David Payne: Best death scenes in literature

David Payne Our 19th century ancestors were no strangers to death. So why were they so terrible at writing about it?

At a Cheltenham Literary Festival panel discussion on death scenes in literature, science broadcaster Vivienne Parry confessed to “being ready to shoot “ the ailing child heroine Little Nell long before Dickens killed her off in The Old Curiosity Shop. Oscar Wilde felt the same.  “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter,” he quipped.

With typical melodrama, Dickens described Nell shuffling off this mortal coil in the following way: “She was dead. Dear gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird, a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed…was stirring nimbly in its cage, and the strong heart of its child mistress mute and motionless forever.”

There are 11 deaths in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, but none eclipses the dramatic deathbed scene of 18 year old Catherine Earnshaw. Despite being close to death, she defies the waiting grim reaper by leaping from her bed for a final encounter with Heathcliff, before going on to haunt him through regular taps at the window and ghostly moorland manifestations (eventually inspiring Kate Bush more than a century later).

Emily’s sister Charlotte penned a more sedate but equally moving scene in Jane Eyre, when the angelic consumptive Helen Burns was called to heaven from Lowood School, where, according to the novel’s Wikipedia entry, she refused to hate those who abused her and never lost her faith in God.

Fast forward to the more secular 20th and 21st centuries, ditching the Victorians’ fanaticism for all things funereal along the way.

The Cheltenham panel sensed that their favourite modern literary death scenes were more medical than spiritual. Perhaps the authors had talked to doctors about what actually happens when you die.

Author Tim Lott chose the banal departure of “Rabbit” Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. And New Scientist editor Roger Highfield selected the dispassionate physiological account of six men drowning in Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm.

And the audience? Highfield’s choice inspired one member to mention non fiction. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson resulted not in death while trying to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, but the very real fear that it would be inevitable for Joe and fellow climber Simon Yates.

Of course the reader knows that they survive, otherwise this non fiction account would not have been written. The same is true of Erich Segal’s Love Story, almost a throwback to Victorian sentimentality. You know at the beginning that Jennifer Cavilleri died (“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. The Beatles. And me.”), but it didn’t stop 1970s readers weeping for Harvard graduate Oliver Barrett IV as their romance unfolds during the course of the book, only for him to lose her to leukaemia. 

One audience member at the discussion, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, asked why suicide doesn’t get the same literary treatment. This prompted Parry to ask if any of us could remember a decent suicide scene. Death scenes are hard to write, but suicides even harder, she argued.

For me the most poignant was Tom Robinson’s in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Tom’s is a sort of suicide.  He is shot 17 times while trying to escape from prison after being wrongly convicted of a rape.

His death ticks lots of literary boxes. It is pivotal to the plot. The child characters Jem and Scout Finch, whose father Atticus had defended Tom, learn that the world is truly an unjust and cruel place.

A televisual death did the same thing to me aged 9. I watched a 1970s dramatisation of F Tennyson Jesse’s novel A Pin to See the Peepshow, starring a young Francesca Annis as a woman sent to the gallows. The story is a fictionalised account of a 1920s murder trial, and brought home me to that only a few years previously we executed people in this country.

What literary death scene has most affected you?

David Payne is editor bmj.com