Partings are often sad and poignant, and literature is full of them. I don’t mean partings as in death, but either temporary or permanent farewells between characters who remain alive.
Those goodbyes can be spelled out in dramatically dialogued scenes, or more minimally mentioned in some narrative way by an author. The leave-takings might or might not be “for the best,” and readers wonder if the characters will meet again. Readers also think about their own real-life partings, which adds their personal emotions to the emotions evoked by the author.
Two novels that are among my favorites — Jane Eyre and The Grapes of Wrath — contain wrenching separations.
In Charlotte Bronte’s book, Jane sneaks away from Thornfield Hall after a devastating revelation convinces her that she can’t stay with Edward Rochester. There is no direct goodbye — they already said plenty during an emotionally charged conversation not many hours before — but Jane’s surreptitious departure remains a powerful scene. Plus she will be alone in the world, with no particular destination.
John Steinbeck’s novel features a meeting between Ma Joad and her in-hiding son Tom just before Tom flees to escape capture after committing a morally justifiable (but of course technically illegal) murder. A very sad encounter, made even sadder by the endless cascade of troubles that had been hitting the beleaguered Joad family for months.
Another melancholy parting, which we learn about in backstory, is between the Persuasion characters of Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. In Jane Austen’s novel, Anne’s snobby family pressured her to break off her engagement to the admirable Frederick because he was a not-rich-enough “nobody” at the time.
There’s also the goodbye between Gwendolen Harleth and the title character of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen is in love with Daniel, but Daniel has just married someone else with whom he’ll be traveling far from England — perhaps for the rest of their lives. Gwendolen’s letter to Daniel in the novel’s closing pages is heartbreaking.
Another unrequited romance followed by a goodbye is part of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, in which Judith Hutter is left despondent after Natty Bumppo declines her offer of marriage. Years later, Natty thinks he sees Judith in the distance, and her life has not turned out particularly well.
Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years has Delia Grinstead leaving her husband and children — partly because they’ve been taking her for granted for a long time. In this case, Delia’s action itself is a farewell; she doesn’t literally say goodbye when she leaves to try to start a new life. Will she return?
Moving to another country can certainly set up sad family separations — as in Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, etc.
Then there are the goodbyes in times of slavery, war, and other ultra-wrenching periods. What could be worse than the inhumanly brutal forced separations of parents and their children in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and various other novels set in the Antebellum South?
During war, we have devastating separations in such novels as Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, among many other books.
Which novels contain goodbye scenarios you’ve found particularly memorable?
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.