Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dead Characters

I’ve recently read two books which featured important characters who are already dead by the time the books begin. In Abide with Me, Tyler Caskey’s wife Lauren has recently died of cancer. In Light on Snow, Nicky’s mother and sister were killed in an automobile accident the year before the book opens. Of course it is the deaths of these characters that precipitate much of the action and emotions of these two books.

In both books, we meet the characters in flashback and memories. In the case of Lauren, from Abide with Me, the accounts do not match; the selfish, immature woman we meet in flashback bears little resemblance to the idealized woman that Tyler holds in his memory. This dissonance illustrates much about Tyler’s character. Nicky’s mother and baby sister, in Light on Snow, are more consistent, but less well developed as characters.

As I thought about these characters, I also thought about other dead characters in other books. Shreve gives us another one in The Pilot’s Wife. Most of that book is the story of a wife peeling back the layers of what she knows about her dead husband to reveal a man she does not recognize.

Another dead character I remember very strongly is the character of Chris, in Life Before Man, by Margaret Atwood. It is his suicide (and the other characters’ reactions to it) that is the driving force for much of what happens in that story. In many ways he is a more vital character than the living ones, who for the most part spend a lot of time moping around.

Other dead characters that come to mind are the two sons (Tim and Tom) in John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. We only meet these boys through descriptions of their photographs, and in one harrowing account of their deaths, narrated by their mother before she disappears.

One of the most famous dead characters is Rebecca, in Daphne Du Maurier’s book of the same name. What are some other dead characters? I’m not talking about ghosts. And not about characters who die part way through a book. I want to consider characters who are dead throughout the book, and who are only featured through memories, posthumous descriptions, and flashbacks, yet whose influence is central to the book’s actions and themes.

3 comments:

carolyn said...

i know a dead character book for you but i cannot remember the name. came out a couple years ago. character is a teenage girl who has been raped & buried it turns out and she's watching her family as they are searching for her and her neighbors, friends, etc. are being interviewed... and she comes back down and visits one of her friends somehow, i can't remember how. crap, i just can't recall the name. everyone was reading it... if i think of it later, i'll come back!

Jenny D said...

The Lovely Bones.

Interesting post! Read it a little while ago, just checked back to see if more comments had been added.

NB I wonder to what extent 'literary' examples like "Rebecca" derive from the crime novel. Surely there is a whole subset of crime novels from the 20s and 30s--can't think of good examples--in which the great twist at the end is that we have misunderstood something important about the character of the murder victim?

I'm going to see if I can think of any of those or of other examples--there don't seem to be as many as I would have thought--and I guess once you exclude things like Hamlet's father's ghost-type scenarios (and surely novels with flashbacks in which we see the character alive are sort of secular ghost-equivalents), you don't have too much left--I imagine it goes against the conventional 'rules' to have a character alluded to but not actually appearing in his or her own person. You may need to redefine categories in order to be clearer about the multiple-time-frame/flashback aspect of these fictions: i.e. it is only in last 50 years or so that people started commonly writing books with that structure, no? You might also think of an interesting subset (like the dead son in Ulysses) of children who have died before the narrative starts? You'd find more early i.e. 19th-century examples, I suspect, if you thought of it that way.

cmft said...

I'm sure jenny d must be right and that there must be examples of this in mysteries written during the interwar period, but I can't come up with an example. I'll keep thinking. It's funny you should mention this just now, though, because while reading back-issues of the weekend Financial Times on my vacation last week, I came across an article talking about something similar: plays that include a significant off-stage "actor" - not necessarily dead, admittedly, but with a similar effect to the one you're talking about. Waiting for Godot is the obvious one, but the article reviewed a couple of other plays (Rebecca Lenkiewicz's The Night Season, Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, Sharman Macdonald's The Girl with Red Hair, a new play by Marie NDiaye called Hilda). Rebecca was mentioned, as was Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. In this case, though, the reviewer was highlighting not so much the use of "flashback" as the "suggestion of a capricious unseen power". That device (it was argued) can be traced back to Greek dramas.

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