Spoiler warning: death of some of literature’s most beloved characters. Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Harry Potter.
Death is a tool, as versatile as the ink used to write. For as long literature has existed, deaths have too, seeping into the paper like ink. Literature touches our emotions and tickles our hearts, turning us into saps for our paper-lovers. For some authors — (Martin, Roth, I’m looking at you), death is a tool to serve and advance the plot, sometimes unnecessarily. For other authors, it’s used for symbolism and to bring growth in the character. Literary deaths, similar to ones in real life, are abstract.
Let’s have a look at the many forms of fictional deaths, and how they served their stories. Before we start, please be warned: everyone dies.
Beth March from Little Women
You saw this one coming, didn’t you? We can’t have a list of sob-worthy deaths without including the heartbreaking loss of our third March sister. We’ve all probably gotten close to tears reading the reactions of her closest family as they found out the news. It hurt then and it hurts now.
In chapter 13, Castles in the Air, the four sisters, plus Laurie, discuss their “castles” or, aspirations and dreams. Jo wishes to be an authour, write stories and own a whole stable of horses. Amy wishes to live in Europe as the most famous artist in the world. Meg wishes to live in a grand house with all the riches and fancy clothes in the world, complete with servants. Laurie aspires to be the most famous musician, living in Germany and creating music for himself. Beth has different, less ambitious dreams than the rest of them. Simply to stay home, support her family. It only took death for her family to realize that her dreams, albeit different, weren’t any less valid.
In some ways, Beth’s death was necessary. Little Women is all about showing the growth of four young women, who chose different paths in life and still ended up happy. There is no one way a woman should lead her life. For Beth, her path in life wasn’t the chosen one, but from the excerpt below, we can see that it’s something Beth unintentionally wished for all the same.
“Jo talks about the country where we hope to live in some time; the real country, she means, with pigs and chickens and haymaking. It would be nice, but I wish the beautiful country up there was real, and we could even go to it,” said Beth musingly.
“There is a lovelier country even than that, where we shall go, by and by, when we are good enough,” answered Meg, with her sweet voice.
“It seems so long to wait, so hard to do; I want to fly away at once, as those swallows fly, and go in at that splendid gate.”
“You’ll get there, Beth, sooner or later, no fear of that.”
There’s more irony in that statement than the girls realized at the time. It’s clear Meg is talking about heaven, Beth, impatient still, wishes to go. What the girls did not realize at the time is that young Beth’s wish would come true way sooner than they’d have expected.
Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables
“Many people have told me that they regretted Matthew's death in Green Gables. I regret it myself,” wrote Lucy Maud Montgomery in her autobiography, The Alpine Path. “If I had the book to write over again, I would spare Matthew for several years. But when I wrote it, I thought he must die, that there might be a necessity for self-sacrifice on Anne's part, so poor Matthew joined the long procession of ghosts that haunt my literary past.”
Matthew was Anne’s father, in everything besides blood. The bond that he and Anne shared made his abrupt death all the more heartbreaking. While his death was saddening, it was inevitable. Matthew was old with heart problems. Nonetheless, it was an important tool to advance the plot; it bridged the gap between Marilla and Anne, making them grow closer. Not only that, it served as a profound scene and an almost catalyst for Anne to move onto the next part of her life.
Matthew Cuthbert will always be remembered, as a unique man. Forever loving and forever loved.
Bruno & Shmuel from The Boy in Striped Pajamas
This is the sole book I read in which the main character dies, and I can accept it. In fact, I felt the death was necessary.
The Boy in Striped Pajamas is a historical fiction that takes place near Jewish Concentration Camps. The ending was left ambiguous; up to the reader. We can all guess what truly happened. What happened at the end of the book, and a thousand times more during the war.
The death of our two most beloved characters from this cherished novel is this: to show that this has happened. Yes, it’s real. It happened.
And what better way to spread the truth of reality than through fiction?
Everyone who died from Harry Potter
This one is self-explanatory. There were a lot of deaths. Sirius, Dumbledore, Dobby, Hedwig, Fred, Tonks, Lupin, Snape and countless more. Each one sacrificed themselves for the character to step forward, and for the plot to progress.
Dumbledore, Snape, and Sirius was probably Rowling’s way of getting rid of Harry’s father figures so he could mature. Fred...Fred’s death was plain cruel. As a twin myself, I don’t think there could be a greater pain. Each death contributed to the plot; whether as a plot device, or a sacrifice, to tie loose ends or bring growth in the character.
While all the deaths in Harry Potter still tear at readers’ hearts, they’ll always have a place in our hearts, except Voldy.
We can take an example from these heartbreaking literary deaths, how to proceed with killing off our own characters as writers. We’ve all heard the saying: kill your darlings. I abide by that. Do kill your darlings, but do it with purpose and intent.
Have any tragic literary deaths that tore at your heart from your favourite pieces? Share them below.
first ventured into the world of writing with her sister. Since then, she has gone to explore different genres and styles: short fiction, literary fiction and most recently, non-fiction. When she’s not writing she can be found spending time with family, going on walks, or watching the latest grammar videos. You can visit her website here or follow her on Instagram @mashalashfaqofficial.