Death is a strange chapter in everyone’s story. Yet as we read through action-packed novels like the Game of Thrones series where a character dies almost every chapter, literary deaths may start to seem commonplace and we give little thought to how they are presented. For gothic authors, however, a character’s death is an opportunity to explore that fascinating, unknowable state and our relationship with it. What does it mean to be dead? How will this death impact the story? And how should we feel about it? Sometimes the only way to answer these questions is by employing some truly unique literary techniques. Below are three of my favorite unusual depictions of death in literature:
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)
“The Judge has not shifted his position for a long while now. He has not stirred hand or foot, nor withdrawn his eyes so much as a hair’s-breadth from their fixed gaze towards the corner of the room, since the footsteps of Hepzibah and Clifford creaked along the passage, and the outer door was closed cautiously behind their exit. He holds his watch in his left hand, but clutched in such a manner that you cannot see the dial-plate. How profound a fit of meditation! Or, supposing him asleep, how infantile a quietude of conscience […] A most refreshing slumber, doubtless! And yet, the Judge cannot be asleep. His eyes are open! A veteran politician, such as he, would never fall asleep with wide-open eyes, lest some enemy or mischief-maker, taking him thus at unawares, should peep through these windows into his consciousness, and make strange discoveries among the reminiscences, projects, hopes, apprehensions, weaknesses, and strong points, which he has heretofore shared with nobody. A cautious man is proverbially said to sleep with one eye open. That may be wisdom. But not with both; for this were heedlessness! No, no! Judge Pyncheon cannot be asleep.”
This passage is from Chapter XVIII: “Governor Pyncheon” of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic New England Gothic, The House of the Seven Gables. It takes place shortly after Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon discover that their antagonistic cousin has spontaneously died while visiting the house with the intention to threaten and blackmail them. Not knowing what else to do, Hepzibah and Clifford flee the house but the narrator remains behind, meditating on the sight of Judge Pynchon sitting in an armchair in the parlor for an entire day before anyone discovers his body. The narrator feigns ignorance, marveling that this usually busy man remains so still and doesn’t keep any of his appointments. This narration continues on for a full chapter, posing rhetorical questions, offering sardonic speculation, and occasionally exclaiming in apostrophe to the corpse.
The chapter serves to shift the tone and pace of the story after the excitement of the judge’s unexpected demise and Hepzibah and Clifford’s hurried flight. The reader is forced to slow down and stay in one place to contemplate this death that changes everything. Just a few chapters before, Judge Pyncheon held all the power in the family and was threatening to have Clifford thrown into an asylum if he did not get his way. His death makes the ending of the story a very different one. It also serves as the culmination of the long and troubled history of the Pyncheon family and leads to the revelation of several buried secrets. The narration technique creates a sense of detachment around the Judge’s death—this is not a character we feel close to, and we can dwell on his dead body with little emotion. But the questions and feigned surprise of the narrator also serve to highlight the stark differences between this character’s usual behavior and what becomes of him after death. When we die, we leave our character traits, our habits, our goals and plans—everything—behind. Death may resemble meditation, or slumber, or idleness, but as this chapter makes clear, death has a finality not present in any other aspect of life.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
“The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]”
This passage is from Part II: “Time Passes” of Virginia Woolf’s Modernist novel To the Lighthouse. This middle portion of the book serves as an interlude between the first section, in which the Ramsay family and their friends spend a summer at their vacation house in the Hebrides, and the final section when a few of the characters revisit the spot ten years later. In the intervening decade, instead of following the thoughts and actions of the story’s characters, the narration focuses on depicting the passage of time through descriptions of the weather and the changing seasons. Interspersed throughout the section are parenthetical asides regarding the fates of the various characters we have come to know in Part I. A total of three characters die in brackets. In the example above, we learn of the death of the matriarch and central character, Mrs. Ramsay, only after an extended meditation on autumn storms. A few chapters later, a pleasant digression on the shift from spring to summer is followed by a one-sentence mention of Prue Ramsay’s death in childbirth. After another couple of paragraphs on the wind sweeping through the house and summer roses, we learn that Andrew Ramsay suffered a violent death in World War I.
These abrupt and parenthetical descriptions of death seem almost callous. Like the example from The House of the Seven Gables, this novel presents death with a sense of detachment and a complete lack of sentiment. But in To the Lighthouse, the reader is not given time to meditate upon the meaning of death and come to terms with it. These deaths are sudden and jarring amongst the meandering descriptions of the cycles of nature. The presentation highlights the smallness, the meaninglessness, of a human life within the unceasing progression of time. While Judge Pyncheon’s death seemed to change everything in The House of the Seven Gables, the deaths of these characters change almost nothing and the story goes on without them. Life goes on without them. Our lives are transient and our deaths mere mentions, when viewed from a wide enough perspective.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)
“I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time And when I would have to look at them day after day, each with his and her secret and selfish thought, and blood strange to each other blood and strange to mine, and think that this seemed to be the only way I could get ready to stay dead, I would hate my father for having ever planted me. I would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.”
This passage is from William Faulkner’s famous Southern Gothic, As I Lay Dying. The story is about a rural American family who go on a journey to bring the body of their matriarch to be buried in her hometown in Mississippi. The chapters alternate through the perspectives of over a dozen different characters, using the intimate narration technique of stream of consciousness. One chapter, titled “Addie,” is told from the perspective of the deceased matriarch, Addie Bunren. After many chapters of Addie’s body and coffin being treated as objects to be hauled and carried, and her personhood being spoken of in the past tense, it is shocking to suddenly be placed inside Addie’s head. She’s been dead for most of the book, and yet her chapter doesn’t mention her death, except as an abstract concept. Instead, she reflects upon her life, especially her relationships with and feelings about her children and husband.
In As I Lay Dying, death does not have the finality that it does in The House of the Seven Gables and To the Lighthouse. Addie continues to get a voice in the story even after her death. No explanation is given for Addie’s monologue—Is she aware and thinking after her death? Or is this chapter out of temporal order like the one that follows? Either way, it is our only glimpse into Addie’s mind, and it puts the rest of the story into a new perspective. The reader learns about Addie directly instead of through the eyes of the other characters, and the secrets she reveals help to explain the actions of some of the others. To counteract the near Nihilism of To the Lighthouse, this chapter from As I Lay Dying shows that the dead continue to impact the living, and in some sense, continue to exist after death.
Have you read these works? Were you surprised or unsettled by any of these depictions of death? What’s your favorite death chapter in literature? Let me know in the comments!