Literary Analysis — The Dance of Death

Sunlight shining between the trunks of leafy trees in a green forest in midsummer.


The Dance of Death is a short story written by English author Algernon Blackwood in 1927 and reprinted in a new edition along with other of his stories in 1963. 

Blackwood was born in May 1869 and died on December 10, 1951, at 82. 

As an author, he excelled at writing rather strange horror stories since their true purpose wasn't to frighten the readers but to leave them with an overwhelming and hopeful feeling, such as the idea of a peaceful life after death: a happy and different world from the one in which mortals live and suffer daily. Blackwood saw our world as a place characterized by some suffering that constantly has to be faced to reach happiness in it. In his tales, that happiness is sooner or later achieved by his characters. This hopeful idea comes from a book by a Hindu writer he read in his youth. It got him interested in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.

The Dance of Death is a tale of paranormal love that begins when the life of Browne, the protagonist, changes completely when he's diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. Blackwood suffered from circulatory problems while he was alive. This fact likely influenced him to write Browne's character as a young man with his whole life ahead of him, but that's cut short by a diagnosis that causes his world to go down.

Another influence of Blackwood as a person on Browne's character is that he considered himself a lover of nature and the outdoors. His life was varied, and he held different jobs, including many that kept him in touch with the prairies, forests, and mountains. All of them were places where he longed to be able to spend his life instead of the city.

In addition to Buddhism and Eastern religions, Blackwood seemed to show some interest in the occult and the cabala, which led him to write ghost stories influenced by both.

His best-known stories are The Centaur, The Willows, and The Wendigo.


Browne is a twenty-six-year-old who has just been diagnosed with a serious heart condition that prevents him from violently moving, including dancing.

As soon as his visit to the doctor is over, Browne thinks about his boring life in the city. He longed to spend the rest of his life enjoying nature as he always wanted to enjoy wilderness and beautiful landscapes. But now, all his dreams are unachievable. 

Browne sorts to send a letter of apology to his work because he'll be absent the next day to attend a dance, but nothing matters to him anymore. Less so when he thought about his unbearable boss and his boring routine. But despite how depressed he feels after receiving his diagnosis, Browne encourages himself to enjoy life and attends the event he signed up for that evening. 

While at the venue, Browne notices the lighting and décor. 

Wanting to have a pleasant evening, Browne dances with some women. Although he dances cautiously at first, he becomes more confident and, for a moment, forgets about his condition. 

While dancing with a young lady, Browne notices a beautiful woman wearing green and is immediately attracted to her. He cannot help noticing that she's with a man who looks like him. And although he asks the guests if they know that woman, none of them seem to see or know her, which Browne finds curious. 

When Browne loses sight of the woman in green and gives up on looking for her, he thinks of returning to his apartment. However,  a breeze blows through the flags at the back of the gallery. Then, he sees her again with the same tall man who reminds him of himself. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to speak to her, Browne fights his lack of strength because of his weak heart and makes his way through the gym. On his way, he notices that the man accompanying the lady in green is no longer with her, and it strikes him that he didn't run into him on the stairs.

After much effort, feeling his heart pounding like crazy and his vision blurring, he finally arrives with the girl. This beautiful woman sees him coming and asks Browne why it has taken him so long 'to leave.'

Browne is enchanted by her, as she is otherworldly: she doesn't utter words gruffly as humans do, and her perfume smells of earth and forest. 

Browne hastens to introduce himself, but he no longer can remember his name. Regardless, that doesn't matter to the woman in green, and she tells him he no longer needs a name. However, if Browne wants to call her anything, let it be Issidy.

Browne feels alive for the first time in his life.

Issidy tells him that he has kept her company all evening and that she doesn't know anyone else in the place yet. Browne then wants to ask her to dance and remembers his heart condition, but Issidy tells him that dancing with her won't harm his heart and that she'll be careful. 

Browne feels on cloud nine and begins to dance with Issidy and to perceive that they, and everything around them, are light and that the music is within them. 

As they dance, Browne can't help but notice couples he hadn't seen when he arrived. All of them are couples he knew from previous years. But he also knew all of them were already dead.

The two continue to dance until the artificial light of the venue changes to a soft white one, and they feel their bodies sway with the treetops in the wind. They dance so fast that they soar toward the stars until they become one.

Two days later, Browne's boss learns that Browne died at a dance at two in the morning. And instead of feeling bad for him, he doesn't care a bit, as another employee will do the same job Browne used to for less money.

Style: Browne feels alive when he thinks of Nature and the outdoors, a wildlife very different from the one he leads in the city, a routine life that makes him feel dead. 

Life and death are represented in things that make Browne happy and unhappy. He has lived such a depressing life that he's dying. And this fact is reflected in his heart condition and the delicate state of his heart. 

Attending the ball and seeing Issidy, Browne feels alive. And even though his heart can only take so much, he musters his strength and courage until he reaches her. 

Being with her, he feels alive for the first time in his life and dances with her until he becomes the spirit of Nature, an immortal being.

Point of View: First person. Browne tells the story from his own perspective.

Tone: Hopeful

Literary devices:

  • Themes:
    • Life & Death
    • Love
  • Symbols:
    • Heart condition
    • Color green
    • Color red
    • Music
    • Stairs
    • Artificial light and natural white light
    • 2:00 AM

Conflict: Life vs. Death

Thematic Elements:

  • Life vs. Death:
    • Browne is diagnosed with a compromising heart condition, taking away all hope of living in the wild, as he has always longed for. However, meeting Issidy gives him hope and fills him with life.
      For Browne, routine life equals death, but living outside in the wilderness equals life. This contrast gives the reader the feeling that Browne becomes immortal once he dies and finds happiness with Issidy, a spirit of the forest with whom he's happily ever after.
    • The city represents the lack of empathy and happiness in the people who live there, as is the case of Browne's boss. His boss is a materialistic character who doesn't care about others. He's just looking for someone to do a job for the least amount of money possible. Browne, on the other hand, is a man who does pay attention to the feelings of others and feels alive outside the city or when he thinks he's in the wild.
  • Love:
    • Browne's heart condition is a metaphor for the lack of love in his life, as he's sad that he can't live the life he wants or enjoy the outdoors in the forests and mountains. He's only happy when he thinks and imagines life in the wild. And from so much thinking about it, Nature —Issidy—, a spirit of the forests calls to him. 
    • Browne represents the spirit of the earth who ends up finding his soul mate while dancing.


  • Heart condition: Symbolizes the lack of love and happiness in Browne's life. Leading a life other than the one he dreamed of has led to his physical deterioration.
  • Color green: For Browne, it symbolizes nature and life, as Browne loves nature and feels alive in it. This is also the color linked to Issidy, the woman who steals his heart and wears a light green dress. Green also symbolizes a being who isn't of this world. This is evident when the color red is used as a contrast to refer to the other women at the ball. Green and red are opposite colors in the chromatic rose, red being the color associated with the women of the material plane and green with the spirits.
  • Red: Symbolizes the material world or the living. Whenever Browne asks about Issidy, his dance partners ask him if perhaps he's referring to a woman wearing pink or one with a rose in her hair and a red nose.
  • Music and sounds: They symbolize Browne's state of mind. When he speaks of low notes he means that his mood and hopes are diminished. Browne enjoys music and dancing and feels happy dancing with Issidy. Browne also refers to Issidy's vocalization as soft and without the bluntness of human voices.
  • Stairs: They represent a change of level or plane. Browne climbs the stairs to reach Issidy, representing his passage from the plane of the living to that of the spirits.
  • Artificial light vs. White light: They represent the type of light that characterizes the world of the living from that of the spirits. Spiritual light is always brighter and whiter than any other light in the world in which mortals dwell, for it's some divine light. As such, white light is associated with love, a feeling experienced when such light is seen, as it fills the heart of the recently deceased with the spirit of divinity. In Browne's case, it represents that love and the one he harbors for Issidy when he sees her and when feeling that a white light passes through his heart.
  • 2:00 AM: Also known as the witching hour, it's associated with paranormal activity. At the same time, 2:00 AM represents an indication that Browne is physically very tired, as this is the time when overworked people suddenly wake up at night because their bodies are tense. The story highlights that Browne has a grueling, low-paid job, a job that makes him unhappy and leaves him worried because he has to put up with an exploitative boss who has no concern for the welfare of his employees. Browne passes away at two o'clock in the morning, creating a connection between his exhaustion and his passing into the spirit world to be reunited with his beloved Issidy.


  • United Kingdom
    • England
      • London
        • Bloomsbury
        • Clinic
        • Office
        • Gym
          • Ballroom
          • Gallery
        • City skies
  • Spirit World


  • Bloomsbury: It's a London neighborhood characterized for being one of the green spots of the city, as it has the most beautiful parks and gardens. It's known for being a leafy area and an ideal place for those who want to distract themselves from the industrial grayness of London. 
  • Spirit World: It's a world invisible to most humans but can be seen by those who have the gift to do so or those who are about to die, like Browne.


  • Foreshadowing lines:
    • “He was an idealist at heart, hating the sordid routine of the life he led as a business underling. His dreams were of the open air, of mountains, forests, and great plains, of the sea, and of the lonely places of the world.”

      These lines reveal and foreshadow that Browne is a lover of Nature, both in a figurative and romantic sense, as the story unfolds later when he meets Issidy and joins her.

    • “Only the light was not of the best, for the hall was very long, and the gallery at the far end loomed in a sort of twilight that was further deepened by the shadows of the flags overhead.”

      This description is related to the tunnel of death and its light. Browne sees the light that illuminates the gym where the dance event will take place. At the same time, it announces that Browne, little by little, begins to see the light of the tunnel that leads to the afterlife, which would come to be the twilight since it's a transitional moment of the day that separates day from night. The night is a mysterious moment, just as death is for mortals.

    • “It is a common trick of Nature—and a profoundly significant one—that, just when despair is deepest, she waves a wand before the weary eyes and does her best to waken an impossible hope. Her idea, presumably, being to keep her victim going actively to the very end of the chapter, lest through indifference he should lose something of the lesson she wishes to teach.”

      The narrator is announcing that Browne will meet the spirit of Nature before he leaves the world of the living by introducing himself to her so that they can have some time together while he still has some life remaining in the material world. Browne will meet the woman who will give meaning to the boring life he has led so far in those few hours of life he has left. That meeting will give him a reason not to fear death and to consider that death with Issidy is the life he always wanted. In this way, the roles of what it means to live or die are reversed for Browne. The narrator hints that he'll probably be happier to leave this world and go with Issidy and become spirits of nature, forever together.

    • “A flash of white light entered his heart and set him all on fire to know her. She attracted him tremendously. She was dressed in pale green, and always danced with the same man—a man about his own height and colouring, whose face, however, he never could properly see.”

      The flash of white light references the light at the end of the tunnel of death. It's also interpreted as the very moment when Browne falls in love at first sight with the mysterious woman in green. The connection between the light of the afterlife and the instantaneous love Browne feels for Issidy represents a love that remains beyond death.

      The description of the man accompanying the woman in green is a description of Browne himself. Browne sees this tall, brown-haired man just as he feels this inexplicable connection with Issidy.

    • “In vain he sought to compass an introduction to this girl. No one seemed to know her. Her dress, her hair, and a certain wondrous slim grace made him think of a young tree waving in the wind; of ivy leaves; of something that belonged to the life of the woods rather than to ordinary humanity. She possessed him, filling his thoughts with wild woodland dreams.”

      Only Browne sees Issidy, no one else. The reason for this phenomenon is that Browne's life span is running out, and the closer he gets to death, the more he can see of the world of the dead. No one else can see Issidy because they aren't at risk of dying that night. Only Browne is. He attended even though his doctor warned him that he couldn't dance violently or make rough movements.

      On the other hand, the wild description of the young woman who captivated him is compared to the untamed wilderness Browne loves so much, announcing that Issidy is the personification of a spirit of the woods.

    • “Evidently la désirée was not a popular maiden. Soon after, too, she disappeared and he lost sight of her. Yet the thought that she might have gone home made his heart sink into a sort of horrible blackness.“

      Browne is in a limbo between life and death, and it's for this reason that at certain times he can see Issidy, and at other moments he loses sight of her. As the description of the gymnasium, its gallery, and its lighting announced, everything indicates that Browne is entering and exiting the tunnel of death over and over again.

    • “He was in the act of turning his back on the whirl of dancing figures when the flags at the far end of the room parted for an instant in the moving air, and his eye rested upon the gallery just visible among the shadows.
      A great pain ran swiftly through his heart as he looked. There were only two figures seated there: the tall dark man, who was his double, and the ivy girl in green.”

      There are moments when Browne's heart beats abnormally and stops working. In these small lapses, he feels pain and is able to see things happening in the world of the dead or how his spirit leaves his body for a few seconds to meet the woman who has stolen his heart. This foreshadows that he'll be reunited with her as soon as he leaves the world of the living.

    • “The room was filled with automatic lay-figures, but here was some one alive. He must know her. It was impossible to go home without speech, utterly impossible. A fresh stab of pain, worse than the first, gave him momentary pause. He leant against the wall for an instant just under the clock, where the hands pointed to two, waiting for the swooning blackness to go.”

      These lines are key to understanding Browne and knowing what's happening to him since the moment he saw Issidy. The world of the living is a dead world. It's a world with "automatic lay-figures." In other words, the world that is supposed to be full of life is soulless. It's a dead world. And yet, in that same ballroom, there's Issidy, a woman he describes as the only living one amid those automatic lay-figures. Although Issidy is a spirit and doesn't belong to the world of the living, she's more lively than any living being to Browne.

      Every time Browne sees Issidy and strives to go with her, his heart aches. This is because each time his heart fails, he's getting closer to his death and can see the deceased more clearly. His pain grows more intense as what he's feeling for Issidy intensifies as well.

      Browne leans under a clock that reads two o'clock in the morning, indicating that it's a countdown and foreshadowing that his remaining time to live is only minutes or, perhaps, just a few seconds.

    • “The tall man, he noted, had left the gallery, but the girl sat on alone. He made his way quickly up the wooden steps, light as air, trembling with anticipation. His heart beat like a quick padded hammer, and the blood played a tambourine in his ears. It was odd he did not meet the tall man on the stairs, but doubtless there was another exit from the gallery that he had not observed.”

      When Browne sees the man who looks like him leaving the gallery, it's an indicator that he has already left the world of the living. He has now taken the place of the mysterious man who looks like him in the spirit world. It's relevant to note that Browne mentions that he didn't run into that mysterious man when going up the stairs, being that place a transition point that takes him from one plane to another: from a lower one (the one of the living) to a higher one (the one of the spirits).

      Another aspect to consider is that the faster Browne's heart beats and the more discomfort he feels, the more he's experiencing a heart attack.

    • ““Yes, I am ready,” she said quietly, looking straight into his eyes; “but what a long time you were in coming. Was it such a great effort to leave?” The form of the question struck him as odd, but he was too happy to pause.”

      Issidy was ready to go with Browne to the afterlife, whom she expected to go first from the world of the living to the spirit world (the one she inhabits). It seemed to Issidy that it took Browne a little longer than expected to die and get to the world she inhabits.

    • “The sound of her voice instantly drowned all the clatter of the ball-room, and seemed to him the only thing in the whole world. It did not break on the consonants like most human speech. It flowed smoothly; it was the sound of wind among branches, of water running over pebbles. It swept into him and caught him away, so that for a moment he saw his beloved woods and hills and seas. The stars were somewhere in it too, and the murmur of the plains.”

      Everything about Issidy points to her being a totally different being than a mortal human. Her voice is silky and as soothing to Browne as the sound of the wind through the branches. Everything about her immediately transported him to those oneiric landscapes he had always been in love with. 

    • “Then, remembering something of earthly manners, he added: “My name—er—is—”
      Something unusual —something indescribable— in her gesture stopped him. She had moved to give him space at her side.
      “Your name!” she laughed, drawing her green skirts with a soft rustle like leaves along the bench to make room; “but you need no name now, you know!”

      Browne doesn't remember his name because he has ceased to be part of the world of the living. And now that he's a spirit like Issidy, a name means nothing to him nor is it necessary for him to have one. 

    • For the first time in his existence he was alive, and knew that he was alive.”

      Just as Nature gave meaning to Browne's life and he only felt alive in it and not in the gray city, Issidy made him feel alive and happy for the first time in his life. She's his Nature, who gives meaning to his existence.

    • “I was sure you would come to me,” she was saying.
      “You couldn’t help yourself.” Her eyes were always on his face.
      “I was afraid at first—”
      “But your thoughts,” she interrupted softly, “your thoughts were up here with me all the time.”
      “You knew that!” he cried, delighted.
      “I felt them,” she replied simply. “They—you kept me company, for I have been alone here all the evening. I know no one else here—yet.”

      Browne always kept Issidy company. Not only during the evening of the ball but every moment he thought of her while at his boring job or when just thinking about nature. Browne's own spirit was leaving his body to join his soul mate. His thoughts were so strong that he was always with her, and Issidy felt them.

    • “Yet he felt even then that she was drawing his arm about her waist for the dance, and with that first magical touch he almost lost consciousness and passed with her into a state of pure spirit.”

      As foreshadowed in the first opening lines, Browne has passed into a spiritual state that will allow him to join Issidy, as the two are soul mates and nature spirits who complement each other.

    • “And, as the artificial light faded away, there came in its place a soft white light that filled the room with beauty and made all the faces look radiant.”

      Browne has reached the light at the end of the tunnel and the artificial light characteristic of the material world was left behind to be replaced by the divine light that welcomes the recently deceased. What was foreshadowed in the second line indicated in this section is fulfilled.

    • “He felt the cool air of the open sky on his cheeks, and when he looked down, as they cleared the summit of the dark-lying hills, he saw that Issidy had melted away into himself and they had become one being.”

      This line confirms that Browne is a spirit of the earth and Issidy is one of the forests. The two must be together as true lovers for eternity. Browne always longed to be in Nature. And now, his dream has become a reality.
  • Foreshadowing Elements:
    • Browne: The protagonist's name is related to the color brown, the color of the earth, and announces his relationship with nature and the spirit he represents. It also explains why he falls in love with Issidy, the spirit of the forests.
    • Double: Browne's double foretells that he'll get to know that young girl in green that no one sees.
    • Invisibility: The fact that no one —except Browne— can see Issidy is an indicator that she's a spirit visible only to the eyes of the dead or those who are dying.


  • Browne: After a visit to the doctor, Browne is diagnosed with a heart condition that prevents him from making violent movements. This news affects him greatly, as he was planning to attend a dance that very night. Browne also had plans made for the future, such as living in the mountains and forests. He wanted to enjoy their natural sceneries and their wilderness, something he had always wanted to do.

    Browne sorts out the possibility of sending a note to his work to apologize for his absence the next day since he had decided to attend the ball. However, he chooses not to do so in the end.

    On his way to the gym where the event is being held and at the venue itself, Browne encourages himself and tries to avoid thinking about his condition. He just wants to enjoy the moment like the rest of the young people his age. He finds it quite strange to suffer from something more common in older people.

    While dancing with girls, he tries not to force his heart too much but finds himself doing so. As he's with one of his partners, he spots a young woman in a leaf-green dress in the gallery and falls under her spell. Browne tries to find out who that young woman is, but no matter how much he asks his dancing partners, none of them seems to recognize her or even see her. Browne is the only one who has noticed the presence of the mysterious young woman who is, for him, the personification of Nature itself.

    Just as he's about to go home, after several attempts to find the girl of his dreams, he feels a white light pierce his chest. At that moment, he sees the mysterious young woman at the back of the gallery talking to a man who looks very much like him, which he finds very curious. Browne decides he can't leave without meeting her, it has been love at first sight, and he doesn't want to pass up the opportunity to talk to her. The desire to be with her outweighs any other he experiences at that minute, even if his body is losing strength.

    As he gathers all his strength to go upstairs at about two o'clock in the morning, Browne feels his heart beating like crazy and hurts. Furthermore, he sees the man who was with the lady in green company retreat from the gallery, and it strikes him very much that he didn't run into him on the stairs.

    Although he feels extremely weak and his vision is blurred, Browne reaches the girl in green. 
    She was waiting for him and mentions that it has taken Browne quite a while to leave (from the world of the living) before meeting her.

    Browne is so happy to be able to be and talk to her that he wants to take her out dancing. The woman's voice and all her movements seem different to him than all those of an ordinary human. The young woman's voice is soft and doesn't make any harsh sounds like the others. Moreover, she's graceful and moves like the wind (*). 

    (*): The woman is a forest spirit, which Browne will confirm as soon as he dances with her.

    Browne wants to introduce himself before asking her to dance, but something strange happens: he can't remember his name. This amuses the woman in green, who tells him that she no longer needs a name. However, if he wishes, he can call her Issidy, which is her given name.

    Browne asks her to dance. Nevertheless, he suddenly hesitates a bit when he remembers his heart problem. However, Issidy seems to know of Browne's condition and assures him that dancing with her won't harm his weak heart.

    The two begin to dance, and Browne notices a lightness he has never experienced before. They move like the wind. He doesn't realize how they got on the dance floor or how they got down the stairs. He just knew he was dancing with her like any other couple but in an ethereal state. 
    While the mortal couples seemed like automatic lay-figures to him, Browne begins to see more couples he hadn't seen upon arrival. All couples were moving lightly as well. He even recognizes some he had seen years before. He knew they had died and yet were dancing around him. Something strange.

    The moment is so magical for him and Issidy that they dance endlessly until they soar through the skies, feeling how both of them become the wind, the sound of the leaves, and the branches. They merge into pure nature spirits and become one forever, certain that neither of them would ever return to that gray world that haunts their dreams.
  • Issidy: She's Browne's romantic interest, who shows up at the ball wearing a light green dress as if she were a woodland sylph. At first, Browne sees her accompanied by a tall, dark man who looks very much like him and is, in fact, him. As Browne is dying, his spirit goes to accompany Issidy, for he loves her even before he meets her, for Browne is a lover of Nature (*).

    (*): Throughout the story, the author refers to nature as an entity, so he uses a capital letter to denote that importance, since Nature, in this case, is represented by Issidy, particularly.

    Browne has visited Issidy at all those times in his life when he imagined himself living in the mountains, enjoying nature. Even more so when he's dying and his spirit is detaching from his material body and passing into an ethereal state, characteristic of the spiritual plane. The closer he gets to death, the more he can see Issidy, who's only visible to those who belong to the spirit world.

    When Browne spots her a second time after having asked for her several times from the guests at the ball, the tall, tan man escorting her leaves, and Browne arrives to replace him. At that precise moment, Issidy realizes that Browne has passed away and has come to the spirit world to be with her forever. This is why she remarks to him that it has taken him quite a while to leave the world of the living.

    “Yes, I am ready,” she said quietly, looking straight into his eyes; “but what a long time you were in coming. Was it such a great effort to leave?” 

    Issidy knows that Browne is a little confused that he hasn't noticed that he has just passed away, for all he cares about is that he's with her. At the moment when Browne is unable to remember her name, Issidy tells him that it doesn't matter anymore. He doesn't need one anymore, but if he wants to call her by any name, let him call her Issidy.

    Browne is so happy that he asks her out to dance. And, though a little hesitant, Issidy tells him not to be afraid because dancing with her won't do any damage to his heart. This hints to Browne that Issidy was already aware of Browne's condition. Issidy, besides, tells him that she knows because they have known each other before, as he has visited her before on repeated occasions, such as when he thinks about his outdoor adventures or when he enjoys the green landscapes of Bloomsbury in the evenings.

    Issidy's voice and gracefulness are as soft as the wind and Browne loses himself in her and in the feeling of being in love with the young woman in green, he so longed to meet.

    The two dance around the room without realizing when they walked through walls or downstairs, for they're just carried away by the nature spirits they both are. Browne, one of the Earth, and Issidy, one of the Forest. Both dance until they soar through the air and reach the sky. Up above their spirits melt and become one, leaving forever the dull and gray world of the living.
  • Browne's boss: He's a greedy, avaricious, and exploitative man. He doesn't care about how bad a quality of life his employees lead in the office. He just wants them to do the job for as little money as possible. This character represents the gray life of the city, the life that Browne hates so much, and that kills him little by little, as it's the opposite of the life he always wanted to lead: a life in nature. This man isn't even grieved when he learns that Browne has died. He simply sees him as an employee who can be replaced by another who will be paid less.
  • Browne's doctor: He's the one who diagnoses Browne's heart problem and suggests that he not make any abrupt movements that could compromise his health and life.
  • Dancing couples: They represent a contrast between the women of the city and Issidy, a woman from another world, with whom Browne wants to be. None of them can see Issidy because they're alive. 

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