What makes for a great literary death scene? This is the question I and the other four judges of the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize for medicine in literature have been pondering in advance of an event at the Cheltenham festival.
I find many famous death scenes more ludicrous than lachrymose. As with Oscar Wilde’s comment on the death of Dickens’s Little Nell, you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the passing of the awful Tullivers in Mill on the Floss, dragged down clutching one another as the river deliciously finishes them off. More consciously designed to wring laughter out of tragedy, the suicide of Ronald Nimkin in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint takes some beating, with Nimkins’s magnificent farewell note to his mother: “Mrs Blumenthal called. Please bring your mah-jongg rules to the game tonight.”
To write a genuinely moving death scene is a challenge for any author. The temptation to retreat into cliché is powerful. For me, the best and most affecting death is that of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. I remember my wife reading this to me out loud as I drove along a motorway. We were both in tears, as he says his farewell to his errant son, Nelson, and then runs out of words, and life itself – “enough. Maybe. Enough.”
But death is a matter of personal taste. The other judges were eclectic in their choices. Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist, admired the scenes in Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm. At the end of the chapter that seals the fate of the six men on board, Junger writes: “The body could be likened to a crew that resorts to increasingly desperate measures to keep their vessel afloat. Eventually the last wire has shorted out, the last bit of decking has settled under the water.” “The details of death by drowning,” Highfield says, “are so rich and dispassionately drawn that they feel chillingly true.”
Meanwhile, Erica Wagner chose the death of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. “A typhus epidemic is raging through Lowood school, but Helen actually has consumption, which leads Jane to believe she won’t die (she thinks if you just take it easy your consumption will go away). So the death is an extra shock.”
Chair of the judges, Vivienne Parry, chose Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. While commenting that “Dickens spins out Nell’s decline for many chapters until I’m personally ready to shoot the girl myself”, she also argues that “we are only able to scoff because so few of us have experienced the death of a child, whereas it was a common experience in Victorian families.”
The fifth choice, from Joanna Bourke, is the death of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Who else is in the first rank for last things?