What Measure is Forever? – Immortality in Fiction


After a slight drought of inspiration, I finally decided on a topic to blog about. I recently saw the movie Dr. Strange. While I enjoyed the film overall, it suffered from Marvel’s usual “weak villain syndrome” (see previous posts here and here on that). Given little backstory or motivation for his goal, Kaecilius is just one of those villains who seeks immortality because dying is bad, obviously.

Immortality is a very popular goal for antagonists, only surpassed by global domination. But while global domination is as straight-forward as you can get, immortality can have a lot of nuance. Death and the passage of time are concepts that have fascinated mankind since the beginning, so it’s hardly surprising that they get a lot of focus in the majority of fiction.

Obtaining immortality tends to be a goal for antagonists, on the whole. The ways in which they go about it can be quite varied – utilizing a “soul jar” to ensure their soul always remains tied to the mortal plane, enchanting their body to remain eternally young, or seeking to halt the concept of time itself via a dimension or being existing outside it. The motivation behind this can vary, but it often comes down to fear. This isn’t too surprising, given that death is generally considered the Great Unknown, and humans often fear that which they do not know or fully understand. The reason, then, that this is a goal given to antagonists seems to be to reinforce the idea that fear of death is often worse than the thing itself, and that learning to accept it as a fact of life will give us a better sense of peace and certainty than trying to fight it off.

Surprisingly, antagonists seeking immortality often get what they want, but this often the source of an ironic hell. In Dr. Strange, Kaecilius gets the immortality he wants after Dr. Strange makes a deal with Eldritch Abomination Dormammu, but is reduced to a pitiful husk when he’s dragged into the Dark Realm. Barbossa and his men from Pirates of the Carribean obtain immortality but are reduced to walking skeletons that neither feel nor enjoy anything. Perhaps two of the most famous examples of this are Sauron from Lord of the Rings and Voldemort from Harry Potter. In both cases, the villains trap their souls and reduce themselves to something less than human to prevent themselves from dying. In the end, neither can truly die, but are reduced to only a shadow of existence to endure an eternity of agony.

In fact, eternity is rarely considered  a reward in fiction. Looking deeply can unveil a veritable treasure trove of nightmare fuel. Sometimes immortality is a burden in itself, usually because of unintended side-effects such as the continued degradation of either mind or body or soul (and sometimes all three) or simply because seeing things come and pass by makes everything feeling boring and fleeting and empty, especially relationships.

Sometimes, immortality just ensures the continuation of the real torture. Mythology loves this. Being turned to stone (or in Lot’s wife’s case, a pillar of salt) and unable to escape. Being chained to a rock and having your liver pecked out and regrown every day, or being chained to a rock with acid dripping into your face from the mouth of a giant serpent. The list goes on.

I think special mention has to go to the trope namer, science fiction novel “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” Ted and four other unlucky souls are kept alive and horrifically tortured for 109 years after the end of humanity at the hands of seemingly omnipotent, omnicidial supercomputer AM. When Ted finds a loophole and kills the other four survivors to relieve them from their torment, AM turns him into a sentient blob to ensure that he can never harm himself or be harmed so that his miserable existence of complete solitude in a desolate world continues on forever. Yikes.


“Some hundreds of years may have passed. I don’t know. AM has been having fun for some time, accelerating and retarding my time sense. He made certain I would suffer eternally and could not do myself in. He left my mind intact. I can dream, I can wonder, I can lament. Outwardly: dumbly, I shamble about, a thing that could never have been known as human, a thing whose shape is so alien a travesty that humanity becomes more obscene for the vague resemblance. Inwardly: alone. 
I have no mouth. 
And I must scream.”

 Ted, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Given how immortality is often portrayed as a total crapshoot, the desire to lose the eternal and experience the temporal is more often than not a heroic trait. These are often beings who become enamored with humanity, or one particular human, and wish to experience all the joys and pains that come with our limited existence. Here, immortality is often expressed as something cold and emotionally distant. Angels are a frequent target of this – from Supernatural’s Anna Milton to Der Himmel Uber Berlin’s Damiel – as are Elves like Arwen from Lord of the Rings. Perhaps this meant to express to readers and audience that, despite its flaws and faults, humanity still has experiences and beauty to offer that nothing else can.

As none of us have obtained immortality and told the tale (if you have, drop a comment! :P), it’s obvious that the concept of immortality is colored by our very mortal perception. As beings who exist within the context of time, it’s hard to really wrap our minds around the idea of being removed from time and the pains and joys it brings. I think, though, that the important take-away is this very idea. Looking at the way immortality is framed in fiction gives a very interesting perception of how people cope with the unstoppable march of time and death, and the bond between mortality and morality.


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