By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #19 – Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers is one of the most unique books I've ever read. Want to know why? Read on!

A novel is a novel is a novel. When it comes to writing, it can only be sorted into one category; there is fiction, there is poetry, there are plays, and there are academic papers… I could go on. There are strict boundaries, and none of these categories can be combined with another – or so I thought. Max Porter’s novel (or is it?) Grief is the Thing with Feathers made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about literature. Want to know why? Read on!

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is about a man who has lost his wife. Although he is overcome with grief, he still has his two sons to take care of, and is facing the deadline of an academic paper about his hero, poet Ted Hughes. One day, he is visited by Crow, the eponymous protagonist of Hughes’ most famous poetry collection, who talks to the narrator, tells him stories, and refuses to leave. The book is filled with short passages from the points of view of the father, his two sons, and Crow itself.

While reading, I realised that Grief is the Thing with Feathers is one of the oddest books I’ve ever read. Technically, it can be classified as a novel, for there’s a story to be told. It starts with the death of the main character’s wife and shows the audience how the father and their children deal with it, leading eventually to the scattering of her ashes to show that eventually, time may heal some wounds. It is a novel about extreme sadness while also presenting dark humour through Crow’s recollections.

However, one could also argue that Max Porter’s book is poetry. The story consists of half-lines, is filled with short, poem-like chapters, and uses poetic typography, as well as dreamlike imagery. Then again, it could also be a play, the dramatis personae being Dad, Boys (using the first person plural as an indication that the identity of each boy is of no importance when it comes to grief), and Crow, who all share their stories in their own specific ways, through monologues.

Furthermore, Porter refers to children’s literature and incorporates sort-of fairy tales that deal, metaphorically, with past events of the main characters, starting with the famous Once upon a time opening, but which bear no similarity to any existing fairy tale. One of these tales begins with “Once upon a time I am grown up”, showing that grieving exists out of time; past, present, and future are all mixed up.

Finally, the narrator poses academic comprehension questions as a way of forcing the reader, and himself, to think about the impact of these stories – and the impact of grief. He writes about Ted Hughes specifically, about whom he is writing an essay, and that seems to be the one line on the horizon towards which he is working. His love for Ted Hughes keeps him going, while his love for his wife could easily have made him give up. At the end of the novel, the protagonist is reminded of one of the highlights of his life: meeting his hero. He was so very nervous, and prepared his question to his hero so carefully, that there was no time left for Hughes to answer it. However, Hughes tapped him on the shoulder as he was leaving and said but one word to him: “Yes.” This single word proved that he was on the right track, just like the crow showed him he was on the right track trying to move on from his grief.

The central question in this novel (for let’s call it that from now on; novelpoetryfairytaleessaycombination simply will not do) is: what is Crow? Is it the physical manifestation of grief? Is it a metaphor for death? Is it really there? Why a crow? I think the strength of this novel is that these questions are never fully answered. Crows have always been considered a bad omen, because of their association with witches. Yet they’re also seen as widely intelligent creatures. Ted Hughes’ collection Crow is also unclear about what crow stands for – but it does become clear that Crow is always there, and always has been. And since the protagonist of Grief is the Thing with Feathers is working on an essay on Ted Hughes, it is not that surprising that he’s visited by a crow, of all animals. I think it means that, somehow, in the midst of grief, people reach for whatever makes the most sense at that moment – even if it’s unclear what that thing might be.

I don’t think we need to know the answer to what Crow is. What is important is that he’s a way to overcome grief. He showed up when the protagonist was at rock bottom, and he left when his academic work was finished, and his sons were slightly more able to cope with the situation. Crow realises, at the end of the novel, that his work is done: “You are done being hopeless./Grieving is something you’re still doing, and/something you don’t need a crow for.” Crow could symbolise the utter despair one is feeling; physically there, obscuring everything else, forcing the griever to face their feelings. As soon as they’ve done that, crow leaves, making space for everything else. What emerges, it turns out, is love. Love for his wife, love for his children, and love for Ted Hughes.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a unique reading experience, because it’s unclear what it is. And it makes sense: grief cannot be explained either. Grief cannot be categorised into one specific subject – just like this novel does not belong to one specific genre. There are no words for grief, and writing about it, therefore, is nigh on impossible. Grief transcends boundaries, even literary ones. Grief is grief is grief.

What did you think of Grief is the Thing with Feathers? Do you think this novel dealt with grief in a good way? Let me know in the comments! Also make sure to follow me for more book musings!


  1. You make me want to read the book (when in doubt of category, book certainly works) and the poems as well. And by reading this, I realise that a story can emerge by closely looking into an emotion like grief. Thanks!


    1. Thank you very much! And yes, it was such a special book, wasn’t it? I agree: this book should have had six stars. I want to read it again, and again, and again.

      Liked by 1 person

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