Memorable Moments of Fearlessness in Fiction

My cat Misty, who gets a leashed stroll every morning, during an adventurous fence walk.

Some characters in novels take major risks out of desperation, to courageously save someone, to feed a daredevil nature, or for other reasons. Those scenes can be ultra-memorable, staying in readers’ minds for years. Here are a few such scenes — including some with spoilers, even as I tried fudging things a bit, so continue at your peril: ๐Ÿ™‚

One of the most heart-stopping examples of fearlessness in fiction involves the cruelly pursued Eliza clutching her young son as she tries to escape slavery by leaping northward from ice floe to ice floe across the Ohio River in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I discussed last week in a different context, young Cro-Magnon protagonist Ayla attempts to save a Neanderthal boy from drowning at grave risk to her life.

Water is also a factor when long-jailed innocent Edmond Dantes, star of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, strives to make a desperate swimming escape from the Chateau d’If island prison off Marseille.

Speaking of prisons, among the many heroic scenes in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is one in the first book when Claire sneaks into a heavily fortified jail to try to save her husband Jamie — and even fights off a ravenous wolf soon after.

Among hobbit Samwise Gangee’s courageous acts in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is daringly trying to rescue Frodo Baggins from the Tower of Cirith Ungol. And then there’s that climactic scene at Mount Doom…

Another series with all kinds of heroism is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga. Harry, Hermione, Ron, and other kid and adult characters do many brave things, of course, but teen Neville Longbottom’s gutsiness in the presence of archvillain Lord Voldemort near the end of the final novel particularly resonates because Neville was very timid and put-upon in the early books.

As is the case with many other stars of crime-fiction series, Jack Reacher is nearly fearless in Lee Child’s novels. But the massive and somewhat claustrophobic Jack is especially valiant in 61 Hours as he squirms around a small underground bunker in snowy South Dakota to try to nab that novel’s villain.

There are quieter forms of boldness, too, as when Alice Howland of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice gives a public speech after her early-onset Alzheimer’s disease has gotten much worse.

Last but not least, there are few actions braver than trying to take the place of a person who’s about to be executed. Such was the intention of Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities — leading to one of literature’s most memorable closing scenes and closing lines.

Examples of courage you most remember in novels?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning โ€œMontclairvoyantโ€ topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which criticizes a departing Board of Education member for criticizing teachers — is here.

61 thoughts on “Memorable Moments of Fearlessness in Fiction

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Jean Auel’s earlier books in the Earth Children series are great examples of bravery in books. Bravery comes in different forms, Katy [What Katy Did] is brave when she faces up to her paralysis and sets about making the most of her life despite it. That book always comes to mind when I am faced with an obstacle in life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps it’s mere coincidence that your cat Misty’s photo graces this week’s blog entry, as in print you’ve projected nothing on the feline pictured beyond having an “adventurous fence walk”, but if this meant to illustrate fearlessness, I must protest, as it looks to me as if Misty is wearing a thunder shirt, a garment developed to calm our furry friends, usually of the canine variety.

    Full disclosure: in these troubling times, I have often wondered if a Great Dane-sized thunder shirt might fit me– I figure, if anything, it might hang loose, as I wish I could.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Misty is just wearing a harness — and a leash we grab if he tries to leave our apartment complex during his daily morning walk. Cats (and other animals) are of course not consciously brave; more of an instinct thing. But I couldn’t resist using the photo — actually a screen shot from a video of Misty walking the fence for about a half minute. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Ha! ๐Ÿ™‚ (Your second paragraph.)

      Like

  3. Here’s a strange entry on fiction fearlessness:

    Haven’t gotten around to reading the book, though I’ve got it here– “The Phantom of the Opera” by Gaston Leroux– but I’ve seen the 1925 Lon Chaney film at least a half-dozen times. In the very last scene, Erik, the Phantom, has been chased down the streets of Paris by a maddened mob of locals, and finds himself at the Seine’s edge after his carriage wrecks, alone and surrounded. Suddenly, he holds his balled fist above his head as if it were a bomb, and the crowd backs away. Then he laughs, and opens his hand, which contains NOTHING. The crowd immediately swarms him, tears at him and throws him in the water.

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    • jhNY, that IS an interesting and memorable example of a certain kind of fearlessness or I’m going-to-die-anyway action. Thank you! I’ve never read the book or seen any “The Phantom of the Opera” movie or stage adaptation.

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  4. My Memorable Moment of Fearlessness comes not from literature, but from real life, which Martin Mull, in his moving lp “Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture In Your Living Room, claimed to be a reliable source of material:

    Richard came into the family by way of a whirlpool. The man who had owned him drowned in one, and somehow, though as far as I remember he was a man I only met once and lived nowhere near us, his big black cat Richard moved in after, an alpha type who fought his rivals with victorious fervor, but had a chivalrous streak in him, and occasionally at night brought back a female to dine at his bowl by the door.

    Richard had enemies beyond the world of cats, chief of whom was Rebel, a noisy basset hound who lived two houses down and developed a practice of howling up at Richard as he lay stretched in the sun on the porch roof, sometimes for many minutes. For weeks, this had elicited no more than an unblinking stare from the cat. But behind green eyes lay danger.

    One day around noon, I heard a terrific yowling outside, but its source was hard to locate. At first, the sound seemed to come from the side of the house, then the back, then the other side. When I climbed from our living room window out onto the porch roof– not an encouraged act at my age of five, I should add– I saw Richard, hanging on like a rodeo cowboy, as the cat completed his second turn around the house mounted on Rebel’s long brown and white back, before running up a convenient pine. He had had enough of interruption to his hot hours of repose, and had taken himself down to ground level in a leap, possibly straight onto howling Rebel, whose howls had only intensified in number and volume once the cat was in the saddle.

    Rebel kept well to himself ever after.

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    • Wow, that’s quite a scene, jhNY, described terrifically! I bet even John Wayne couldn’t have done the cowboy thing better than Richard the cat riding Rebel the dog! Bothering a living being while they’re trying to nap is risky business indeed…

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      • After sending this in, I had a thought about the symbolism at work here, though till now unbeknownst to me, son of the South, who has had this story rolling around in his head for 65 years: a black cat, sick to the gills of the noise of Rebel, who may for present purposes stand in for all the Rebels behind the rebel yell, driving off the offender in the name of his own well-being and repose. Perhaps Richard’s act was a kind of fearless forerunner of Black Lives Matter, though in his case, he had, theoretically, eight to spare.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Often times, I think that just living and dying is in itself an act of fearlessness. Perhaps we might reason from there, that existentialism is not so much a philosophical theory as it is an intrinsic part
    of human nature. Consequently, the novel Frankenstein moves me to consider the monster and his struggles re: fearlessness, the whole of it. I’ve lately been reading the Tibetan Book Of The Dead to better understand the Bardo re: Saunders novel “Lincoln In The Bardo.” And I must say to be able to accept the death of a loved one and to continue on after such a tragedy, does, indeed, require a tremendous amount of courage since nothing can move so close to fear as death. In the case of Frankenstein’s monster. given those literary themes eg man against man, man against nature, and man against God, what can we do? It makes me weep for all those we have so recently lost from Covid. Great post Dave.

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  6. There’s an interesting fan fiction theory gaining a lot of steam that Neville Longbottom was actually the chosen one. It makes for some entertaining reading, if you’re ever interested ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ As for other courageous acts in literature, one that has really stuck with me lately is “the Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri. I would call the entire book one big long act of courage, as the main character and his wife flee Syria and seek asylum in the UK after the death of their son. Their perilous journey through many countries, and what they had to go through constantly had me on the edge of my reading chair. And the writing is so vivid and moving. Another recent read packed full of courageous acts is “Yellow Wife” by Sadeqa Johnson. What the main character and so many others had to survive in the closing years of slavery made my gut turn – and the bravery and courage it took for them to keep going is unfathomable to me.

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    • Thank you, M.B.!

      Interesting about Neville Longbottom! I guess the “Harry Potter” books would have felt a lot different if Neville were the chosen one. So much fan fiction connected with that series!

      And those are two great mentions of “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” and “Yellow Wife.” Some people (characters) show unbelievable courage in situations like those.

      BTW, I’m now reading Tommy Orange’s “There There,” which you were one of the people to recommend. VERY compelling and disturbing novel.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Hands down for me, Dave, the most harrowing tale of heroism goes to Follow the River by James Alexander Thom (1981). Fiction based in the family lore of Mary Draper Ingles, this novel traces a young woman’s journey back home, by foot along the Ohio River after she escapes capture by Shawnee in 1755. Thom writes riveting historical fiction told from the perspective of both indigenous and white people.

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! That’s a VERY enthusiastic recommendation of a harrowing novel. Sounds riveting indeed! And glad “Follow the River” gives both the indigenous and white perspective; too often it’s just the latter. Just put the book on my to-read list.

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    • Thank you very much, Jennifer!

      Yes, “resonate” is the word! It’s interesting that scenes such as the ones I and commenters mentioned can be recalled clearly even as many other parts of the novels they’re in fade somewhat from memory. Those scenes are that dramatic.

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  8. My first thoughts, when I read this, went to Sydney Carton in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. So noble!
    I’ve just started unpacking some books in my office – there is absolutely no order to them, so not much inspiration to get me thinking. I’m currently looking at some Poirots, Chekov plays, a history of the Romanovs and a book called ‘What Cats Want’ (I think it’s been agreed the short answer to that is ‘world domination’).
    However, I did wonder about ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Alice was certainly fearless in her dealings with the Queen of Hearts and, generally, navigating Wonderland!
    Ralph in ‘Lord of the Flies’ certainly shows fearlessness against the awful Jack but at a tremendous cost to himself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      Yes, that Sydney Carton scene is one many of us thought of. Definitely among the most dramatic in the long and varied history of literature. He acted as noble as can be at that point of the book.

      Alice is indeed VERY brave in Lewis Carroll’s work, especially given her young age.

      You’re right that courage can come at a great cost, as in “Lord of the Flies.” In many war novels, too, of course.

      I hope your move went well! Must be a relief to be in the unpacking-books stage. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Last but not least, thanks for the hilarious cat quip! ๐Ÿ˜‚

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      • I was certainly thinking of the war novels as well – in fact, my thoughts about it were linked to your previous post (which I didn’t comment on) and how we choose our books. As one of your other contributors mentioned they read several books during the centenary year of WWI, which is something I did as well. I imagine that was a common theme for many people.

        I’ll be glad when I’ve found homes for all of the books that’s for sure, but yes, thank you, the move went surprisingly well for something that’s considered quite stressful!

        And good to share some cat humour with people who definitely get it … ๐Ÿ˜‰

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        • Reading WWI books during that conflict’s centenary year(s) — great idea to have done that, Sarah! I didn’t do it consciously, but ended up reading some “The Great War”-related novels between 2014 and 2018…”The Razor’s Edge” (Maugham) and “Mrs. Dalloway” (Woolf) among them.

          Glad the moving process wasn’t too onerous!

          And, yes, I’m all for hearing about cats — humorously or otherwise. ๐Ÿ™‚

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            • Glad you’re liking “Crime and Punishment,” Sarah! Such a riveting novel. I look forward to your next blog post about it, if you decide to do that.

              Maugham’s better works are GREAT! “Of Human Bondage,” “The Moon and Sixpence,” “The Painted Veil,” “Cakes and Ale,” and the aforementioned “The Razor’s Edge.”

              Liked by 1 person

  9. What a great post. Oh I reckon in the ten best heroics moments, Sydney Carton has to be up there in the top 3 I mean, it’s a throat clencher that scene. The dressmaker he’s never met before in his life making it a stand out cinematic moment. I always quite liked the end of Precious bane where the villagers are going to drown the heroine as a witch and the hero gets in amongst the mob and saves her. And of course in true, let’s make this a romance fashion, the women all think, ‘Yes sir, whatever you say,’ and stand back. Of course the fact he doesn’t expect this doesn’t make him less heroic….

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      Yes, Sydney Carton’s scene is WAY up there — the drama of the scene itself, and Dickens’ writing. Maybe the best writing he ever did, and that’s saying something.

      That “Precious Bane” scene sounds incredible! I just put that Mary Webb novel on my to-read list. Reminds me a bit of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” and Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series has a dramatic 18th-century scene where Claire and another character from the 20th century are captured and threatened with death on accusation of being witches.

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      • Oh it’s an oldie that book but very interesting in terms of the descriptions of ways of life in remote rural communities before industrialisation. I remember having a guest blog about sin eating, which Cat, who did the blog thought I wouldn’t ever have heard of, but it was one old custom that worked its way into that book, so i had. Like Hardy, Webb was deeply into writing about nature. I do love Miller’s plays. The Crucible is epic.

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        • I remember that “sin eating” post, Shehanne! It was fascinating!

          And “The Crucible” was indeed an amazing play, like several of Arthur Miller’s plays. (My wife’s late father was at the University of Michigan at the same time as Miller in the 1930s, and knew him somewhat.)

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          • The Crucible is such a great play. First studied it at secondary school. I’ve seen Death of a Salesman twice, years apart. How wonderful that your wife’s father knew him at uni. Yeah the sin eating post was very interesting. I seem to remember the other oldie custom that is near the start of that book is what was called a love spinning. It was about making the cloth for the to be bride’s house I think, but it was interesting about how before industrialisation, the weavers travelled village to village and the women would gather in one house with all their spinning and he’d weave it into cloth. It was regarded as a very important county or burgh craft in these days.

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            • That’s when I first read “The Crucible,” too! Definitely an allegory of America’s despicable McCarthy era. I’ve also seen “Death of a Salesman” live — including a memorable production with an all-Black cast starring Frankie Faison as Willy Loman. And that’s a really interesting mention/description of “love spinning” (quite an evocative name). Thank you!

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              • Oh yes we were well told re the fact the Crucible wasn’t about the Salem trials as such. That must have been a truly memorable production of Salesman. Out the two I saw years apart, I preferred the first which was on the Byre Theatre. It is not a big theatre or playing area but that tightness really captured the ‘claustophic’ conditions of the play. Whereas the other on the local rep tried to be too smart with the set. It was everywhere ad nowhere and I mind thinking , ‘Can you not just let Miller’s words speak for themselves here.’ Aye, the love-spinning sounds so evocative. I also think it set up the idea of this kind of fairy tale world in the back of beyond, whereas as the books goes on, it’;s anything but.

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                • Arthur Miller definitely had the strong insight that the McCarthy-era witch-hunt of progressives had some things in common with the Salem Witch Trials.

                  Yes, smaller theaters can really enhance a play — including plays with the supercharged intensity of “Death of a Salesman.” And I hear you about overdoing the scenery and such for some plays. As you allude to, that makes more sense for plays that need all the help they can get because the dialogue, plot, or whatever isn’t gripping enough.

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                  • Well Dave, here;s the deal, we had people climbing out of bins at the very beginning, we had ladders everywhere on scaffolding, we had the entire Lomax house dissection set up on this. Now I take my cue from Hitchcock on how an audience asking questions is not emoting. Espesh when it comes to asking who is gonna be first nee-nahed to the the hospital by the blaring sirens tonight with a broken leg, arm, fractured skull you name it. This was even before the audience got to the Arthur Miller bit by which point folks were sucking in their teeth.

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  10. Your mentioned book “The Clan of the Bear Cave brought me to another story, not in a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon surrounding, but in a group of Capuchin monkeys, which accepted in their group a little girl, who had been abandoned in the Columbian jungle. It is called A GIRL WITH NO NAME by Marina Chapman. Thank you Dave, for making us think!

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  11. The idea of sacrifice and risk was brought home to me at a very young age when I read Madeline Lโ€™Engleโ€™s โ€œA Wrinkle in Time,โ€ which was published in 1962. That was when I first recognized that love was the only viable response to darkness. โ€œโ€œTo love is to be vulnerable; and it is only in vulnerability and riskโ€”not safety and securityโ€”that we overcome darkness.โ€ I still remember the moment When Meg took great risk to save her brother, Charles. I was 8. When I read the book to my son when he was 8, we shared the same feeling.

    We cannot forget our four-legged friends. Remember Old Yeller, a children’s novel written by Fred Gipson which was published in 1956. I cried when I read this – and still do: โ€œI remember like yesterday how he strayed in out of nowhere to our log cabin on Birdsong Creek. He made me so mad at first that I wanted to kill him. Then, later, when I had to kill him, it was like having to shoot some of my own folks.โ€

    I am grateful to writers of children and YA books because they build the foundation for critical thinking that will be an invaluable guide in the years that follow. As you said so well, Dave – โ€œThose scenes can be ultra-memorable, staying in readersโ€™ minds for years.

    P.S. I just found out that the inspiration for the dog Old Yeller was based on a dog named Rattler from Mason, Texas.

    Liked by 7 people

      • Thank you, Rebecca and Martina! I agree that children’s books are super-important in the development of kids’ minds and their critical faculties — plus they’re of course entertaining and/or heart-wrenching, etc.

        “A Wrinkle in Time” is indeed a memorable, compelling, and profound book.

        Rebecca, great point that animals can be brave, in their wonderful instinctual ways. I’ve never read or seen “Old Yeller” (yikes!) but I’ve heard so much about it. Didn’t realize it had a real-life inspiration. There’s also the title wolf/dog character in Jack London’s “White Fang,” who does something very courageous to protect his person’s home after adapting to life in “civilization.”

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  12. I’m currently reading “A Good Neighborhood” by Therese Anne Fowler. One of the main characters, a black woman named Valerie, is fearless when she sues her white neighbors, the Whitmans, along with the company that built their home, for ignoring rules about protecting the neighboring trees. Meanwhile, their kids are falling in love, and I’m sure this is not going to end well…

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Becky! That sounds like a fascinating book — albeit one that’s giving you the sense of a depressing plot development to come. The Valerie character is indeed brave; a black woman taking on white neighbors would have to be in this racist world. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      Liked by 4 people

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