The Saddest Literary Deaths We’re Still Crying About

Charlotte

Reading a good novel transports us to a different world filled with people and animals who feel very real. When a beloved fictional character dies, we feel devastated. Often our grief persists after we close the book, and we may walk around feeling sad . . . and maybe even angry with the author.

The best way to cope is to express your feelings and ignore those who think you’re silly for grieving. They just don’t get it, but we do. So, let's grab a tissue together and consider why the following deaths of some of our favorite fictional characters can still bring us to tears.

As children, we learn lessons about friendship, love, and loss, and a bunch of those lessons came to us in written form from the children's novel Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (published in 1952). This beloved classic tells the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a spider: Charlotte, who saves his life when he’s in danger of being slaughtered. When Charlotte reaches the end of her natural life, it's hard not to sob along with Wilbur, even as he saves the sac of her eggs. When they hatch, three spiders remain on the farm and become new friends for Wilbur, though they can never replace Charlotte.

But, E.B. White actually prepared us for this devastating twist; he gave us a foreshadowing of her death: “Everybody heard the song of the crickets . . . Charlotte heard it and knew that she hadn’t much time left.”


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Mabel

It’s hard to decide which of the many deaths in Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad affected us the most. This page-turning book, which won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is filled with memorable characters, both evil and heroic.

Our hearts broke when we learned that Caesar was captured and killed by a mob. And, we were saddened to see Martin and his wife, Ethel, who hid Cora in their attic, hanged. We hoped beyond hope that Cora would finally find love with Royal, a free black man who rescued her from the slave catcher Ridgeway. Sadly, he's shot and dies in her arms.

But the real kicker is that after seriously hating Cora’s mother, Mabel, for abandoning her young daughter, we learn at the end of the story that she didn’t escape the plantation and she wasn’t living happily in Canada. She was never found because she was bitten by a snake and died in the swamp. And . . . she never meant to abandon her daughter. She planned to return to the plantation before anyone knew she was missing. Mabel just wanted to breathe the air of a free woman, even if just for a moment.

Can't. Stop. Crying.

Khalil

In The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas we are forced to see the impact of the current climate and relationship between young black males and the police. When Starr Carter drives around town with her childhood best friend Khalil, she isn't expecting him to be shot by a police officer. But, because he was pulled over and because he was in a poor black neighborhood, he was shot ... and it's devastating.

What's even worse is what the media does with his death after it's happened ... some call him a thug and drug dealer while others protest the murder. Starr is stuck in the middle, and that's a tough place to be as a 16-year-old girl.

Sophie's child

The book Sophie’s Choice is so devastating that we couldn’t even watch the 1982 movie that starred Meryl Street, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

The novel by William Styron (1979) won the US National Book Award for Fiction in 1980. The plot focuses on the tragic decision Sophie is forced to make when she and her son and daughter are arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War ll. Sophie must choose which of her two young children will live in the camp and which will be immediately gassed to death. Can you even imagine that decision? And, we know there's no way you kept a dry eye when we find out Sophie survives the death camp and must live with her decision—permanently scarred emotionally and physically.

This was so impactful, that the term “Sophie’s choice” is now used to describe a situation in which a person must make an impossibly difficult choice.

Beth

The heartwarming book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, yup the 1800s!) is the coming-of-age story about the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy during the Civil War. They live in Massachusetts with their mother while their father, who lost all his money, is away from home fighting in the war.

Beth, the youngest sister, gets Scarlet Fever from a poor family who she was helping, and although she recovers, her health remains weakened and she dies in her early 20s. The family is heartbroken ... and so are we. But, Beth’s death is essential to the story. Amy and Jo resolve to live more caring, less selfish lives, and it propels Jo to become a successful writer. Her father says of her novel:

“There is truth in it, Jo, that’s the secret. Humor and pathos make it alive, and you have found your style at last. You wrote with no thoughts of fame and money, and put your heart into it, my daughter. You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best, and grow as happy as we are in your success.”

Susie Salmon

In The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, we are automatically introduced to the main character ... and she's already dead. But, as we learn more about her murder and the last days of her life ... her death becomes more sad with every page turn.

She's alone in the "afterworld," watching the pain her family is experiencing without her. By the end, you wish you knew her better when she was alive ... and many of us are haunted by Susie Salmon for months after reading this page turner.

The many deaths in "Harry Potter"

J.K Rowling killed off so many beloved characters in the Harry Potter series that she has even Tweeted apologies for some of their deaths:

We admit that we sobbed most when Albus Dumbledore died in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Dobby met his end in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–Part 1. Why, J.K, why?!

Sydney Carton

Charles Dickens’s historical novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is about the economic and political unrest in London and Paris that led to the French Revolution. You may recall it begins with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .”, and he wasn't lying about "the worst."

The story focuses on the French Doctor Manette, his 18-year imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris, and his release, after which he goes to live in London with his daughter Lucie. We also meet Sydney Carton, an alcoholic English barrister who harbors unrequited love for Lucie Menette.

Of course, a lot happens in this novel, but since we’re talking about sad deaths, let’s skip to the end (spoiler alert!) when Carton does a noble act by trading places with Charles Darnay, Lucie’s husband who is sentenced to be executed by guillotine. Carton’s famous last words are: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Wahhh.

Matthew

When that Anne girl showed up at Green Gables, it was Matthew’s coaxing that convinced Marilla she should stay. It was Matthew who couldn’t help but buy his sweet girl the dress with puffed sleeves. And, it was Matthew’s collapse in the fields that left us weeping over our much-worn pages of Anne of Green Gables.

As adoptive dads come, Matthew was one of the best. He was loving, supportive, and just a wee bit susceptible to the whims of teenagers in desperate need of some tender loving care. Marilla and Rachel may have been the matrons of Avonlea, but Matthew was its heart.

Old Yeller

Those who question why we think of our dogs as family members probably never read the book (or saw the movie) Old Yeller. Oh, well, their loss. But then again, they were spared the tears we shed when this beloved dog died.

The children’s classic Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (1956) is about a dog that comes to live with the Coates family on their Texas farm. “We Called him Old Yeller. The name had a sort of double meaning. One part meant that his short hair was a dingy yellow, a color that we called 'yeller' in those days. The other meant that when he opened his head, the sound he let out came closer to a yell than a bark.”

The older son Travis, who was left in charge while their father was on a cattle drive, says: “He made me so mad at first that I wanted to kill him. Then, later, when I had to kill him, it was like having to shoot some of my own folks. That’s how much I’d come to think of the big yeller dog.” Full circle.

Randle Patrick McMurphy

We all root for Randle Patrick McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Of course, this memorable character was portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the 1962 film directed by Milos Foreman, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor.

The story is a critique of institutional psychiatric hospitals. McMurphy fakes insanity to get out of having to go to a prison work farm. He antagonizes the head nurse and encourages other patients to fight for better care. Long story short, the full-of-life McMurphy is given a lobotomy to control his rambunctious antics. And, as an act of mercy afterwards, another patient, Chief Bromden who narrates the story, smothers him with a pillow. Wow, that's a twist.

Tom Robinson

To be honest, we mourn the death of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) not so much because it leaves a deep hole in us emotionally but because of its social injustice. The novel, which has become a classic, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, and the 1962 film by the same name won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gregory Peck.

Even though we're devastated by Robinson's death, as readers we tend to connect more with the six-year-old narrator, Scout, and her father, Atticus Finch, who is considered one of the greatest characters of American fiction. Atticus defends Tom, a black man who is accused of raping a white girl. Although Robinson is innocent, he is convicted by a racist jury. Tom is shot and killed while trying to escape from prison.

The pain and loss of faith experienced by Scout, her older brother, and their father after the trial is something that is relatable and real for us as readers. Even President Barack Obama quoted Atticus in his farewell speech: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Tom really affected us all.

Gus

Lonesome Dove, a 1985 western novel by Larry McMurtry, is about the friendship between Gus and Woodrow, two retired Texas Rangers, and their adventures driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana. The easy-going but brave Gus serves as a foil to the silent, disciplined Woodrow. Gus is wounded, refuses to have his gangrenous leg amputated, and dies of blood poisoning.

It’s hard for us to accept that he’d rather die than be an invalid, because we don't want him to leave us. As Gus is dying he says to Woodrow: “It’s been quite a party ain’t it?” Oh, Gus.

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