Cultural Concern with Death in Literature

Diana Royer. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Literary treatments of death reveal much about individual writers and the culture within which those authors write. Some work against the grain, questioning, criticizing, urging a change in the cultural assumptions and practices that cause premature deaths or allow an unreflective acceptance of such deaths. Others magnify popular attitudes in the service of patriotism or what is generally perceived as a good cause, such as a widely desired social reform. Certain writers seem to return obsessively to a particular kind of death, such as the death of a spouse or child, a subject that frequently turns out to be autobiographical in nature.

This chapter discusses British and American literary treatments of death within the past two centuries, focusing on the five areas of death of children, death of the beloved, heroic deaths in wartime, suicide, and murder as they are represented in the genre of murder mysteries. Within each of these subtopics, deaths occur by various means: disease, neglect, accident, intentional general action (as in war), and intentional specific action (as in murder and suicide). Responses of the deceased’s survivors are also varied and can range from excessive grief to, in the case of an amoral killer, complete emotional detachment. The examination of such elements in the following literary treatments of deaths should help reveal various ideological underpinnings.

Death of Children

Artistic treatment of the death of children responds to the need both for coping with loss and for rectifying any social ill that caused such premature death. Toward these ends, some writers have emphasized the religious aspects of dying. Such literature crested in the Victorian period when the angelic child and the deathbed scene became conventions in poetry and prose. Mainstream authors declared that a dying child’s blessings bettered the world, that the dead child was now happily with God, and that ultimately the family would be joyfully reunited in heaven. Deathbed scenes were used primarily to encourage piety in other characters and, by extension, in the reader. When Little Eva of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe 1852) is dying, Harriet Beecher Stowe has her gather the slaves about her and urge them to become Christians. Unlike others in this antislavery novel, Eva bestows love on black and white alike, giving everyone a lock of her hair as a keepsake shortly before she joyfully goes to see Jesus in heaven.

Authors attempted to instigate reform by foregrounding the social ills that brought about premature death (Reynolds 2000:169). This might be alcoholism, the topic of temperance novels such as T. S. Arthur’s Ten Nights in a Bar-Room(1854), in which little Mary Morgan, accustomed to retrieving her drunkard father from the local tavern, is struck on the head by a glass intended for him. The brain fever Mary contracts leads to several sickbed scenes in which she makes her father promise not to go to the bar-room until she is well enough to fetch him home. Other conventions Arthur includes are Mary’s singing about how Jesus makes dying a comforting experience and her being called a saving angel. The deathbed scene exhibits the good her dying has brought about: Her father promises never to drink again.

Poverty was another social issue that writers drew attention to via children’s deaths. Charles Dickens, whose father’s imprisonment for debt brought hard times on the family when Dickens was 12, wrote an elaborately sentimental death scene for the pure character Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and shocked Ebenezer Scrooge into charitable giving with a vision of Tiny Tim’s death as prelude to his own in A Christmas Carol (1843).

In her chapter “Fatal Fantasies: the Death of Children in Victorian and Edwardian Fantasy Writing,” Kimberley Reynolds (2000) expresses her belief that fantastical children’s literature of these periods depicted death as desirable because it is “a way of keeping and protecting them by halting the aging process and preventing them from becoming less perfect or (more hurtful for many adults) initiating the movement towards separation and individuation” (p. 172). Such stories are fictional projections of the parental desire to have children remain forever under their care. Two texts Reynolds mentions are Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), in which a chimney sweep drowns and, along with becoming physically clean, is morally reeducated, and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (first a play [1904] and then a book [1911]), whose title character ran away the day he was born to live with the lost boys, “children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way” (Barrie 1981:31). Reynolds (2000) notes that childhood deaths appeared so often in literature that Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde saw fit to parody them (p. 171).

Satirical as the rest of A Handful of Dust (1934) can be, the death of John Last is a serious moment in Evelyn Waugh’s modernist novel, yet it brings no redemption to the characters. Brenda Last, bored with her provincial husband Tony, has a thoughtless affair with the socially aspiring John Beaver and is actually relieved to hear that her son, rather than her lover, is the John she is told was killed in a riding accident. With their child dead, Brenda finds no reason to remain with Tony, and the two spiral separately downward, Brenda to near poverty (although after Tony is believed dead, she marries his best friend) and Tony to living out his life as a captive reading Dickens to an illiterate half-English man in a Brazilian jungle. The novel deftly explores a concern that children might be the only reason a marriage endures and their death sufficient reason for its dissolution. Waugh scrutinized also the cultural practice of holding ceremonies and erecting monuments for remembering the dead, both in this novel and in The Loved One (1948), written after visiting Forest Lawn’s Hollywood Hills cemetery. The book satirizes the highly commercialized funeral industry that preys on the emotions of the bereaved, depicting Whispering Glades as the lavish resting place of the stars and Happier Hunting Ground as an exclusive pet cemetery.

Contemporary treatments of the death of children tend to focus on how remaining family members cope with the loss, such as Judith Guest’s Ordinary People (1976), a study of how Calvin and Beth Jarret, along with their son Conrad, deal with the death of the older son, Buck. Individual and communal grief are represented in The Sweet Hereafter (1991), a haunting novel by Russell Banks that offers four narrators’ views of how the community of Sam Dent handles the deaths of several children in a school bus accident. Perhaps the most extraordinary recent novel about family members coping with the death of a child is Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1998). Slavery and its legacy cause ex-slave Sethe to be plagued by her baby’s ghost, having murdered her rather than have the child grow up in slavery.

Death of the Beloved

Literary depictions of the death of the beloved woman provide a look into cultural attitudes toward women and their illnesses. In the 19th century, women were often weakened by repeated pregnancies, deliveries, and subsequent child care. The tight lacing of corsets curved their rib cages inward on vital organs, causing spinal damage, uterine disorders, and fainting spells. Diseases such as consumption and tuberculosis led to clear and brilliant facial skin, which became a beauty ideal that led healthy women to ingest powdered charcoal, vinegar, and arsenic in attempts to emulate it. Authors who questioned these cultural norms and practices crafted literature depicting women who die as a result of submitting to male desires.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, an author who explored the darker aspects of human behavior, wrote several treatments of women who die as a result of their love for a man and whose deaths the men regret even if they did not always love the women when alive. These include Georgiana of “The Birth-Mark” (1843), who so admires her husband’s scientific abilities that she willingly lets him poison her in attempts to purify her skin to his liking; and Beatrice of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), who is the lethal result of her scientist father’s experiment. Beatrice swallows an antidote she knows will kill her after her shallow lover, who was drawn primarily to her beauty, accuses her and her father of making him poisonous too and hence doomed to a life of seclusion from the rest of humanity.

Edgar Allan Poe produced numerous texts in which beautiful and greatly adored women succumb to wasting diseases. Autobiographical critics such as Kenneth Silverman, whose Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (1991) is a definitive study, trace Poe’s interest in the topic to the deaths of his mother when he was close to 3 years of age; Jane Stanard, the mother of a schoolmate, when he was 14; Fanny Allan, his foster mother, when he was 20; and Virginia, his wife, in 1847, when he was 38. All had suffered extended periods of illness, as do the women mourned in “Morella” (1835), “Ligiea” (1838), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Oval Portrait” (1842), “The Raven” (1845), “The Bells” (1848), and “Annabel Lee” (1849). Poe claimed “Ligiea” as his favorite of his own short stories; in it, both of the narrator’s wives die, but the beloved first wife returns by taking over the body of the second.

Another social issue that served as the impetus for having women die in literature was temperance. The mother in the anonymously authored Molly and the Wine Glass (1871), weak from childbirth, takes cold during the move to cheaper housing necessitated by her husband’s debt to a wine merchant. While her husband is in a “Home of the Inebriates,” she dies with Jesus by her side and the conviction that her husband will give up drink so as to join her in heaven, which, with Molly’s and God’s help, he does.

Not surprisingly, many authors use literature to work out their personal loss. Tim Armstrong’s Haunted Hardy: Poetry, History, Memory (2000) offers close readings of Thomas Hardy’s poetry that consider the impact of his wife Emma’s death in 1912 on his writing and how Hardy “linked being dead—or dying—to the experience of grief, and to the self-displacement involved in grief” (p. 11). Such poems as “He Prefers Her Earthly,” “Her Haunting-Ground,” “On a Discovered Curl of Hair,” “The Going,” “Your Last Drive,” and “Rain on a Grave,” all from 1912 to 1913, deal directly with the loss of Emma. Hardy dealt also with death from war, accident, and suicide yet occasionally wrote mordantly about it, such as in “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” (n.d.). The dead woman in this poem wonders in turn whether the digger is her husband planting rue (but he has just remarried), a relative planting flowers (they think it would be a waste), or her enemy (who hasn’t bothered to hate her since she died), only to find out it is her dog burying a bone (he had forgotten this spot was her grave).

Hardy had been married for 38 years when his wife died. F. Scott Fitzgerald had been married only 10 years when his wife Zelda was permanently institutionalized after a nervous breakdown. Although Zelda outlived her husband, her state of death in life was translated fictionally into death by him in “Babylon Revisited” (1931). Critics have long believed the story, which tells the tale of how Charlie Wales’s heavy drinking led to his wife’s death and may well cause him to lose custody of his daughter, to be a self-scrutinizing depiction of Fitzgerald’s relationship with and loss of Zelda.

The death of a loved one can have an especially hard impact when the bereaved has led a long-suffering life. In the latter part of the semiautobiographical The Kindness of Women (1991), after the narrator Jim spends some debauched years trying to forget his war-haunted childhood and adolescence and finally achieves some comfort in marriage, J. G. Ballard depicts Jim trying to move past his wife Miriam’s accidental death. The love of his children and, as the title indicates, of women, are what help him heal. In stark contrast to the worldly character of Jim, librarian Peggy Cort has led a cloistered life. Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House: A Romance (1996) tells the odd yet tender love story of Peggy and the significantly younger James, a sensitive library patron who grows to be well over 8 feet tall. Their love for each other is tested both by Peggy’s jealousy of the attention James’s other friends bestow on him and his inevitable decline toward an early death.

The death of a beloved parent, particularly a mother, has driven some writers to explore the loss fictionally. Virginia Woolf noted that writing To the Lighthouse (1927) to analyze her parents’ relationship allowed her to work through her mother’s death from influenza when Woolf was 13. Indeed, the book was published to mark the 32nd anniversary of Julia Stephen’s passing (Hussey 1995:301). The death of the character Mrs. Ramsay occurs parenthetically, the sentence referring to it encased by brackets, and significantly, the deliberately unmarried character Lily Briscoe reflects, “Giving, giving, giving, she had died,” an indication of Woolf’s concern at a patriarchy so demanding of its women that it drove them to the grave (Woolf 1927:223). The remaining 100-plus pages of the novel represent the surviving characters’ struggle with Mrs. Ramsay’s absence. Woolf notes, also in brackets, the marriage of Mrs. Ramsay’s daughter Prue on one page and her death as a result of childbirth on the next, events that parallel the marriage and death of Woolf’s stepsister, Stella Duckworth. As well, the mother of protagonist Rachel Vinrace in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), died when Rachel was 11, and Rachel herself dies of a fever most likely caught on an excursion into a South American jungle, a trip during which she had become engaged to be married. Feminist critics see Rachel’s death as Woolf’s commentary on the less-than-appealing life options for young women (marriage or dependence on a male relative); it might also be a reference to Stella Duckworth’s death. Clearly, those cultural norms and expectations that could be directly responsible for the actual deaths of women fed Woolf’s literary treatments of death.

As well, women’s restricted spheres and limited options in Victorian times led to much literature concerning the death of a key male figure, some beloved and some not. In Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853), Lucy Snowe represses her passion for John Bretton because he loves another and instead becomes attached to M. Paul Emmanuel, whose affection for her grows deep. Bronte ends the novel ambiguously, but many readers believe Emmanuel dies in a shipwreck rather than returning home to marry Lucy; her fate is to remain as she has been all her life, solitary. This may be preferable to the lot of Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72), a young intelligent woman who marries an elderly scholar, Mr. Casaubon, only to discover their incompatibility. Suffering an unhappy marriage, Dorothea is widowed, but Casaubon, who realized his young cousin Will Ladislaw had fallen in love with Dorothea, had added a codicil to his will that she would forfeit her inheritance if she married him. Dorothea, not about to let her husband ruin her happiness any longer, gives up the fortune to marry Will.

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894) is a brief tour-de-force in which Louise Mallard, when informed that her husband has been killed in a railroad accident, feels an incredible sense of freedom and self-assertion that marriage, even to a kindly man like Brently Mallard, had precluded. The report of his death was erroneous, however, and when he walks through the front door later in the day, Louise drops dead, “of joy that kills,” the doctors proclaim (Chopin 1969:354). Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1927) twists this marital situation. Macomber loses his courage on safari, causing his wife Margot to despise him and sleep with their guide. When Macomber shoots well on a subsequent hunt and declares he’ll never fear anything again (including Margot), she shoots him fatally in the head, ostensibly trying to shoot past him at a buffalo. Such a tale represents the increasing freedom certain women attained in the modernist period.

Heroic Deaths

Deaths occurring during war invoke a variety of responses in writers. Some feel the need to glorify the sacrifice to a cause, whether believing this themselves or merely responding to a public, patriotic need to justify the human loss. Others openly regret the casualties. Some hate war even as they admire individual valor. A writer who enters war with an idealized concept of heroism might quickly revise his outlook once in the trenches or jungle and feel compelled to correct the views of others who think as innocently as he once did. Whatever a writer’s political or moral stance on war might be, however, most recognized there were indeed wartime acts of heroism and believed that the circumstances of the death of a hero should be made known to civilians.

Some authors strive to magnify the sentiments of that portion of society that invariably celebrates the soldier. Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s “Character of the Happy Warrior” (1805-6) praises military character by drawing qualities from Admiral Nelson; John Wordsworth, William’s brother, who had recently died in a shipwreck; and Michel Beaupuy, a French friend who had died in battle (Noyes 1967:330). Generous, honorable, calm in conflict, and brave, the happy warrior receives “Heaven’s applause” for dying in battle (Wordsworth 1967:331). Additional poems in which Wordsworth praises the hero who dies upholding the cause of freedom include “Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle” (1807) and “The White Doe of Rylstone” (1807). Alfred Lord Tennyson goes so far as to have the hero of “Maud” (1855) saved from insanity by participation in the Crimean War, although this garnered him criticism because it was an unpopular war. Better received was his direct praise of a military hero in “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852), published on the day of Wellington’s funeral and celebrating his military career, the highpoint of which had been defeating Napoleon at Waterloo.

The American Civil War inspired much poetry and fiction. Walt Whitman became personally involved in the war when he traveled to Virginia to nurse his brother George in 1862 and remained to care for both Union and Confederate soldiers. Fittingly for this celebrator of democracy, his works embrace and reflect the many views of the American people in addition to his personal ones. The prose collection Memoranda During the War (1875) includes pieces such as “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books,” touching on the various horrors of the war and suggesting that its “interior history” can never be written (Whitman 1979:483), and “Death of a Hero,” a tribute to a 20-year-old who was shot a few days before his upcoming discharge while helping retrieve the wounded during battle at the Wilderness and who died from a leg amputation. Whitman’s poetry collections Drum-Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66) offer “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” in which the speaker shares his thoughts as he waits out the night to bury a dead comrade at dawn; “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a masterful elegy on Lincoln’s death; “Ashes of Soldiers,” an outpouring of love and pride for all the dead soldiers, Confederate and Union alike; and “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing,” a transcendental poem in which Mother Nature absorbs the bodies of those slain in battle, her “immortal heroes” (Whitman 1979:249).

During the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce enlisted for the North at age 19 and served as a topographical engineer at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, Franklin, and Chickamauga, being wounded twice. His collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) contains dark studies of human nature under the duress of war. Sometimes classified as realism, Bierce’s stories nonetheless have a surreal quality that underscores his disdain for human foolishness—in this case, the romanticizing of war. In “Chickamauga” (1889), for instance, a deaf and dumb 6-year-old boy playing soldier finds himself surrounded by actual wounded soldiers retreating from battle, plays “horsey” on the back of a man whose lower jaw has been shot off, sees men drown while drinking from a creek, and returns home to find his dead mother on the lawn, her brain oozing from her skull because she was hit by a shell. Another well-known tale, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890), depicts a southern civilian being hung for attempting to burn down a bridge and thus halt Northern troops. Bierce’s irony deflates any patriotism: The civilian was tricked into the attempt by a Northern soldier dressed in Confederate uniform. The rope breaks and he embarks on an incredible escape journey back to his plantation, is about to embrace his wife at their front door, and dies, having only imagined the escape as he awaited hanging.

William Dean Howells’s “Editha” (1905) is set during the Spanish-American War but is generally believed to be rooted in his guilt over not serving in the Civil War (he was consul to Venice from 1861-66). Howells had written poetry early on in the war that romanticized patriotism and glorified the soldier who died in battle, but this short story treats such attitudes ironically: The title character’s romantic notions lead her to use emotional blackmail to push her pacifist fiancé into enlisting; he is one of the first to be killed in battle.

An excellent study of World War I poetry is Alfredo Bonadeo’s Mark of the Beast (1989), which explores how the soldier-writer tried to deal both with the imminence of his own death and with causing the deaths of others. For some, depicting the dead as heroic was a coping mechanism. Rupert Brooke was much celebrated for his five “War Sonnets,” poems supporting the war that he wrote as an enlisted soldier during 1914. “The Soldier” in particular glorifies dying for England, which Brooke himself did in 1915 when he contracted blood poisoning. Rudyard Kipling also wrote patriotic verse, such as “For All We Have and Are” (1914), but he questioned any unnecessary sacrifice of men in battle through poems such as “A Dead Statesman” (1919).

Siegfried Sassoon had initially fallen for “the rhetoric of heroism,” but experiences on the battlefield of Arras changed his view of war (Bonadeo 1989:15-16). Ironically, some of Sassoon’s antiwar poetry became popular among pro-war civilians, but poems such as “Haunted” (1916), “Repression of War Experience” (1918), and “Picture-Show” (1919) convey the agony of shell shock so vividly they would be hard to interpret as supporting war. Wilfred Owen, who became friends with Sassoon when they were invalids in military hospital, crafted piercing verse about his war experiences before he was killed in action a few days before the Armistice was signed. “Arms and the Boy” (1918), “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917), and “Mental Cases” (1918) are a few of his influential works.

Robert Graves is arguably the most skillful of the poets of the Great War. “Escape” (1916) was written in response to being reported dead when he was in fact wounded, an event that would inform some of his finest mature poems. “Goliath and David” (1916) was written in memory of Grave’s friend David Thomas, who was killed at Fricourt; it captures David’s youth and determination as well as the harshness of his death. “The Next War” (1917) is a scathing treatment of the perennial nature of war in which the speaker addresses boys pretending to be soldiers. Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1929), was not only a good-bye to England as he relocated to Majorca, but a farewell to an innocence the world had lost during the war; fittingly, it is written in a wry, detached manner.

Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) follows Jacob Flanders from boyhood to his adult career as a lawyer until, at about age 26, he is killed in the war. His death is foreshadowed in numerous ways, including a last name that refers to the famous Belgian battlefield. The Great War plays a part in several other Woolf novels: Septimus Smith of Mrs. Dalloway (1925) kills himself because the agonies of shell shock are too great to bear; Andrew Ramsay of To the Lighthouse dies in battle; The Years depicts a dinner party in a basement during a 1917 air raid. Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts (1941), is set in 1939 and hints at the coming of World War II. The two world wars affected Woolf deeply. She had been a friend of Rupert Brooke’s, and her husband Leonard was much involved in developing the League of Nations; both her name and that of Leonard, who was Jewish, appeared on a Nazi death list. In his introduction to Men At War: The Best War Stories of All Time, which was published to bolster commitment to winning World War II, Ernest Hemingway (1942) claims that reading about how other men have fought and died will show “that there are no worse things to be gone through than men have been through before” (p. xi). He marvels at soldiers who commit suicide rather than fight. Overall, the purpose of the anthology (which includes an excerpt from Hemingway’s own For Whom the Bell Tolls[1940]) seems to have driven Hemingway to be reductive about his more often complex views on death, heroism, and suicide. Two decades later came the rather different Catch-22 (1961), Joseph L. Heller’s antiwar satire centering on the story of American bombardier John Yossarian in the Mediterranean. The catch is that an Air Force regulation classifies one as insane for being willing to fly combat missions, yet requesting exemption indicates saneness and hence makes one ineligible to be released from duty.

Two different visions of the Korean War come across in Richard D. Hooker’s MASH (1968): the grimness of combat surgery performed under deplorable conditions and the comic escapades of the unit when off duty. The latter is the focus of Kal Kalnasy and Anette Kalnasy in Korea, the Last of the Fun Wars: From the Beach to the Reservoir & Other Heroic Events (2001). In response to their son’s questions about the war, the Kalnasys drew on Kal’s experience to write short stories and essays that use humor as a way to cope with the war by showing out-of-battle experiences. Quite different treatments of the Korean War are Rolando Hinojosa’s The Useless Servants (1993), a realistic depiction of war’s atrocities, and Edwin Howard Simmons’s Dog Company Six (2000), which offers combat scenes and studies the effect of war on the individual soldier. A participant in three wars, Simmons had much personal experience from which to cull his material.

Tim O’Brien has drawn on his personal experiences in Vietnam as a foot soldier to convey the brutality of the war and to produce compelling psychological studies of men in wartime. Heroism and cowardice are examined in If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Going After Cacciato (1979), and The Things They Carried (1990). Another book drawn from personal experience, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young (1993), was written by former troop commander Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway about the Battle of Ia Drang; the authors realistically describe combat as they look at the heroism of men in battle. A Rumor of War (1977) is Philip Caputo’s study of marines in Vietnam who move from innocence and idealism to a realization of war’s horrors.

Not surprisingly, this theme reappears in books about the Persian Gulf War. Charles Sheehan-Miles’s Prayer at Rumayla (2001) gives a picture of the Gulf War that contradicts media coverage of the time by studying how the violence of battle has changed protagonist Chet Brown. Entering the war intending to be a hero as his father had been, winning the Medal of Honor before he was killed in Vietnam, Chet’s experience instead sends him back state-side transformed into a self-destructive person. Less grim, The Aardvark Is Ready for War (1997), by James W. Blinn, has been called theCatch-22 of the Gulf War for its satire.


Every suicide in literature makes some kind of social commentary, whether overtly or subtly. Suicide may be an author’s representation of a society that stifles women. It may be criticism of a particular system within society that destroys the individual. It may reflect curiosity as to why people commit suicide and fear at their doing so. And it may represent the belief that life in such a flawed world is not worth living.

Indeed, Matthew Arnold’s “poetry of desolation” comes out of seeing himself as “a symbol of man in the modern world” who yearns for “an earlier age of peace and faith and moral integrity” (Houghton and Stange 1968:407). His “Empedocles on Etna” (1852) brings the Greek philosopher to the mid-19th century in order to convey the depressed state of mind brought on by the times, a state that leads Empedocles to commit suicide by jumping into Etna’s crater. Arnold’s work represents the religious and moral doubt that was growing among his contemporaries.

In Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories (1988), Barbara T. Gates explains that although Victorians “openly mourned death and sensationalized murder,” they apparently “deeply feared suicide and… concealed it whenever possible” (p. xiii). She applies Victorian suicide law to its contemporaneous literature, offering new readings of the deaths of Hindley, Catherine, and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, for example, to argue they would have been understood as covered-up suicides in Emily Bronte’s day. As did Emily, Charlotte Bronte lost her mother and two older sisters when she was young, and then, within one year as she wrote Shirley (1849), her brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne died. Grappling with such personal loss as she struggled to write fiction may have influenced Bronte’s artistic decision to have the two major characters in the novel, Caroline and Shirley, first decide to die, then reverse their decision. The self-induced death of another character, Mary Cave, apparently serves as a lesson to them (Gates 1988:129). Finishing the novel within a few weeks after Anne’s death, Bronte seems to have used writing as grief therapy (Keefe 1979:147-48).

Wilkie Collins, a close friend of whom committed suicide, used the act in two of his detective novels, The Law and the Lady (1875) and I Say “No” (1884), to center the mystery and inquiry on why someone would kill himself or herself (Gates 1988:57). Melodramatic as his vivid descriptions of the dying are, the truly sensational aspect of Collins’s work was his exposure of the frequency of suicide among members of the middle class; he consulted actual statistics in research (Gates 1988:59). And by the end of the 19th century, Arnold’s discouraging view of the world was common enough and suicide of enough public concern that George Gissing was able to write sympathetically about the sad bachelor Harold Biffen poisoning himself in New Grub Street (1891). As Gates notes, Gissing presents such a bleak picture of the city of London—where poverty, competition, and disappointment thwart artistic talent—that “suicide for some seemed an improvement over life” (p. 156). Similarly, in a study of Thomas Hardy’s self-destructive characters, Frank R. Giordano, Jr. (1984) observes that in contrast to writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, Hardy creates protagonists who “refuse to endure paralysis and emotional deprivation; instead, they make choices and perform acts that are self-destructive, even suicidal” (p. 7). He maintains that Hardy’s knowledge of the Old Testament, ancient tragedy, and the Romantic poets’ concept of the death instinct allowed him to view suicide as justifiable in certain situations (p. 184). Regarding the character of Little Father Time in Jude the Obscure (1895) as representative of the “coming universal wish not to live” (Hardy 1961:331), Giordano (1984) says we need to consider “Hardy’s long-evolving sensitivity to modern man’s declining zest for life and his conviction that thought was robbing existence of its joyousness and making life a heavy burden” (p. 182). In a book that offers practical ways to use literature in suicide prevention therapy, Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker (1989:126-27) explain that Jude the Obscure depicts a family legacy of suicide. Both of Jude’s parents die, and he tries to kill himself; he is depressed, doomed in relationships, thwarted in his goals, and a social outcast. Moreover, his first child, Little Father Time, hangs his siblings and himself. Given the circumstances, Jude’s death from alcoholism before he reaches the age of 30 seems to be a deliberate self-destruction.

Nearly as bleak a view accompanies the social commentary in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899). Young Edna Pontellier is married to a well-off but conventional older businessman who does not understand her; indeed, Edna hardly understands her own awakening sexuality and desire for freedom that lead her into a casual affair with the disreputable Alcee Arobin. But she did see her mother worn down to a premature death by her overbearing father, and Edna grows to detest married life and parenthood. When she realizes that her feelings for another young man, Robert Lebrun, are merely a repetition of her youthful crushes, she despairs of ever achieving happiness and drowns herself in the ocean (the only place she had truly felt free, while swimming). Chopin’s novella met with such disfavor that her career was ruined, but today it is widely taught at the college level for its depiction of a society so stifling to women that suicide becomes the only option. Upper-class society is criticized again by Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth (1905). Lily Bart’s reputation is soiled when she is falsely accused of adultery by a woman attempting to mask her own infidelity; Lily’s socially downward spiral reduces her to living in a boarding house, where she commits suicide.

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” (1905) is a troubling study of adolescent suicide, one that moves beyond the individual case to represent adults’ perplexity at an ennui in youth so severe that it could lead to self-destruction. Paul creates an imaginary and aesthetic life to make bearable the drab one of school and the pressures of a father who wants him to become sensibly employed. When Paul’s father pulls him out of school to work and bars him from ushering at or hanging about the local theater, Paul steals the deposit he is supposed to make for his employer and takes the train from Pittsburgh to New York City, where he stays in the best hotel, buys expensive clothes, and enjoys the finest things. Paul has brought a gun with him, anticipating that he would choose death over a return to ordinary life, but when he reads the newspaper report of the discovery of his theft, rather than shoot himself he jumps in front of a train. Like the hothouse flowers he had enjoyed in the city, such splendid beauty as he had lived was necessarily brief.

Ernest Hemingway presents a different attitude toward life, that of youthful optimism in the face of pain and destruction. In the short story “Indian Camp” (1925), Nick Adams accompanies his doctor father to an Indian settlement to deliver a baby; unable to endure his wife’s labor screams, the Indian father quietly slashes his throat with a razor. Having seen the dead body Nick asks his father some questions about suicide and death yet firmly believes that he himself will never die. Some years after the story was written, declining health and an extremely grim financial state would lead Hemingway’s father to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. And subsequently, Hemingway’s own physical problems and a depression so severe it required electroshock therapy drove him to kill himself in the same manner.

Certain texts depict this sense that suicide can seem inevitable, part of one’s fate and heritage. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) tells the story of the degeneration and disintegration of the Compson family. Quentin Compson, obsessed with his sister Caddy and especially with preserving her virginity, forces her into a death pact when he discovers she is pregnant. He cannot go through with killing her, though, and ultimately drowns himself while away at college. William Styron also focuses on the destructiveness of the southern family in his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1979), which explores the problems of Helen and Milton Loftis that contribute to their daughter, Peyton, committing suicide. A different region and culture are central to Fae Myenne Ng’s first novel, Bone (1993), which offers a look into Chinese American San Francisco as protagonist Leila struggles to understand her sister Ona’s suicide.

Occasionally, the suicide of a public figure leads writers to incorporate the act into a piece of literature. Michael Cunningham does so in The Hours (1998), his intertextual novel alluding to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The book opens with an imaginative rendering of Woolf’s drowning herself in the river Ouse; her body travels with the current as if it is flying, until it gets caught against a bridge piling. Cunningham attempts to employ some of Woolf’s philosophies and her technique of stream of consciousness by having her corpse “absorb” the sound and movement of those up on the bridge. The novel closes by updating the cultural concern Woolf had used suicide to draw attention to in Mrs. Dalloway. In The Hours, Richard, who is dying of AIDS, jumps out of a window; Woolf had had the shell-shocked Septimus Smith choose this form of suicide over 70 years before.

Murder Mysteries

The murder mystery is a genre of literature about death that has evolved over the past two centuries in a way that comments heavily on society’s fears and obsessions. Some tales are based on real crimes, revealing a fascination with the destruction of others that seems to serve as reassurance of one’s own safety. Others are crafted to highlight the skills of particular detectives in affirmation that justice will triumph. Some texts explore the ingenuity and immoral or amoral nature of the killer in response to a desire to understand the criminal mind. Many readers find murder mysteries appealing because they help give order and explanation to a world filled with unpredictable events. A storyline that predictably ends with the killer being brought to justice can generate a feeling of safety. Michael Cohen (2000) believes that although murder mysteries “acknowledge that death exists by showing us a murder,…they also find its immediate cause in the murderer, and by eliminating that one deadly agent, they seem to eliminate the threat of death itself” (p. 15). In different periods, however, the murder mystery seems to have served varying purposes.

Even before it was recognized as a genre per se, writers used a murder mystery to criticize personal and societal attitudes and trends. The first professional American author, Charles Brockden Brown, wrote a gothic murder novel, Wieland(1798), that was an early psychological study of religious fanaticism turned into dementia. Wieland hears voices that instruct him to serve God by killing his wife and children. He later escapes prison intending to kill his sister, but deterred by another character, he commits suicide in front of her. As Brown had, Catharine Williams based Fall River: An Authentic Narrative (1833) on an actual case—in this instance of a Methodist minister accused of murdering a pregnant mill worker he was believed to have seduced. Not only an expose of the deplorable working conditions of women in early industrial New England, Fall River tells a story of religious hypocrisy as well. Interestingly, the setting is the Massachusetts town that would become infamous nearly 60 years later with Lizzie Borden’s trial for a double homicide, which served as the topic for several ballads, plays, and novels.

Many critics of detective fiction credit Edgar Allan Poe with establishing the formula later writers would follow in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842-43). Poe’s first two tales of ratiocination center around mysterious murders (the latter was based on a real case) and the figure of C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur detective with high analytic ability. Unconcerned with motives or social issues, Poe here seems to be duping the reader (as his detective’s name might indicate) because no reader would be able to come to the conclusions Dupin does in advance of his revelation of them.

The Moonstone (1868) is often considered the first detective novel. Wilkie Collins believed that “concentrating more on incident than on character” would add a “vivacity and verisimilitude” he felt contemporary fiction lacked (Mann 1981:23). As well, in The Moonstone and The Woman in White (1860), he uncovers “the criminality and passion beneath respectable surfaces,” and not just in men; Collins’s female characters represent the “mid-Victorian fear of passionate, independent women” (Kalikoff 1986:120). Whereas earlier in the century, murderers were “psychotic outsiders” like Wieland or “social imposters” like Carwin, a suspect in Wieland, by the late 19th century murderers came from within the community and even had “respectable motives for committing crimes” (Kalikoff 1986:129), a trend representing “a disintegration of faith in human nature and despair at the prospect of curbing crime” (p. 158).

Perhaps this contributed to the rise in detective series, where, volume after volume, the sleuth solves the crime, even if he or she doesn’t get the criminal, such as Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Arthur Conan Doyle first gave us Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887), and readers so enjoyed the adventures of the refined investigator and his companion Dr. Watson that their protest at Doyle’s killing Holmes off caused the author to resurrect him. Edwardian readers delighted in the cases of G. K. Chesterton’s detective priest, Father Brown, the figure in short stories collected in five volumes, including The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) and The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914). Father Brown, however, showed as much or more interest in saving the souls of the murderers as in bringing their bodies to justice.

In contrast to figures such as Dupin, Holmes, and Brown, women detectives typically have relied on common sense and female intuition rather than analytical reasoning (Slung 1975:vxi). In 1897, Anna Katharine Green wrote Miss Amelia Butterworth into being, a nosey, aristocratic spinster who served as the prototype for characters such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (p. xxi). Jessica Mann’s (1981) study of women authors of murder mysteries, Deadlier Than the Male, proposes that women write so effectively in the genre because they are “especially observant of the small details which may provide clues” (p. 235). This certainly is foregrounded in Trifles (1916) and “A Jury of Her Peers” (1917), Susan Glaspell’s play and its short-story version in which the wives of the sheriff and county attorney uncover clues proving their neighbor has murdered her husband; the men don’t see these “trifles” as evidence. As well, realizing the cruelty the wife had endured from her husband, the wives decide the just thing to do is suppress the evidence.

Between the two world wars, so many murder mysteries were published that the period has been labeled “The Golden Age of Detective Fiction” (Mann 1981:10). And during World War II, informal air raid shelter libraries found crime novels in high demand, most likely for their reassuring endings (Mann 1981:56). Jessica Mann (1981) analyzes the work of key British women writers in the genteel genre, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham, arguing that they gained popularity because they were “conventional, conformist, and conservative” (p. 13). And their popularity endures, for the works of all three are still in print. Christie, whether the murders occur in exotic settings or in a sleepy English village, generally sets the violence offstage and concentrates on the clue-following deductive work of sleuths such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, two characters beloved by her loyal readers. Dorothy L. Sayers, generally thought to be stronger at developing her characters and using more psychology than Christie, launched the career of detective Lord Peter Wimsey in her first novel, Whose Body? (1925). Margery Allingham wrote over 30 novels, many of which followed the detective Albert Campion’s career; Campion aged along with the series, taking on his first case when about age 20 and his last when in his 60s. The Tiger in the Smoke (1952) is thought to be Allingham’s best work, more complex than her usual novels.

W. H. Auden’s “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948) is a seminal essay on detective stories, which Auden characterizes as formulaic page-turners that do not bear rereading, qualities that prevent them from being works of art. He believes the typical reader of murder mysteries is an intelligent professional, such as a doctor or clergyman, who reads them as escape literature, escape to a world where all is made right. Soon, though, writers would stop delivering what Christie and Sayers did, and violence and injustice would play a more central role in murder mysteries. For example, American expatriate writer Patricia Highsmith, who made Europe her home, created figures such as Tom Ripley, an amoral yet oddly compelling murderer who was the subject of five books. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), garnered her attention in England, as did her subsequent work, but she held little appeal for Americans until The Talented Mr. Ripley(1955) was made into a feature film in 1999. The early works of Ruth Rendell (also known as Barbara Vine), whose first book was From Doon With Death (1964), are returning to print as well. Her Inspector Wexford series was more along the traditional lines of Christie and Sayers, but her recent works, the latest of which is Adam and Eve and Pinch Me (2002), are more realistic psychological thrillers that present disturbed and disturbing characters. Among this wealth of murder mystery writers, P. D. James still retains the title of Britain’s Queen of Crime for her detailed plots and rich character studies. Death in Holy Orders (2002) once again presents Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, who last appeared in A Certain Justice (1997).

Even before Auden wrote about what he saw as the generic formula of murder mysteries, a group of American writers deliberately began to set themselves apart from British authors to develop what would become known as hard-boiled detective fiction. Favoring a corrupt city setting and cynical lead characters, these writers paved the way for their literary heirs in delving into the seamy underbelly of society and providing vicarious experiences for readers safe in their armchairs. Former Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett depicted the tough Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1930) and the urbane, but equally cynical, Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1932). Raymond Chandler first presented the tough private investigator Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1939), and Frank Morrison, under the pen name Mickey Spillane, offered the suitably named misanthropic, sadistic, and borderline sociopathic Mike Hammer in numerous books, including I, The Jury (1947) and The Big Kill (1951).

The sense of place and local culture sought by readers and conveyed by writers continues to broaden. Ross Macdonald, who sometimes wrote under the pseudonyms “Kenneth Millar” and “John Ross Macdonald,” began his Red Badge Mystery contributions with The Dark Tunnel (1944) and detective Joe Rogers. Macdonald was admired for writing murder mysteries that conveyed a real sense of America and its people, especially through the investigations of his later detective, Lew Archer. Chester B. Himes, whose writing career began during imprisonment for jewel theft, created Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, African American detectives who work the streets of Harlem. The Real Cool Killers (1959), All Shot Up (1960), and The Heat’s On (1966) are but three of the novels chronicling their adventures while exploring aspects of urban African American life. Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first book in the Easy Rawlins series, introduces Ezekiel Rawlins, a veteran of World War II who battles racism as he unravels mysteries in Los Angeles from the late 1940s through the civil rights era. James Patterson is a prolific writer of murder mysteries whose first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number (1976), won the Edgar Award, and whose Alex Cross series features an African American detective with a Ph.D. in psychology and two children to care for on his own. Patterson’s newest series, the Women’s Murder Club, centers around four women professionals whose sideline is tracking down murderers in the San Francisco area. Sue Grafton’s popular Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mystery Series began with A Is for Alibi (1982) and has about 10 letters yet to go. The books feature a former policewoman turned private investigator, offer complicated plots, and develop engaging characters that give the reader the sense of a small world.

Two series about murder within the Washington political scene have been written by the offspring of public figures. Elliott Roosevelt, the son of FDR and Eleanor, created a historical mystery series in the mid-1980s that features Eleanor as the sleuth and presents accurate historical settings and figures. Although Elliott died in 1990, the series has been continued by his estate, the latest book, Murder at the President’s Door (2001), being written by William Harrington. Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry S. Truman, began her Capital Crime Series with Murder on Embassy Row (1984). Many of the books showcase a George Washington University law professor named Mackensie Smith and his wife Annabelle, who owns an art gallery in Georgetown, as the sleuths.

With 37 novels to his credit so far, Elmore Leonard stands out as one of the foremost contemporary American crime writers. Known for his wit and convincing dialog as much as for his Detroit settings and mafia characters, recent books depart from such earlier fiction as The Big Bounce (1969) and Glitz (1985). Pagan Babies (2000) took a risk in using the Rwandan genocide to set up the circumstances of an American priest committing a retaliatory murder of four Hutus who killed his Tutsi congregation. And much more humor than usual appears in Tishomingo Blues (2002), which involves, among other things, a high diver witnessing a murder from 80 feet up and a Civil War reenactment.

Reader interest in the specifics of how a murder case is solved remains high. Michael Connelly writes more in the line of earlier hard-boiled detective mysteries, both in prose style and plot line. The Poet (1996) sends reporter Jack McEvoy on the trail of a serial killer of homicide policemen, one victim being McEvoy’s brother. Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, beginning with The Black Echo (1992), are primarily police procedurals featuring an LAPD detective. Terry McCaleb, former FBI agent, is another repeat figure in Connelly’s books, most recently appearing in A Darkness More Than Night (2001).

As has been evident throughout this chapter, personal experience drives many writers to craft literature studying that experience. James Ellroy’s noir thrillers stem from the unsolved murder of his own mother when he was 10 years old. Set in Los Angeles and taking violent crime against women as their topic, books such as The Black Dahlia (1987), based on the actual case of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress whose mutilated body was found in an empty Hollywood lot in 1947, and L. A. Confidential (1990), containing an LAPD detective who saw his mother murdered, hint at their author’s personal history. In My Dark Places (1996), the nonfiction attempt to come to terms with his mother’s death, Ellroy writes, “Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name” (p. 2). Both the memoir and Ellroy’s fictional contributions to the genre are sober reminders that the murder mystery can both obscure and illuminate the more troubling mysteries of life.


As this survey is meant to suggest, literary treatment of cultural concern with death takes many forms and serves a variety of purposes. Writing and reading about death can help one explore and expiate fears, curiosities, even desires about death. They can help one make sense of what appears to be senseless loss. They can urge social reform to prevent future deaths. They can reassure that death served a useful purpose, or they can convince that there was no good reason for a person’s dying. Literature about death may serve best in teaching an acceptance of the often unpredictable and seemingly random nature of mortality.