Sunday, 2 May 2010

Insignificant and significant deaths in fiction

I've just been listening for the first time to The Devil's Disciple on Radio 7, by George Bernard Shaw. The hero, Dick Dudgeon, spends a large part of the play waiting to be taken out and hanged. He's extremely laid back about this impending nasty end, discussing it calmly and joking about it, so that I would have been astonished and outraged had he not got off at the last moment - as of course he does.

And it got me thinking about death in fiction, how it can devastate the reader or leave him entirely unruffled. I've rated the following types of demise, with marks out of ten for how much we care.

  • Supernumerary: the classic unknown in a red top beaming down with Captain Kirk, Spock, et al, picked off by an alien sniper to show the viewer that this planet is hostile. 0/10

  • Unexpected: Joanna, heroine of the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, strangled by the robot who was to replace her. See also the death of Henry Blake in M.A.S.H.. High No! What? They can't do that! factor, 6/10

  • About time too: Little Beth, always sickly, not quite killed off in Little Women, finally conked out in one of the sequels (don't know which one, don't care). 1/10

  • Oh good: my daughter was briefly and worryingly infatuated with a two-volume tome of Catholic martyrs, all of whom went cheerily to their unpleasant deaths as they knew next thing they'd be in heaven, hurray! 0/10

  • Box of tissues required: a perfect example is Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea. I cry each time I read it, at the death of Hippolyta, then Hippolytus, and finally Theseus. How does she do it? 10/10
As writers, this is something we need to get right; we shouldn't trivialize death, or pretend some deaths don't matter, even in 'cosy' mysteries or violent thrillers; and when we confound the reader's expectations, it should be deliberate.


  1. Being beamed down to a planet wearing a red shirt led to bets on how long before the poor schmo would be bumped off.

    I'm stumped about literary deaths. I remember sobbing at the climax of Conroy's "Beach Music" but I can't remember at what. And, the deaths in Heller's "Catch 22" are convincing (Snowden), though some are comical (the doctor "dying" because he's on the manifest of a plane that crashes).

  2. Norm, I've just realized I left out the worst category: the death of an animal in fiction.

    What about the death of Ginger in Black Beauty? A terrible tear jerker I can remember howling over as a child.

  3. Old Yeller's death is still classic.

    You can kill as many people as you like in fiction, it's the animal that brings on the emotion (how dare she!).

    Now if the animal in question is wearing a red velour shirt on an alien planet, well, he had it coming.

  4. Oh Lexi!

    I mourn each red-shirted security personnel in Star Trek who gets bumped off! They so don't deserve it!! And Cap'n Kirk always remembers their names and does his grieving best! :-)

    Not quite the same in the book but a devastated Ralph Fiennes carrying a dead (literally) gorgeous Kristen Scott Thomas out of the caves in the English Patient....!!! 1 million out of 10!

    Oh and Bambi.


    Take care

  5. p.s I meant Bambi's MUM!


    Bambi lives to be the next Big Stag.



  6. Goodness, yes...Man has taken her away...*sob*

    Glad someone cares about all those doomed newbie trekkers with a taste for red tops. Sudden thought, I'd never be one of them. I don't wear red, it makes me look washed-out.

  7. Have you read 'After You'd Gone' by Maggie O'Farrell? She captures the confusion and distress of grief so well, and you feel it almost for real yourself because her characters are so well drawn. Definitely falls in the 'box of tissues required' category. Reading it was tough; can't imagine how hard it must have been to write.

  8. Hi Lexi! I just wanted to agree about The Bull From the Sea. Great, tear-jerking demise there. And the death of Ginger was devastating. I get upset just thinking about it now.

    Another good one I remember from the dim past was from the Godfather, when Al Pacino's (can't remember his character name now) Italian love interest was blown up. Wasn't her name Apolliana or something like that? (I read it over 30 years ago) And they were so happy. Boo hoo. Anyway, interesting thoughts. Reb

  9. Oh dear, K and Rebakai, I haven't read After You'd Gone OR The Godfather.

    So many books, so little time...

  10. Tee hee. Get to work!

    I also remember crying at some point in Beach Music (Pat Conroy.) But yeah, it's been so long I can't remember the event now. All I can remember are his luxurious phrases, his exquisite descriptions....

  11. The deaths in The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry grip me not to tears - I don't cry easily - but clutch at my chest every time I re-read those last chapters, which I do occasionally because they are so 10/10, to me.

    I just found you through Old Kitty and thought I'm come over to meet you. Glad I did.

  12. Another book I must put on my list - as long as it's not too gruesome. The title is a bit ominous...