05/23/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Why We Tolerate Many Deaths in Literature

With all the real-life carnage in the world -- from the war in Afghanistan to the factory disaster in Bangladesh to the tornado in Oklahoma -- how painful is it to also read about fictional deaths in literature? Pretty painful, especially if we're fond of the characters whose lives end.

But it's hard for readers to avoid expired characters. Death is as ubiquitous as taxes and blog posts, and literature reflects this. Also, the passing of people is a major dramatic device (along with romance, ambition, etc.) that many fiction authors use to keep us riveted.

Another big pull is knowing that death in literature is of course make-believe -- meaning readers are consciously or subconsciously relieved that they and other real-life people aren't the ones shedding their mortal coil. We're still breathing as we mourn the deaths of likable characters and perhaps enjoy the demise of evil ones.

The most memorable deaths in literature? There are so many to choose from, and I'll mention some before asking you to name others. But to partly avoid spoilers, I won't give the names of the characters on my kick-the-bucket list.

In Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, the title character has a schoolmate who dies -- a death made even more poignant by Jane's proximity to that event during the girl's final night.

The passing of one of the four sisters in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is among the most tear-jerking events in 19th-century American literature, partly because this character is so kind and stoic.

Several die when a bridge collapses in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which muses about why that tragedy happened and why those particular people perished.

Some other memorable deaths? The accidental murder in Richard Wright's Native Son, the demise of a scary warrior in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, a character falling into Mount Doom in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and a prominent wizard being zapped by the killing curse in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening features a dramatic death by drowning, as does Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and Jack London's Martin Eden.

Speaking of London, he and other novelists (including Emile Zola in Germinal) sometimes depict the heartbreaking demise of animals. Isn't it a shame that a bird is part of the death spiral at the end of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick?

Getting back to humans, literature includes many auto-accident deaths, such as in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. And of course there's the carnage of war in novels like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, and the carnage of the Holocaust in books like Remarque's Spark of Life and William Styron's Sophie's Choice.

Then there are novels that contain many varieties of death, such as those in The Hunger Games. And lots of characters in Suzanne Collins' trilogy die young, as does a protagonist in Nicholas Sparks' A Walk to Remember. Death from old age? The ancient matriarch in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of countless examples.

Especially strange, inventive and/or horrific deaths? A married couple is killed by rampaging logs as they frolic in a river in The Cider House Rules by John Irving (an author many HuffPost commenters urged me to read). A man in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is impaled on a fence. Characters commit ritual suicide in James Clavell's Shogun. The guillotine claims its victims in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Death by vat occurs in T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville. A man is beaten to death by authorities in Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. A character entering an outhouse in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is surprised by another character and...

Then there are novels in the horror, detective, mystery and dystopian genres that feature so many corpses a separate blog post could be written about them. Think authors like Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie -- the last in fare such as And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile.

Among the many other literary works with titles containing "Death" or a variation of that word are Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, John Grisham's A Time to Kill, James Joyce's "The Dead" and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

What are your "favorite" (if that's the right word!) deaths in literature?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at