To Hell with Dying

Walker, Alice

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Terry, James
  • Date of entry: Jan-16-1998


Mr. Sweet is a neighbor of the narrator, who is initially a little girl summoned with the rest of her siblings whenever Mr. Sweet is threatening to die. The narrator describes how she and her brothers loved Mr. Sweet, despite the fact that he was an indifferent cotton farmer, a frequent drunk, and an inveterate smoker. Somehow the faults of the old man, including his falling-down bouts of drunkenness and his slovenly personal appearance, are not impediments to the devotion he inspires or the affection for him on the part of the narrator and her brothers.

Each time the children are summoned, Mr. Sweet is reputed to be at death's door. "To hell with dying," the narrator's father would say. "These children want Mr. Sweet!" Then the youngsters would leap on the man in bed and begin their miraculous revival. By turns tickling and kissing Mr. Sweet, the neighbor kids manage to revive him time after time. The narrator comes to have faith in her unfailing ability to bring him back to life, and several times the children succeed when the local doctor had given up hope.

Nearly two decades pass, and the narrator is in graduate school when another summons comes. She flies back to the rural South and hastens to the bedside of the old man, now over ninety. But this time, after a brief return to consciousness, Mr. Sweet dies.


Although catalogued as a children's book, this story is moving and thought-provoking for both children and adults. The tolerance of the children for the old man seals the bond of affection that, in turn, allows their healing to work. The power of relationships in promoting long life has been documented in the scientific literature, but not so poignantly as in Alice Walker's story.


Illustrated by Catherine Deeter.

Primary Source

To Hell with Dying


Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Place Published

New York



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