Literature lovers are among the people who need cheering up in these troubled times, so today’s blog post is about…death. Oops.
It can’t be denied that many great and not-so-great novels have a mortality element, and some of those books are 100% depressing. But others are also inspiring, therapeutic, cathartic, etc.
Death entered my mind as I recently read Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, much of which features residents of the fictional Missouri town of Elmwood Springs talking with each other after they die. Yet the novel is mostly sunny and comforting, though not so sentimental that some real-life social issues (such as sexism) are ignored.
On the other hand, many death-permeated novels — such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — are mostly downbeat. Yet they can be totally worth reading for their powerful writing, psychological insights, perspectives on religion, and so on.
“Permeated with death” doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of characters pass away in a particular book. Just two deaths are most central to Crime and Punishment, and there’s only one major demise in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. In mass-audience fiction, among the mortality-infused novels with just one key death is Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.
Yet “permeated with death” can mean many lives snuffed out — especially in fictional works set during wartime (such as Erich Maria Remarque’s concentration-camp novel Spark of Life), during an attack on civilians (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), during resistance to a brutal dictatorship (Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies), during slavery (Octavia Butler’s Kindred), during a plague (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man), etc.
Then there are the five people who die when a bridge collapses in Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Nothing more than awful fate and horrible luck, of course, but a monk who witnesses the disaster tries to find a reason why that particular quintet lost their lives.
Early in Old Mortality, Sir Walter Scott focuses on a man who travels to various cemeteries to re-engrave the tombs of 17th-century men who died in battle. Then Scott moves the action back to 1679, and we see the deaths occur.
In “The Dead,” hearing a particular song causes a married woman to remember the passing away of a young former boyfriend. The effect on her and her husband (along with James Joyce’s evocative writing) gives the long short story its emotional wallop.
Other fictional works prominently featuring the no-longer-living? Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (obviously), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Catherine Earnshaw’s spectral presence), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (brutal white guys massacring innocents in the 19th-century American West), and (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That (with its memorable conclusion that juggles life and death), to name just four.
What about Edgar Allan Poe? Agatha Christie? Sue Grafton? Walter Mosley? Louise Penny? Lee Child? Authors of certain genre fiction — horror stories, ghost tales, mysteries, detective novels, thrillers, etc. — of course often include in their books murdered or otherwise-deceased characters, but that’s for different blog posts to discuss. Several of which I already wrote, such as this one. 🙂
The death-permeated works of fiction you’ve found most memorable? (Feel free to also comment on mysteries and the other genres mentioned in the above paragraph!)
And, sort of on this topic, here’s a video of the Evanescence song “My Immortal.”
My 2017 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, a dystopian fantasy about greedy developers paving over and building in parks, is here.