Sunday, August 13, 2006

More About Dead Characters

Here is my first post about Dead Characters.

I had hoped for lots of comments about this, and I’ve had a good amount. But the conversation has been going on in three places at once. I added the Dead Character post to Metaxu Café (, which is a kind of blog amalgamator, or digest, or something, for blogs about literature. You can post items there, and also just submit your blog for others to link to. I was curious to see what kind of traffic it might generate, and it definitely got some. Frank Wilson, who blogs at Books, Inq., also linked to my post, and his site had some comments as well. I’m going to respond to all the comments here, though, on my site, rather than at Metaxu Café or Books, Inq.

Two people mentioned The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. That was such an obvious choice; I can’t believe I missed it.

Jenny D. brought up two interesting points. Her first is the murder mystery, which of course must feature a dead character. Like several of the books I mentioned, the death of this character precipitates the action of the book. Depending on the subgenre of mystery, we sometimes meet the character in flashback, and get to know him or her. But some authors keep the victim character at a distance.

Jenny D. also brings up the lack of dead characters in 19th century novels, which, she points out, is because the multiple timeframe/flashback device is a 20th century literary construct. BUT Maxine, at Petrona, commenting at Metaxu Café, offers as her dead character Catherine Earnshaw, of Wuthering Heights, who is one of the most famous of all the 19th century heroines. Yet really, this observation supports what Jenny D. says, because Catherine does not appear in flashback; instead her story is told by one character speaking to another character, which is a common 19th century device. I love the way all these comments are coming together.

CMFT mentions an article she read recently about a similar topic: the offstage actor in both literature and drama, who is never seen, but who nevertheless exerts a powerful pull on the action (but who may or may not be dead). Her example is Godot, in Waiting for Godot. If we’re talking about drama too, I vote we include Milo Rambaldi, from the now concluded TV series Alias.

Vikram (commenting at Books Inq.) mentioned Sue’s mother in Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. I haven’t read this book, but I did read Tipping the Velvet, also by Waters, which I think is part of the same series.

My son Miles, who commented aloud, rather than on a blog, brings up Jon Arryn, whose death in the time period just before the opening of A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin is like the first falling pebble that triggers the avalanche. Miles also mentions Sauron, who is kind of an anomaly. And no, Miles, we can’t count characters in vampire books.

Finally, from a reader at Metaxu Café comes another obvious set of characters that I wish I’d thought of: James and Lily Potter. And if we’re going to count them, we have to mention Lord Voldemort. He falls kind of into the Sauron category of dead/not dead. Therefore all fantasy literature is disallowed in further discussion.

(Was this post too long? Did you make it to the end?)


Anonymous said...

No, it wasn't too long, and yes I did make it to the end!
I like the idea of analysing the comments on your post, Becky, and incidentally, thanks for enlightening me as to how to get onto Metaxucafe, which I'd wondered about previously.

Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith aren't in the same series, they are both by Sarah Waters and both in the subgenre "Victorian lesbiana" but are independent.

I am not sure how far you would go in defining "dead characters", Emma's mother has died before the start of the book but I don't recall her being specifically described as a character in the book (I could be wrong, I've read Emma many times but not recently).
Mr Darcy's father is also dead, although one could not (I think?) call him a "character" in P&P, he does have a quite significant role to play in the Wickham subplot. etc.

If someone is just "dead" and not specifically described or having actions as a character during the events of the book, does this count?

Becky Holmes said...

Maxine, it seems like someone could write a graduate thesis on dead characters in 19th century literature. Someone probably already has done this.

In answer to your last question, I was thinking of characters who do appear in scenes in the novel, whether those scenes are flashback or described by others. But just having died, and thus made an impression on another character by doing so -- to me that wasn't enough to qualify.

Sarah Waters is interesting, and I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet, but these books are not for everyone. She's got a new one set during WWII that sounds good, though the title escapes me right now.

Jenny Davidson said...

Definitely not too long, v. interesting!

Isn't there a minor Wilkie Collins novel called something like "The Dead Hand"? Wills are also another way that a dead character has a presence in the novel, that's more 19th-c.....

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