Short stories

On Soaking in the Small Joys of Life- The Knowers by Helen Phillips

Given a chance, would you want to know the exact date of your death, minus its circumstances? How do you think such information would affect you and your loved ones? Typically, curiosity is likely to drive many people to inquire about their death date, but the mere fear and thought of death at its mention would tame this same curiosity.

Human beings are subject to death. This bitter realization of our inability to achieve immortality in the near future has resorted to other trials like anti-ageing technology. In Helen Phillips’ world, technology can tell people their date of death.

In her short story The Knowers, Phillips introduces an interesting futuristic situation, where people can learn their date of death from the government at a small fee. The narrator, main character, and protagonist, Ellie, is among the Knowers, while her husband Tem chooses to live devoid of this knowledge. The Knowers choose to know their date of death but they don’t learn how they will die.

Ellie’s life, from the outside, seems bland and normal.

” And so in many ways I could live a life like any other. Like Tem’s. I could go blithely along, indulging my petty concerns, lacking perspective, frequently forgetting I wasn’t immortal. Yet it would be a lie if I said a single day passed without me thinking about April 17, 2043″ – The Knowers

One question that comes to mind is our unappreciative nature that prevents us from enjoying life, even with its fleeting nature that’s amplified in the story. Ellie, describing her life, brings out this human dissatisfaction:

” It was an okay lifespan. Not enough — is it ever enough? ”

Thus, our focus should be on the time we spend alive and what we do then, not how and when it ends. Akin to my view, Philips chooses to describe her main character’s life the same way even after she learns her death date. Of course it would be impossible to learn your day of death and not constantly think about it, just as Ellie describes:

” April 17, 2043: a tattoo inside my brain. “

Nevertheless, her whole life is not spent obsessing over that day. In fact, she finds numerous ways of cherishing life, taking risks, finding joy in small moments like ” soaping up the kids’ hair when they were tiny, walking from the parking lot to the office on a bird-studded Friday morning, smelling the back of Tem’s neck in the middle of the night.”

Among the many reasons Philips wrote this story, i think one of them is to encourage people to view the bright sides of life even while obvious of its turmoils and uncertainty. She does an excellent job of insisting this by concluding the story without mentioning Ellie’s death, even though there are six minutes still left till the end of her death day.

What are your thoughts and questions on The Knowers by Helen Philips? Let me know in the comments.

Image from Electric Literature: An Animation by Adam Thompson for Electric Literature

6 thoughts on “On Soaking in the Small Joys of Life- The Knowers by Helen Phillips”

  1. I have a question ma’am.
    if you were tem, how would you face each day as you await for April 17, 2043 to come?

    i need the answer right now ma’am hope you help me i need to enlighten.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The contemporary issue explored in the story is technology. It has made it possible for people to know their exact date of death and we see how this affects individuals, families, and so on.
    Hope that helps!


  3. Tem doesn’t know the exact year that his wife will die, yet he lives in fear and a lot of anxiety every April 17th. It’s only human nature.
    If I were Tem, I think I would face each day with a little bit more positivity knowing that they have the gift of spending time together, for as long as they have.


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