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Which character has the best death in fiction?
Beth March in Little Women. She is such a kind, loving character and her loss is a very emotional part of that story.
So many, but the ones that first come to mind (SPOLIERS!!!):
Bunny in The Secret History
Inman in Cold Mountain 😭
Maggie & Tom in The Mill on the Floss
Old Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows (first book that made me cry!)
It’s hard to beat Hamlet. Cromwell’s in Mantel’s *The Mirror and the Light* is a more recent brilliant death.
Charlotte in Charlotte's Web. "No one was with her when she died." I can't even think about it without crying.
Kurtz; The Horror, The Horror, in Heart of Darkness. Not sure I'd describe it as the best, but certainly memorable
The real question is how do you pick just one!
I think William Stoner from Stoner by John Williams is up there. Also Lisa from The White Hotel by DM Thomas is one of the most gutting. Both books are sadly underread these days!
Feel like I need to list a dozen others just to keep from feeling incomplete, but I'm already cheating with two.
Fred's death in The Deathly Hallows will always haunt me. And Remus Lupin's.
The ending of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro haunts me. 😭
And Teacake in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. As drawn out and violent as the storm that precedes it.
Cliché, for sure, but Ned Stark: especially for all that led up to it. Killing off a main character so directly and unequivocally might feel gimmicky today, but at the time it was a downright shocker.
Piggy's in Lord of the Flies, which signals the unraveling of civic unity.
My favourite isn't necessarily a good death in itself, but I like the story behind it. In Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep there's a character who's found dead in a car which has been driven off a pier. It never becomes clear who killed him. In an interview apparently Chandler once admitted that even he didn't know who killed him. Chandler used to write his novels by cannibalising various short stories together, and I just love that he managed to leave a plot hole that even he couldn't fill.
Captain Ahab in Moby Dick
Petronius in Satyricon
the wolf in the little red riding hood
Patroclus‘ death/ burial in Madeline Millers Song of Achilles. „In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun.“
What’s coming to mind for me is Gone Girl. The character Amy Elliot Dunne is the best death scene because you assume she’s dead for a large part of the novel. This keeps one reading, thinking you’ll eventually read the death scene. You end up sympathizing with her, and one assumes that her husband, Nick Dunne, murdered her. But then the surprise and one death scene gets changed for another, and the flipping of who’s the protagonist and antagonist!
Some good ones:
Petya Rostov in Tolstoy's War and Peace.
Hadji Murad in Tolstoy's story of the same name.
Noisy Rhysling in Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth".
The Red Lama in Kipling's Kim.
Gary Gilmore in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.
Martin Decoud in Conrad's Nostromo.
"Best death" meaning memorably executed by the author, not good for the character.
Frankenstein’s is definitely one the bleakest and saddest deaths I’ve ever read
I would say Sherlock Holmes' death in "The Final Problem," but he didn't really die.
Lennie, ‘Of Mice and Men’. Sobbed in the bath. The build up, the fragility, the injustice, the heart... oof stayed with me forever!
The death of Dorian Gray from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Actually, the entirety of the ending saga and that closure is just so haunting. It has forever been etched in my mind since the first time I read it. The murder of Basil, the destruction of the painting, the suicide like death of Gray-all of it taking place in an attic in the middle of the night just gives me shivers.
Hazel at the end of Watership Down.
Maggie and Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss
Catherine Linton in Wuthering Heights
Cleopatra in Anthony and Cleopatra
oh, so many, so many....
Not sure if going for a Shakespeare is cheating for this . . . but Othello's death would be my choice, with his iconic lines about wishing to be remembered as a man who "loved not wisely . . . but too well"
But if we're allowed multiple picks, I'd have to also mention Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich or Anna Karenina - Hektor being killed by Achilles in the Iliad, and Fantine in Les Misérables.
Hands down it’s Anders in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” Fight me. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/09/25/bullet-in-the-brain
Javert's dilemma still seems relevant for a lot of folks today. I don't know that the way he handles it is ideal, but if we're thinking symbolically more than literally, like dying to oneself as a way out of a rigid ideological prison, then maybe?
I know this is not the point of your question, but can we take a moment to appreciate the extraordinary death scene in the painting accompanying this article?
The painting shows the death of 17-year-old Thomas Chatterton, who came to London seeking fame and fortune as a poet. He failed to make his name, and he was left with no money to support himself, let alone his dependant grandmother, mother and sister at home in Bristol. So, on a hot August evening in 1770, in his small attic room, the despairing teenager tore up all his poems, drank arsenic and died. A few days later Dr Thomas Fry arrived in London, with the intention of giving Chatterton financial support.
The painting was by Henry Wallis, completed in 1856. The model was George Meredith, a young novelist and poet. He and Wallis's wife Mary became lovers and ran away together. Though Mary later returned to her husband.
- Boromir in "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien: His death is memorable because it signifies redemption and demonstrates the corrupting power of the One Ring.
- Dobby in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" by J.K. Rowling: This was a heartbreaking death that showed the cost of fighting Voldemort.
- Eponine in "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo: Her tragic death represents the cost of love and revolution.
- **Romeo and Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare: Their double suicide is a classic example of tragic love.
- *Ned Stark in "A Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin: His shocking execution sets the tone for the unpredictability of the series.
- Ofelia in the movie "Pan's Labyrinth" by Guillermo del Toro: Her death is a mix of fantasy and harsh reality and leaves a lasting impression.
- Old Yeller in "Old Yeller" by Fred Gipson: A classic coming-of-age story in which a boy has to put down his beloved dog.
- Jack Dawson in the film "Titanic" by James Cameron: The tragic end of a great love story set against the backdrop of the historic shipwreck.
I'm going to offer Macbeth. Yep, not the nicest of guys and he enters his final battle with Macduff full of confidence believing no man born of woman can kill him. Then during the fight Macbeth learns of the manner of Macduff's birth and thus realises he is doomed but still offers this defiance before death: “‘Before my body I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff, And damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!'”
You could say of Macbeth that which Shakespeare wrote of Cawdor earlier in the play ...
"Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving of it"
Simon in Lord of the Flies. Traumatised my 14 year old self for years to come!
Gandalf's death in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" series is a significant and memorable moment in fiction. Gandalf, the wise and powerful wizard, falls during the battle with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. His subsequent return as Gandalf the White is a pivotal event in the story.
My pick is not some well known book. I’m thinking of this indie book I read a long time ago. A teenage girl. A bit of a loner and reject. The book is called “She died with gum in her hair”.
Just that. Sticky gum in your hair. Feeling awkward. Everyone watching you. Laughing at you. And then you die...
She comes back as a ghost to haunt her school (or something).
To this day, it “stuck” with me. I don’t think the book is available anymore...
Oh! Thought of another one. It's a spoiler, though. Has anyone here read "Sharks in the Time of Saviors"? The main character's death? I honestly don't want to say more. It is SO DEVASTATING AND SHOCKING. And you're like - HOW is Kawai Strong Washburn going to finish this book NOW???
Houellebecq in The Map and thé Territory,
The Oficcer in The Pentionary Settlement
What a party! Better late than never…
Ilyusha Snegirev’s death in Brother’s Karamazov is bone-chilling and unexpectedly central to the ending
Edna Pontellier in the end of The Awakening sticks out to me as a uniquely unsettling use of death in a story – both a liberation and a surrender
Humpty Dumpty is also brilliantly ambiguous. Did he fall, did he get pushed, or did he jump? Why was the king so intent on putting him back together? Is everyone in his world an egg or just Humpty? Why is his name Humpty fucking Dumpty?
The fish in The Old Man and the Sea. Arguably not a character – but surreal once it’s gone, as if there’s a gap in the order of things
Boxer in Animal Farm. Something about this is so true and disturbing: that even with ultimate diligence and good intentions, you can be swept up in a political tide
(I’m wondering what it says about me that two of these are animals and one is an egg)
Sydney Carleton "Tale of Two Cities" he did it for love may not be the most dramatic or drawn out but it qualifies as "best" IMHO
Ahab, Hamlet, and Kurtz are my favorite answers here so far. I also thought of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird - speaking of injustice and the way a child can be fully aware of it in society.
But then when I saw your Note just now, Mikey, I was thinking about Ryuji from Mishima's Sailor. Although we don't 'experience' the death completely, it is utterly haunting in the way it shows seemingly innocent boys turning to violence (in a similar way as Piggy's, I see someone also nicely mentioned). Is it within them? Or, as antithesis to Harper Lee's novel, do the boys experience injustice and not have the filter (Atticus) to help them see what is good in the world and what is worth fighting for?
Also, Mishima got a bit crazy after that book :)
My favorite death is Mikhail Aleksandrovich Berlioz, who trips on oil over rails and gets decapitated by a passing tram. It's a shocking and surreal scene that comes on the heels of Woland predicting the man's death by cryptically claiming that "Annushka has spilled the oil." It's fitting as Berlioz was a staunch atheist and his death signals the surreal, supernatural turn for 'Master and Margarita' that proves God exists.
The wicked witches of both east and west.
Cecilia, Bonnie, Lux, and Mary from the Virgin Suicides. Even though the title gives it away completely, it is still such a shock when it happens. It's the ultimate revenge of children against their parents, one you wish you could inflict on your own parents when you are young and angry and misunderstood and powerfless, but without the actual dying part.
I started writing an answer and kept thinking of more and more names. Eventually, this turned into a post:
Sydney Carton leaps immediately to mind.
Anna Karenina - Boromir in Lord of the Rings - Sethe’s baby in Beloved - and many others already noted here
Francis Macomber has the best death in fiction! And it's my favorite Hemingway story.
So many excellent answers already!
The first one that came to my mind was Romulus au Raa in Iron Gold by Pierce Brown.
Farley in For Better or Worse
Or any Beckett non-death -- living death it is
In all seriousness, any Kafka character named K is the most elaborate death in fiction / isn’t he always writing about his own death? The castle is the best death because we never get to the death scene; this is the most accurate depiction of our own living death, every time
When knauusgard bites it halfway through “volume 18, the novel that never ends” -- oh wait that was me
This is so hard, and I don’t think this is the best, but what came to mind immediately was Koyla from City of Thieves.
The death of Joachim Ziemssen in "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann, by way of its tragic dignity. He is a soldier doomed by his disease, but a good man who simply won't complain or confide in Hans Castorp, his cousin, even as his death is imminent and evident. The two men just have to sit together and love each other for the last time, silently. After following their bond through several hundred pages, reading this passage was painful.
I kinda like the veil around Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes books