For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a blog post about some of literature’s most memorable deaths and death scenes. But there was a “spoiler” problem: I would be revealing very important plot developments, and those who hadn’t read the fictional works in question might avenge my indiscretion by creating a real-life death — mine. 🙂
Yet I’m going to risk The Grim Reaper today and tackle this mortal topic. As one does with cremated remains, I’ll liberally scatter spoiler alerts throughout this post. Also, I’ll bury the names of the characters I discuss — as in mostly not giving those names. And I’ll camouflage things in other ways, as one might cover a coffin with dirt. Finally, I’ll consider hiring 24-hour security in case I angered anyone with this paragraph’s tasteless wordplay about death. (Of course, 24-hour security leaves a person unprotected during the other 144 hours in a week…)
First some general thoughts: Death is a tragic/dramatic subject almost like catnip to authors — a subject that can make plots highly interesting, both in terms of the deceased and the way survivors react to the character being gone. In short, a death is a way to potentially grab the attention of readers, who may also relate what they’re seeing fictionally to the real-life deaths of people they knew and to their own inevitable demise.
More general thoughts: Literature of course usually reflects the time in which it’s written. So in pre-20th-century fiction, many characters died of diseases that would become curable in our modern age. Then, from roughly World War I on, weaponry became VERY lethal — meaning more characters died on the battlefield or as civilian “collateral damage” (I hate that dehumanizing term). But one can’t totally generalize. After all, America’s Civil War was a carnage nightmare, and many people today still die of curable diseases in the poorer parts of the U.S. and world.
In Jane Eyre (skip this paragraph if you haven’t read Charlotte Bronte’s novel!), there are several deaths crucial to the story. Among them is the passing of an almost saintly student, whose masterfully depicted demise is not only heartbreaking but helps lead the Lowood institution to be run in a healthier way — and perhaps saves Jane from eventually dying there, too. Another death, of an adult woman near the end of the novel, is very dramatic (think fire and roof) and makes all the difference for Jane and her former fiance Rochester.
Louisa May Alcott’s also-19th-century Little Women (those who haven’t read it drop your laptop or mobile device NOW!) features the poignant passing of one of the four young March sisters. The event is especially wrenching because the dying sister is so darn nice — even knitting stuff in her sickroom to give to children passing by the window. And her death, not surprisingly, makes her surviving sisters more resolved to do good and appreciate life to the fullest.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (your watching eyes need an immediate screen break if you haven’t read that novel!), Janie Crawford’s third husband is a mixed bag but much better than her first two spouses. Then, while heroically saving Janie from danger, something happens to this charismatic guy that soon kills him. Hard to see a silver lining in that, but Janie sort of personifies the struggles and resilience of African-American women.
The main character in Emile Zola’s Nana is not admirable, though her difficult childhood certainly helps explain that. (Zola was French, so non-Nana readers should now take a spoiler-avoiding trip to Paris!) Anyway, after the protagonist’s death in that novel, a queasy and striking scene ensues — a scene designed to say a lot about not only the deceased individual but about France as a whole.
Tragic, watery suicides depicted in riveting fashion? Your go-to novels include (get a snack this second if you haven’t read Kate Chopin or Jack London!) The Awakening and Martin Eden.
(If need be, stay in the kitchen for another snack instead of reading the next two paragraphs!)
Other fictional passings that will stay with you include the deaths of two siblings in George Eliot’s magnificent The Mill on the Floss; the deaths of a saintly slave and an angelic girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s gripping Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the lingering demise of the wilderness-loving loner in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie (the fifth and final novel of that author’s compelling “Leatherstocking” series); and the killing of a girl in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. (There are of course countless fictional murders in general fiction and especially in genre fiction such as mysteries.)
Also, there are the killings of Mexican priests (including a particular one) in Graham Greene’s desolate/absorbing The Power and the Glory; various deaths in Alexandre Dumas’ stirring The Count of Monte Cristo (shedding their mortal coil are Edmond Dantes’ mentor/fellow prisoner and the evil guys who framed the innocent Dantes); and the death of a soldier in Erich Maria Remarque’s heartbreaking A Time to Love and a Time to Die. (Hmm…that last title certainly telegraphs a character’s fate, as do the titles of novels such as Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Colette’s The Last of Cheri.)
Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface in this post. Let’s take this six feet under with your examples of memorable deaths and death scenes in literature. It’s up to you how much of a spoiler alert you want to include with your comments. 🙂
My headline of course references this famous Monty Python scene.
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at email@example.com to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.