Illness and death are immensely important forces throughout the text. The novel begins with an elderly Enzo staging a dramatic display of his declining health for Denny, with the intent of encouraging Denny to put Enzo down. Mere pages later, we learn that Eve, Denny's wife, died sometime over the course of the novel. Knowing all of this at the beginning forces the reader to consider how illness and death work within the text and how they drive and motivate at every turn.
Rather than just being an abstract idea or a state of being, illness is a physical thing to Enzo, or an entity unto itself. He can smell it in Eve long before she even begins experiencing symptoms, describing her illness as a living creature, a virus, or rot. Enzo states that Eve also knows she's ill long before she receives a diagnosis, despite not knowing exactly how or why. Eve is later accepting of her fate. Denny, in contrast, sees Eve's symptoms, but after her diagnosis he refuses to fully accept her illness or impending death. Enzo notes as well that Denny also refuses to fully accept the implications of Enzo's diagnosis of hip dysplasia and misunderstands the intent behind the dramatic display. In this way, Denny's willful ignorance of death is contrasted with both Enzo and Eve's knowledge that death is unavoidable. Enzo ties this difference back to the power of storytelling—Eve buys into the narrative the doctors tell her, while Denny refuses to do so. Enzo also practices willful ignorance with his own diagnosis. He refuses to allow the knowledge of what's going to kill him get in the way of what he believes he must accomplish before he dies.
The threats of illness and death are used to control and manipulate throughout the novel. Trish and Maxwell use Eve's illness and death to begin to break apart Enzo's family. It begins subtly when they ask that both Eve and Zoë stay with them at their house after Eve's release from the hospital, and culminates in their custody suit. They use death as a way to withhold love and care from Denny, whom they see as undeserving. In the same vein, Denny's parents attempted to force him into staying to take care of his mother when Denny was a teenager. When he refused and was cut out of their lives, he essentially rejected the hold that they wanted his mother's illness to have over him. Enzo, as well, does his best to ignore the illness he knows he has. He shares late in the novel that he had known since he was quite young that he had a degenerative hip condition, and he refused to let it dictate the course of his life, much like Denny refused his parents' hold on his life with his mother's blindness.
After seeing a documentary on Mongolia on the National Geographic channel, Enzo believes that when they're spiritually ready, dogs are reincarnated as humans after they die. As Enzo's goal throughout the novel is to be as human as possible, death then becomes a goal, as it will finally allow him to be human. For both Eve and Enzo, death is thought of personally as freedom. In death, Eve is finally free from burdens and pain and wants, and Enzo is freed from pain and life as a dog. This conception of death as freedom works to place death in opposition to illness, which is portrayed as oppressive and controlling, rather than in opposition to life.
Illness and Death ThemeTracker
Illness and Death Quotes in The Art of Racing in the Rain
After the 1993 Grand Prix, the best thing I've ever seen on TV is a documentary that explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man.
But I hadn't a facile tongue. So all I could do was watch and feel empty inside; Eve had assigned me to protect Zoë no matter what, but no one had been assigned to protect Eve. And there was nothing I could do to help her.
Demon. Gremlin. Poltergeist. Ghost. Phantom. Spirit. Shadow. Ghoul. Devil. People are afraid of them so they relegate their existence to stories, volumes of books that can be closed and put on the shelf or left behind at a bed and breakfast; they clench their eyes shut so they will see no evil. But trust me when I tell you that the zebra is real. Somewhere, the zebra is dancing.
Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready.
I am ready.
I marveled at them both; how difficult it must be to be a person. To constantly subvert your desires. To worry about doing the right thing, rather than doing what is most expedient.
I needed to feel myself, understand myself and this horrible world we are all trapped in, where bugs and tumors and viruses worm their way into our brains and lay their putrid eggs that hatch and eat us alive from the inside out.
I thought of Eve and how quickly she embraced her death once the people around her agreed to it; I considered the foretelling of my own end, which was to be full of suffering and pain, as death is believed to be by most of the world, and I tried to look away.
He died that day because his body had served its purpose. His soul had done what it came to do, learned what it came to learn, and then was free to leave. And I knew, as Denny sped me toward the doctor who would fix me, that if I had already accomplished what I set out to accomplish here on earth, if I had already learned what I was meant to learn, I would have left the curb one second later than I had, and I would have been killed instantly by that car.