Why do so many novels, classic or otherwise, end with the sudden death of a main character? Is it just laziness? Or are there really only a limited number of plot lines out there, so authors have to choose ‘sudden death’, ‘happily ever after’ or ‘to be continued’?
You may think I am exaggerating, so I thought I’d complete a quick survey. Let’s look at the last 20 books I have reviewed, and see which end in the sudden and possibly unexplained death of a major character. It goes without saying that this selection will contain some serious spoilers, but if you have read my blog before, or the warning at the top of the home page, you will know I have a cavalier attitude towards that issue at the best of times. I genuinely don’t know how this is going to turn out, although if course if nobody dies I might reconsider publishing this…..
- Wuthering Heights. Virtually everybody dies, including all the main characters. Heathcliff drops dead at the end of the novel from no obvious cause, but with an unpleasant smile on his face.
- Underworld. Hard to argue there are any major characters, but those that we come across seem to make it through.
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – definitely a ‘reader I married him’ ending.
- Voss. Almost everyone dies on Voss’s expedition into the Australian outback.
- Sybil ends with the death of several major characters in a rushed ending that suggests the author had something more important to do.
- Mrs Dalloway. A death plays a central part in the novel, but it is not of a major character, and doesn’t come at the end, so I don’t think I can count this one.
- Hadrian VII.. Hadrian is assassinated at the end of the novel.
- Tropic of Cancer. In keeping the novel’s breaking of conventions, Miller doesn’t provide any particular resolution at the end of Tropic of Cancer, let alone a death.
- Song of Solomon ends with Milkman’s leap of faith – whether it ends with his death or him learning how to fly, we aren’t told. I’m claiming this as a half!
- Beloved has an inconclusive ending, but no major deaths.
- To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m also calling this one a half – the novel ends with a death, but the character cannot be called major.
- The Way We Live Now. If ever there was a novel where the random death of the main character signals the author’s increasing boredom with his work, it is the utterly implausible suicide at the end of Trollope’s novel.
- The Rainbow. As you would expect with an inter-generational novel, there are some deaths, but they are not used as a plot ending device, so can’t count this one.
- Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises – just to prove this exercise isn’t rigged, no sudden deaths at the end for the named characters.
- Amongst Women ends with the passing of the Moran family patriarch.
- Lolly Willowes. An unusual ending, but no deaths.
- Rabbit Redux – Rabbit has further to run at the end of Redux, but his dysfunctional girlfriend dies in a house fire, so I am claiming this one.
- The Heat of the Day ends with the ‘was it suicide or was it an accident’ death of the protagonist, Robert Kelway.
- Gulliver’s Travels – ending with the promise (fulfilled) of a sequel.
- The Scarlet Letter ends with the expiration of Hester’s mystery partner, Reverend Dimmesdale.
Depending on how generous you are with the halves, I think that makes over 50% of this random list of classic novels ending with sudden deaths. In some cases the death is a natural conclusion to a story arc – in others (Sybil, The Way We Live Now) the deaths are hurried and unlikely, and used simply as a convenient way to draw the novel to a close. It seems as if a sudden death brings a finality that authors find hard to resist.