens. Notizen zur Coronazeit“ Psyche. Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und ihre Anwendungen. 75, 2, 2021, 165-171.

5 Cp. Nachtwey, Oliver, et al. “Politische Soziologie Der Corona-proteste.” SocArXiv, 20 Dec. 2020. 53. Web.

6 Ibid.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Christianity, Community and Crisis. A study of Stewart O’Nan’s novel "A Prayer for the Dying" and the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistik II)
Virus as Political Metaphor
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
COVID-19, Corona, Stewart O'Nan, A Prayer for the Dying, Coronavirus, Virus, Literature, Modern Literature, SARS-CoV-2, Pandemic, Novel, American Literature, Pandemie, Das Glück der anderen
Quote paper
Lucy-Melina Laschewski (Author), 2021, Christianity, Community and Crisis. A study of Stewart O’Nan’s novel "A Prayer for the Dying" and the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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