We all know that the death of a much loved character can reduce many of us to tears – even at the umpteenth re-reading. I sobbed so much when Rudy died in the Book Thief that my throat closed up and I could only squint sideways to read the few remaining pages.
When Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty fell together from the Reichenbach Falls in 1893 over 20,000 people to cancel their subscription to The Strand magazine as a protest against his death, and a century later the demise of Albus Dumbledore sent shockwaves around the globe. However on some occaasions it is not the fact that a character has died as much the nature of their passing that lingers in the reader’s imagination and I’ve had a little rootle around in my memory to recall a few of my favourites.
Murder most Vile
Philippa Gregory combines nosy interference and electrocution with shocking results in her novel The Little House. Ruth, the desperate daughter-in-law ingeniously uses a pram and an electric lawn mower as the unusual tools with which to murder the MiL. Louise Penny was similarly inspired to employ electrocution in combination with anti-freeze and a garden chair in her novel Dead Cold. Female victims, female murderers and female authors, surely there can’t be a pattern here?
Thinking of the pram and lawn mower combo reminded me that while a mower is an unlikely tool of death, every now and again it is brought out of the garden shed with gruesome results. Stephen King, a master of the shocking, uses it with great effect in Misery- enabling Annie Wilkes to dispatch an unfortunate State Trooper on the verge of discovering the missing author Paul Sheldon. Yuk!
From lawns to earth and the Four Elements!
Dan Brown pulled out all the stops in Angels and Demons to present a themed, creative and unpleasant way to murder four cardinals. Brown employs the elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water; one is suffocated by soil in the throat, another has punctured lungs so air leaks out, a third is burned alive and finally the fourth is wrapped in chains and dumped in water to drown.
But enough with gruesome murders what about …
Lennie is shot by George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Is it a mercy killing? George knows Lennie will be lynched and almost certainly killed but does he choose to shoot his friend in the back of the head simply as an act of kindness or is he, in part, saving his own skin by making sure that he won’t get caught up in the anger of the lynch mob? Some might go so far as to call it euthanasia – Lennie will undoubtedly suffer and this is a preventative act by his friend.
In an murder that rocked the world Severus Snape performed the killing curse on Dumbledore and claimed the elder wand for himself. But readers later discover that Dumbledore’s death was arranged beforehand between the two of them –was Snape actually doing Albus a favour and euthanizing rather than murdering him? Whatever the background to the event there is no doubt that in great literary tradition Dumbledore knowingly sacrificed what little was left of his life in order to protect both Harry and Draco. This brings me to my third and final category…
The real tear jerker death of literary heroes is self-sacrifice. Even unpleasant or weak characters can be redeemed and elevated to sainthood by choosing to die in the place of another. This is exactly what happens in Dickens’ novel, A Tale of two Cities. Sydney Carton is presented as a brilliant solicitor and a man of great intellect but he is also an alcoholic and a depressive full of self-loathing. He is instrumental in obtaining the release of a client, Charles Darnay, about whom he has mixed feelings. When Lucie Manette marries Darnay, Carton’s jealousy is further mixed with bitterness for he too loved Lucie. The French revolutionaries are in full flow and heads are rolling left, right and centre. When Darnay gets arrested in France and his real identity as an aristocrat is revealed he is sentenced to face Madame La Guillotine – but in steps Carton who not only breaks Darnay out of jail but takes his place knowing that he will in turn be beheaded. Such self-sacrifice has always been popular with readers and Dickens’ set the seal upon Carton’s noble act with these legendary final words;
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known”.
Nothing in his life became him like the leaving. What a way to go!
Got a favourite literary death? Let us know in comments.