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Death in Literature

In HTRLLAP, Foster notes in his section on violence in literature that story (singular because, he argues they are all part of one whole) often emphasizes how insignificant human life unless it has some greater meaning attached to it.

In order to explain the difference between deaths with deeper meaning and those without, Foster cites the mystery genre as an example of literature that uses death almost to the point of excess, making it "very nearly meaningless" (90). He argues that death in this genre usually lacks significance, because the plot is focused more upon the solution of the mystery itself. Foster then goes on to say that death has meaning and acts symbolically when there is "something happening beyond the surface" (91), something that we, as readers, can feel.

Have you ever noticed that you get stronger feelings about death in a novel when it is the death of one of the major characters, rather than the minor ones? Probably so, and naturally, almost, because the major characters are often much more realistic to us (since their personalities are "painted" for us much more vividly, over and over again).

What about the differences in your feelings towards the deaths of different major characters? Do you feel differently when a morally "good" character dies than you do when a morally "evil" character does? Do authors use this to their advantage? Foster argues that they do, and I am inclined to agree... In fact, I have often found myself thinking 'jeez, I really hope that jerk gets what he deserves' when an evil character commits some vile act... And I feel the need to celebrate when one of these characters gets killed off, because it's almost like a personal victory that I share with the protagonists.

I would go on to suggest that characters whose deaths have 'ripple' effects on other aspects of a story also invoke stronger emotions within us. If some nameless soldier dies in a war story I am reading, I'm not going to feel much at all... But if one of the hero's best friends or his commander is slain, I immediately begin to anticipate all kinds of consequences, because the death will have an impact upon my experience, as a reader... In other words, if a death has the potential of changing the outcome of a story, it means much more to me.

What other associations do you make with death in literature? Are there certain types of death or violence that affect you more than others?


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Evan, in the cases that you mentioned, such as death due to oppression or persecution, I guess it could almost be seen as a path to freedom and happiness.

Dr. Jerz, I tried the permalink thing now and it still won't work... I don't know why, it sends the pings when I save my entries, but they won't show up on some people's weblogs correctly (yours, especially, it seems).

Kristen, I know what you mean about that... Though I can't think up any examples right now (3:45 AM :P).

And finally, Lu... I think that it depends on the author, or, perhaps, the story. There are some stories where it would just ruin everything if the main character died at the end, although there are others where the 'main' character is not so clearly labeled, and it is easier to kill a few of them off.

I have to agree with the point of the author's bias.

Case in point, the book Dracula. Yes, Dracula was an "evil" vampire, one of the undead. But some people sympathize with him dont they? Yes, because of what he represents. He represents foreigners trying to make it in a new land. Foreigners being persecuted because their different. New students could identify with a character like that.

Or R.N. Renfield. He was pyschopath who believed that his master, Dracula, would give him eternal life. In the end Renfield died in the end because of Dracula. He was an "antagonist".

I guess what I'm trying to say is, that yes the author sometimes is bias towards a character, but at the same time, not even the main character can escape the wrath of an author.

I agree with the point you made about the reader feeling more towards the death of a main or central character, rather than one that is insiginificant to the story. The types of death that affects me more than others are ones that will prove to be potentially life altering for the main character,and/or other main characters involved with the protagonist. In many cases, I've noticed that an actual death isn't the only representative of death in novels. Many things symbolize death that would cause a change in the main characters life as much as an actual death would

Chris, the URL that you've trackbacked (tracked back?) has "#more" at the end. That might be confusing the blog software. Instead of clicking on "Continue reading", click on the "Permalink" (on most MT blogs, it's the time; on my page, it's the word "permalink").

Death could symbolically mean a number of things. In some instances, as you pointed out, death is given to a character simply to illustrate "the wages of sin is death." However, death can be used to illustrate consequences in a different way.

For example, what if the characters who eventually die in a story do so due to oppression or persecution? Assuming that they did not deserve such treatment, death takes a whole new interpretation in such a context.

It's an interesting point that main protagonists in stories usually are sympathized (though, this distinction becomes less clear in naturalist stories). Maybe it is because we know more about this character and are therefore more familiarized. Maybe the author puts forth his/her biases onto the character.

I feel death is one of the most powerful motifs of a story because it is so extreme and polarized. Death creates contrast with life which is omnipresent throughout the rest of a given story.

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