The Heart as a Protagonist – Cold Hands Warm Heart – Jill Wolfson – Essay

The Heart as a Protagonist – Cold Hands Warm Heart – Jill Wolfson – Essay

When we think of the human heart, we usually do not think of it as an object detached from a living, breathing human being. However, doctors and patients involved in the donation of organs often find themselves in situations where organs and people are not necessarily inseparable. In Cold Hands, Warm Heart, Jill Wolfson explores the difficult concept of organ donation through the eyes of several characters. The novel does not have an obvious main character, as Wolfson subtly yet intentionally obscures the main protagonist. Through the author’s focus on the physical aspects of the body and use of shifting points of view, the heart not only transforms into an individual character but becomes the most dominant protagonist of the novel.

In the first few chapters, the author introduces Amanda — who seems to be the main character — and the reader immediately forms a connection with her. After Amanda’s tragedy happens so suddenly, the point of view is shifted to Dani and Dani’s mother. Though Dani is the only character portrayed with a first person voice, she is not present consistently throughout the story. In fact, Wolfson seems to repeatedly interrupt Dani’s thoughts in order to return to the viewpoints of other characters. Such unforeseen shifting perspectives leave readers searching for a character in whom they can invest entirely. This search leads only to the heart, which does not seem to “belong” to anyone in particular as it travels from one body to another. Indeed, because of Wolfson’s use of multiple points of view, the heart becomes the only “protagonist” that has a definite presence in almost every chapter of the story and ties all the other characters together.

In addition, the multiple-perspective storyline allows the heart to take on the qualities of an “individual”, thus furthering the heart’s ownership of the title “protagonist.” After all whose heart is it really? Though Amanda was the first possessor of the heart, her living point of view in the novel is limited to barely a chapter. On the other hand, Dani — who speaks in first person in more than half of the book — ends up with a heart that was not originally in her body. So, the reader cannot claim that the heart is fully Amanda’s or fully Dani’s because though each character has a place in the story neither character is inseparable from the heart. For instance, Amanda is pronounced dead while her heart is still beating. Nurse Nancy keeps “the heart… alive until the last possible minute…” (pg 66). Though Amanda is technically dead, her heart remains “alive”. The heart may have contributed to Amanda’s existence, but the heart does not depend on Amanda’s existence to keep living. Amanda’s heart gets a new host — Dani’s body — and can continue its life. By emphasizing this separation between heart and body with multiple point of view characters, Wolfson individualizes the heart enough to allow the organ to become a dominant “protagonist” on its own.

Another method Wolfson uses to establish the heart as the main character is the overwhelming focus on the physical as opposed to the emotional or spiritual aspects of the human heart. When Dani gets her new heart she is “waiting for clues [of emotional connection], but it was all disappointment” (pg 127). She was still herself. Everything that she liked and hated with her old heart, she still liked and hated with her new heart. Because Dani feels no sentimental connection to the heart’s previous host, the heart is further separated from attachment to any one person and given its own identity as a character. Likewise, when Dani gets to hold her old heart she expects to feel something — anything, but all she feels is a weight in her hands with “no more [emotional/spiritual] connection… than baby teeth after they had fallen out.” (pg 184). In fact, Dani ponders, “Here it was, the core of a human being, the core of me. But there was no magic, no mystery.” (pg184). Here Wolfson clears away the conception that the heart has a “mysterious”, sentimental connection to a human being who happens to have the heart inside. Hearts react to emotion and beat faster when a human is scared or anxious; so, people can get caught in the illusion of how deeply a heart is connected to an individual. However, pull our the heart, put in another one, and Wolfson illustrates how the heart is actually replaceable and has no such “deep connection” with its host after all. The heart simply reacts, works harder, pumps more blood, but is never actually sentimentally invested in a person. Such absence of sentimental connection lets Wolfson propagate the idea that a heart is a physical individual with an identity of its own.

Indeed, throughout the entire novel, Wolfson not only separates the heart from emotion, but completely strips down the human body into pure physical components. “Two people, 412 bones. Two people, two faces, two noses, four eyes, four ears, eight limbs, two livers that can grow into four, four kidneys, ten liters of blood, 1300 muscles, 120,000 miles of blood vessels, 200,000 hairs on two heads. Two people, two hearts, but only one of them working.” (pg 50). As Dani ponders the equality of all organs, including organs from two different bodies, Wolfson further strips the heart of any special connection to humans; the heart is just another physical organ present in the human body. Although this technique seemingly gives the heart less significance, a deeper analysis leads to a more complex conclusion: the heart is individualized from absolutely any connection to a person, thus furthering its claim to distinctiveness. Feelings, thoughts, and character, all of which are usually associated with a person’s brain, heart, or even stomach are separated from the physical organs and given in ownership only to an actual person. Organs, on the other hand, are not “possessed” by a person in the same way a feeling or a thought is possessed. Even Tyler “imagined his own skeleton, white as a dried out seashell. And next to it, he saw his organs like chunks of meat on a sheet of butcher paper at the market.” (pg 110). This horrible vision serves to separate the organs from the body itself, as if the “body” is part of the “person” and the organs are not. Since organs are separate components, and the heart is the only organ repeatedly given special consideration in the novel, the heart becomes not only the dominant organ, but also the most persistent character.

Clearly, the author stylistic shifts in point of view combined with the overwhelming focus on the physical aspects of the human body enable the heart to transform into a distinct character, not bound by inseparable connection to people, bodies, or emotions. Because this physical heart stakes a claim on its own identity as a character and remains consistently present throughout Cold Hands, Warm Heart, the reader can connect to the heart as the main protagonist. It is strange to think that we could die while our hearts, who have been thumping in our chest since conception, can live on in another body. When most people die, they take the life of their heart into their graves. However Wolfson offers us a new idea: we die, but our body parts can continue to live out the rest of their lives. My heart could beat for a hundred years while I could pass away at forty. It has its own lifespan. Thanks to organ donation, a heart, as portayed in Wolfson’s novel, can have its own identity.