Roger Ebert’s Essay on Death and Dying: ‘Go Gentle Into That Good Night’

The acclaimed film critic reflects on life and death and how one accepts both.
Roger Ebert’s Essay on Death and Dying: ‘Go Gentle Into That Good Night’
Roger Ebert suggests in his essay that living well is more important than dying well. "The Death of Socrates," 1787, by Jacques-Louis David. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)
Celebrated film critic Roger Ebert’s essay, “Go gentle into that good night,” spells out his principles and philosophies on a range of themes: religion, God, the purpose of life, the afterlife, death, faith, and truth. The essay’s title plays on Dylan Thomas’s profound poem. As Thomas’s poem pondered his father’s imminent death, Ebert’s essay ponders his own death, as he’d wrestled repeatedly with cancer.
Film critic Roger Ebert at the 2003 IFP Independent Spirit Awards in 2003. (Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
Film critic Roger Ebert at the 2003 IFP Independent Spirit Awards in 2003. (Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)

Ebert’s prefix “Go gentle” and Thomas’s “Do not go gentle” suggest contrary approaches to death, but Ebert isn’t as contrarian as his essay seems. Ebert feigns indifference to life, as if his life is as inconsequential as his death. He seems to ask: Why fight for life or defy death? If he was “perfectly content” before his birth, he’ll be no different after his death. Good fortune seems to be a part of this.

Most people assume that, if born poor, one would want more during life and hold it dearly. Yet the poor man can’t fear losing what he doesn’t have. The more the rich man appreciates the treasure he has in life, the more he dreads losing it. It isn’t the beggar who dreads dying with nothing—a zero balance, so to speak—it’s the billionaire.

The value placed on life decides how one will part with it. Death may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s as desirable as life. Refusing to resignedly accept annihilation is the most articulate argument for more life, not less. It’s a farewell vote, cast in favor of another baby being born somewhere else, to someone else. It’s a final act of sharing, even when one is lulled into believing that there’s nothing left to share. To “go gentle,” then, is to abjectly agree that if there were a little less of life, it wouldn’t matter; it is to meekly admit that were someone else not offered the chance to live, it would be fine.

Ebert claims he doesn’t fear death; he claims there’s “nothing on the other side to fear.” But those who love life deeply always die or greet someone else’s death with a bit of fear, and a bit of reluctance because they value what they or others are going to be denied.

Only the doting mother laments the loss of her child, like a limb that has been torn from her. Only the faithful husband mourns the loss of his wife, like he’s been robbed of a vital organ. Only those who are irrevocably in love with life, and all it allows them to share, meet death grudgingly. They count their life not in milestones, but minutes. To them, every new moment, is a second chance to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be loved. Our embrace of death may be certain, but it needn’t be wholehearted.

The Gift of Life

Rightly, Ebert is grateful for “the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter.” He knows life is a gift. He doesn’t say who the Giver is, but his gratitude admits that there is one who gives life. He also accepts that life is not a right but a responsibility: to be kind, to be happy, and to spread happiness; as he says, “I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

We may live long enough to find some truths, but not long enough to find others. Does that mean these truths don’t exist, or merely that they’ve not been discovered yet? That Ebert found some truths late in life suggests that, had he lived longer, he may have discovered even more truths.

Without his saying so, Ebert is admitting that it’s not we who discover truth, but it is truth that, through living and dying, reveals itself to us. As his colleagues admiringly acknowledged, Ebert’s discoveries transformed him from the haughty young man he was, to his gentler, sweeter, older self.

Death is important to how someone lives a well-lived life. "Vanitas," 1650, by Hendrick Andriessen. Museum of Fine Arts Ghent. (Public Domain)
Death is important to how someone lives a well-lived life. "Vanitas," 1650, by Hendrick Andriessen. Museum of Fine Arts Ghent. (Public Domain)

Little Commandments

For someone who claims to have “no truths to impart,” Ebert ends up imparting a lot—his own little commandments, as it were. He claims that he “refused all labels” of religion, but wears that refusal like a badge of honor, akin to a religion all its own: “All I require of a religion is that it not insist I believe in it.”

But for someone who smarts at insistence, Ebert is awfully insistent himself. He says to a woman he has long known: “You'd better cry at my memorial service.” On faith, he insists it’s neutral: “All depends on what is believed in.” On happiness, he declares: “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.” By whose law? He doesn’t say.

Ebert insists that what goes on between people who love each other isn’t accessible to experts (scientists and the like). He’s admitting that truths hidden to some are revealed to others.What happens after death? To Ebert, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Contradictions and Uncertainties

Ebert’s essay bursts with contradictions, certainties, and the word “must.” On whether he believes in God as Prime Mover or First Cause, Ebert is emphatic: “I do not.” Oddly, he delights in the “awesome,” supposedly thrilling, possibility that there is no Cause: “What if everything … just happened?”
Ebert’s own life testifies, however, that that possibility—an uncaused Cause—can only be terrifying, never thrilling. His lifelong insights from gazing at a film screen demonstrate the fact that neither he, nor anyone else, accepted anything without a mover: The storyteller moves the screenwriter, who moves the producer, who moves the director, who moves the cast and crew, who move audiences and critics, who then move wider audiences. Even his beloved L.C. Smith typewriter had a mover, and a maker, well before Ebert laid a finger on it. Of course, Ebert himself turned mover the moment he started typing. And bouncing back from cancer, he wrote of his caring wife, Chaz, as a mover-healer. Then, why accept that “everything” that ever moved, “just” moved?

The Empathy Machine

It turns out, Ebert did believe in God, only, he had trouble admitting it. Perhaps, unlike others, he saw and worshiped God not in a church or synagogue, but in a darkened cinema hall, his “empathy machine.” He’d insisted on one more thing: Movies were, above all, about empathy.

True empathy, not the easy, performative kind for photo ops, is the defiance of the lazy embrace of only those we agree with. It embraces the person—flaws and all—to understand, not judge. The lives of good people are well-lived, not because they didn’t do bad things—all too many did—and not because they won or lost, but because they acted. Their “fierce tears” and “frail deeds” (Thomas’s words) chose, not to curse, but to bless and embrace someone else’s.

Ebert once wrote that the movies he liked best were about “good people,” whether they ended up happy or sad, did bad things or good things, or won or lost. That’s where Ebert comes into his own and applauds Thomas’s defiance.

In an essay about Chaz’s defiance, when faced with Ebert’s cancer, titled “Roger loves Chaz,” Ebert comes closest to admitting that he wasn’t as blasé about death as he claims here, because it would imply indifference to life. There, he writes that were it not for her defiance, he would have descended into “lonely decrepitude” or “vegetated in hopelessness.” But “this woman never lost her love. … [S]he forced me to want to live … believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.” Ebert wrote, “I am no longer religious, but every single day Chaz took my hand before she left and recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, and from this I took great comfort.”
Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gently" inspired the essay by Roger Ebert. Poet Dylan Thomas circa 1937–38. (Rosalie Thorne McKenna/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Dylan Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gently" inspired the essay by Roger Ebert. Poet Dylan Thomas circa 1937–38. (Rosalie Thorne McKenna/CC BY-SA 4.0)

That’s Ebert, with Chaz’s prayerful help, echoing Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night. ... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” If we see life, as Ebert did, as one big opportunity to be kind, and to make ourselves and others happy, the scope for goodness also expands severalfold with each new baby born. Ebert ends up saluting Thomas, whose hope and love of life, has its own excuse to defy death.

Thomas would’ve been proud. Ebert’s essay here is, after all, more a side path to the same destination than a road to a different place. Both essay and poem ponder death and dying, but their gaze is firmly on life and living.

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Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz