Unusual Deaths of Fictional Characters
This first one is almost a cheat since the characters survive, but for the wow factor, deserves a very honorable mention. Set in a dismal little town, Ethan’s life is as dreary as the fictional town of Starkville, Massachusetts. (The metaphor in the name is a bit heavy handed.) And after years with a bitter and ailing wife, Zeena, his love life is no less cold.
He finds solace in a secret romance with Mattie Silver, his wife’s younger cousin. With his heart torn to shreds at the impossibility (and immorality) of marrying his new love, they propose one of the strangest suicide attempts in literature: death by sled. While sledding full speed into a tree seems an impractical death, it completes the theme. In their recklessness, they find that succumbing to passion does not equate to freedom.
There is still open debate on the actual motifs of morality in the novel, emphasized in Lionel Trilling’s thought-provoking analysis “The Morality of Inertia.” However, Ethan Frome is still considered a classic in a certain sense, even adapted into a mildly successful film version. If the critic’s reviews seem a bit daunting, it’s at least worth seeing Liam Neeson continue this bizarre literary sensation.
One of Charles Dickens’ greatest feats of literature, Great Expectations has its fill of unusual events. From the narrator’s (Pip’s) uncle Joe marrying a young childhood friend, to Pip’s inexplicable adoration for a horrendously indifferent girl (that most readers would love to shake some sense into), Dickens outdid himself in the unexpected. But perhaps the most noteworthy event involves the death of one of the most unconventional characters.
For Miss Havisham, time stood still after a cruel bachelor jilted her at the altar. Unable to bear the heartbreak and humiliation, she spends the rest of her life in deterioration. She stops all clocks, lets the wedding cake rot in place, and refuses to remove her soiled gown. Decades later, still donning the same wedding dress, Miss Havisham contemplates life a little too close to the fireplace. She is unaware that her dress catches fire before it is all too late, burning to death where she stands. Her inability to recover from an old injustice ultimately consumes her.
No list of dramatic deaths could ever be complete without a reference to Shakespeare. Though the historical plays are considered some of his drier works, Julius Caesar hides an odd death of a minor character. Portia is the wife of Brutus (the Brutus of the famous line “Et tu, Brute?” and inspiration for songs by The Hives and Red Hot Chili Peppers.) She only appears twice in the entire play, but her last scene packs a punch.
Haunted by the absence of her husband while he battles for Rome, she grows increasingly unstable. Despite having no evidence that Brutus is dead (he is not), she becomes convinced that the enemy is too strong, and he must surely perish. Unable to imagine life without him, she is said to have “swallowed fire.”
“She fell distract,
And, her attendants absent, swallow’d fire”— IV, iii, 154-155
According to the Greek biographer and essayist, Plutarch, Portia completed this strange action by swallowing hot coals. Not only is this one of the most unusual forms of suicide in literature, but one of the most unusual reasons. Acting in desperation, she died from missing her husband too much.
A Separate Peace
While the actual death of Phineas (Finny) in John Knowles’ classic seems decently believable, the metaphor behind it is a bit unusual. Finny realizes on the eve of his operation that the “accident” which disabled him (“falling” out of a tree) was actually a purposeful deed enacted by none other than his best friend and narrator, Gene Forrester.
Of course, dramatic irony dampens this revelation, as the audience already was well aware -and struggling to forgive- this travesty. Yet the dark secret quite literally shatters Finny. During the operation to set his leg, a fragment of the splintered bone enters Finny’s bloodstream, piercing his heart. As an audience, we are meant to assume the pain of Gene’s betrayal was far too much, and our beloved Finny died of a broken heart.
Many people read into this book scouring for some hidden romance between the two. However, considering the deception as executed by a close friend seems no less painful than that of a wannabe lover. A 2004 film adaptation met some critique for dissimilarities between the movie and the novel, but still keeps this unique death alive.
Though most known for his novels (), Nathaniel Hawthorne was also an expectational short story writer. One of these haunting little works includes The Birthmark. The story revolves around a brilliant scientist, Aylmer, and his wife, Georgiana. Being renowned for her beauty, Georgiana’s only flaw is a tiny birthmark in the shape of a hand on her cheek. A very minuscule flaw, considering the mark is not visible when she blushes and small enough to be covered by two fingertips. The House of Seven Gables
Despite this, Aylmer becomes increasingly obsessed with removing the mark. Convinced that this blemish somehow symbolizes her mortality, he plans to prove his sovereignty over nature in running experimentation on her. Treating her with small doses of poison, his lovely wife falls ill as the mark begins to lift. As soon as the birthmark flees, she dies in his arms. By stripping her of her one physical flaw, he creates the angel he desired in a way he never imagined.
In this odd death, Hawthorne raises questions about human nature and the consequence of our constant desire for control. Similar themes are brought up in an equally twisted death found in his story Rappaccini's Daughter. Though Hawthorne’s own death lacked some of this mystique, a former president of the United States found his corpse (lifelong friend Franklin Pierce) and his pallbearers included some equally famous writers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The Oval Portrait
Originally called “Life in Death,” Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait involves a twisted obsession that rivals Alymer’s need for cosmetic perfection. Captivated by the desire to create a painting of his wife, a tension arises. Though beautiful and charming, his wife despises the narrator’s art, jealous at how his consumption and passion steals affection from her. Yet to appease him, she sits for the painting.
As she sits smiling, he engrosses himself in the project. By the end of its completion, he locked her away in a tower so no one could see his masterpiece. In his utter preoccupation with creating a life-like portrait, he fails to realize his wife lost hers. Looking up from the final brushstrokes, he realizes with absolute horror that he painted her corpse.
Though Poe is known for his taste for macabre, this particular piece takes “ghastly” to a whole new level. The psychological implications behind this literary death leave a haunting impression a reader is slow to forget.
Though Shakespeare already earned a mention, a final acknowledgment is necessary. His play Titus takes the cake for most disturbing literary deaths of its kind. Through a horrific series of events, deaths in this play involve mutilation and cannibalism worthy of Hannibal Lector. In fact, none other than Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins (actor of Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs) plays the tragic main character in the 1999 film adaptation. Though this form of horrific torment can be seen -unfortunately- in real life autobiographies like Bite of the Mango or fictionalized in NBC’s horror television series Hannibal, keeping time in mind is crucial.
Shakespeare is speculated to have written Titus between 1588 and 1593. That’s well over 400 years ago. Though the cinematic tastes of our time have driven us towards darker and darker corners of acceptable writing, from A Serbian Film to Irreversible, the classic playwright deserves some credit for having the guts to present this sort of grisly act originally.
Without venturing too far into the realm of disturbing, many other works could easily take place on the list. The death of the old lady in A Clockwork Orange, the senseless shooting in The Stranger, an axe-to-the-face murder in American Psycho, or a skinning in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle have all influenced the norms of literary death and dabbled in the sadistic. However, the focus is on the unusual, and hundreds of years later, writers still manage to find ways to surprise the audience with unique deaths that remind us of the fragility and significance of life. If you remember a particularly shocking death in a literary work, please comment below.