Lisa O'Donnell on Literary Death Scenes to Die For (or From)
In Lisa O'Donnell's debut novel, The Death of Bees, she writes about two sisters who find their parents dead—but instead of telling anyone, the girls bury them in the backyard. Here, she lists the weirdest, longest and most annoying deaths in literature, from The Metamorphosis to Harry Potter.
We're all obsessed with death in literature. We even force our children to obsess over it, as soon as they can read: Charlotte's Web, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Pied Piper, pretty much anything written by The Brothers Grimm, and don't get me started on Harry Potter: The boy with the lightning tattoo is knee-deep in death. Readers are utterly enchanted by the subject—and us writers, whatever our motivation, are happy to oblige them. Here are some deaths from literature that have impacted me, for better or worse. [SPOILER ALERT: If you're not familiar with the famous death scenes in Anna Karenina, King Lear, and Little Women, read on with caution.]
The Weirdest Death
Franz Kafka wrote the weirdest death in literature: The Metamorphosis, a novella and a spectacularly long death, when you think about it, because it starts as soon as Gregor turns into an insect. Confused? Let me explain. So one day you're a salesman, not a very good salesman, but a salesman nevertheless and the next day you're a giant bug. That's your story. You're an annoying, depressing, needy bug and your family gets so sick of you that your own father throws apples at your ass; one gets lodged in your spine and you die alone in your sparsely furnished bedroom. The end. Told you it was weird.
The Most Self-Righteous Death
The most self-righteous death in literature is Cordelia's in Shakespeare's King Lear. She won't tell her dad he's awesome and thereby gain a kingdom where she could rule justly and wisely. In Cordelia's opinion, it's better to love quietly, so she's banished for it, and Lear's less righteous, wicked daughters, Regan and Goneril, get all the spoils while turning their father into a gibbering loon. Anyway, being all conscientious, Cordelia comes back to save her father and forgive him for not getting how reverent she is, but then her brother Edmund shows up, takes her away and hangs her. And that's what you get for being virtuous in Shakespeare. Death!
The Most Wrongfully Brief Death
How about Tolstoy's Anna Karenina? You have to feel for the woman, really: She occupies an entire novel and gets snuffed in a page. Suicide! I never got that part. One minute she's having passionate exchange with her lover, the next minute she's taking a walk at a railway station making peace with death. To be honest, I got the feeling Tolstoy got sick of writing her: The voice of female independence evidently got on his nerves. He created her with depth and reason, and then he hated her for it, or maybe he hated himself for giving it to her. The depth and reason I mean. All those hours scratching Anna onto paper, finally understanding the complexity of the sexes, and instead of reveling in it, he freaks out and slides his main character under the wheels of on coming steam train. Shame on you, Leo.
The Most Annoying Deaths
And here's some death that just gets on your nerves: Little Women, Wuthering Heights, Dangerous Liaisons, and any other period novel where people just die for no reason whatsoever. In Little Women, Beth takes an entire novel to die. I don't even know what was wrong with her. She stays behind while the others live their lives and then she goes to bed and just dies. I mean, she's a little sick, but it's never explained what her illness actually is. After Beth dies all the Little Women come together again. They forgive and forget and rejoice because their father isn't dead. He has survived the civil war. Lucky him.
In Wuthering Heights, Cathy just dies—and with Heathcliff bitching at her; the same goes for Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons. These women just go to bed and die over men they're not married to. It's not okay. Everyone needs a cause of death in life. You don't just go to bed and die because you can't be with your lover, unless your husband bludgeoned you for it.
The Most Prolonged Death
Cyrano de Bergerac: I thought that guy would never die. Staggering about on stage from one fake tree to another, falling about deck chairs and random nuns. You need to see this stuff to believe it, except I didn't believe it and am still unable to suspend disbelief. How did Roxanne not know the guy under her window professing love was Cyrano? Was she deaf? People still love the play, though. Even in romance, you want death to bring it all together. It's like people have to die for love to impact you. They do for me, anyway. I bawled buckets after Bridges of Madison County but hated Captain Corelli's Mandolin because NOBODY died in it.
Crime, horror, romance, children's literature, young adult, deep meaningful arty-farty novellas: Someone has to die. I defy anyone to find me a book, a favorite book, where someone doesn't cop it. I dare you. In fact, I double dare you.
Lisa O'Donnell won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for The Wedding Gift, and in the same year, she was nominated for the Dennis Potter New Screenwriters Award. Originally from Scotland, she moved to Los Angeles in 2006 where she lives with her family and is now a full-time novelist. The Death of Bees is her first novel. For more on Lisa O'Donnell, visit: authorlisaodonnell.com; On Facebook, www.facebook.com/DOB1972 and Twitter: @lisaodonnell72.
This piece originally ran in January 2013 and updated September 2014.