This refers to the looming death of the Brideshead patriarch, surrounded by his family. I was struck by the implication that the will to live gives strength, while the fear of death drains it.
If you extend that, it might suggest that people are more motivated by attraction to something than by fear or revulsion of something. In which case, cigarette packets featuring every horrific disease engendered by coffin sticks may be less effective than sunnier images of the rewards of not smoking.
“I said to the doctor, who was with us daily: ‘He’s got a wonderful will to live, hasn’t he?’
‘Would you put it like that? I should say a great fear of death.’
‘Is there a difference?’
‘Oh dear, yes. He doesn’t derive any strength from his fear, you know. It’s wearing him out.'”
Source: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968 (1945)), p. 316
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