Dying a fictional death

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Death comes to all, even fictional characters, but it is a particular challenge to write about death through the perspective and diminishing senses of the dying character. In previous blogposts I’ve written about dastardly husbands, childbirth and bad marriages in fiction so it seems death has a natural place in this series.

Before I get into the fictional accounts of dying, there is one very interesting factual account of dying, or the feeling of being close to death, that I’d like to share. It comes from a radio interview I heard two years ago when I was living for a short time in Dublin. Irish radio is full of these kinds of gems.

The woman being interviewed was an eminent surgeon in her early fifties with no children. She described a time when she had been seriously ill with cancer. Her life at that point was hectic because on top of her regular work she had taken on other charity commitments abroad.

A fiercely independent woman, she had never had to rely on anyone for help before. That was the first big transition she had to make. When things had got very bad, she said she remembered lying in her hospital bed, weak and completely helpless and being certain that she was going to die. She felt unmoved about the prospect of her life being over and not in the least alarmed. ‘So this is how all my problems are going to be solved,’ she remembered thinking with a feeling of relief.

Life does present us with a seemingly unending chain of problems, big and small, and how surprising it is when the chain suddenly turns out to have an end and the end is now. The individual who realizes they are dying may well have time to rationalize what’s happening before the lights go out for ever. This process is no more beautifully expressed than in the dying moments of William Stoner at home alone in John Williams’ novel Stoner.

“A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure – as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

I’ve just finished A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, which I read on the recommendation of fellow blogger Safia Moore (based in the United Arab Emirates), a great supporter of new writers and recent winner of the Bath Short Story Prize with her poignant story That Summer.

This novel was a delight to read – moving, entertaining, thought-provoking. You can check out Safia’s review here and then please read the book too because all of life is in it and there is so much to enjoy. The main character is called Teddy and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal his death scene here because the author makes it clear early on in the story that he lives to know his grandchildren.

Moments left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood. It didn’t matter, he realized, he didn’t mind, he was going where millions had gone before and where millions would follow after. He shared his fate with the many.

And now. This moment. This moment was infinite. He was part of the infinite. The tree and the rock and the water. The rising of the sun and the running of the deer. Now.

This next one is a spoiler so if you want to read Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, skip ahead to the end. The story, told in the multiple first person, is set in Mumbai and revolves around residents of an apartment block faced with an offer they cannot refuse by a ruthless property developer. In the end the neighbours turn against each other and the story concludes with the murder of one of their number, Yogesh Murthy, who is first badly beaten and then thrown from the roof.

Now, when he opened his eyes, he could not tell if he were dead or alive; these men seemed to be demons, though kindly, who were forcing his body to budge from some place between life and death where it was stuck.
And this was because he was neither good nor bad enough; and neither strong nor weak enough. He had lost his hands; he had lost his legs; he could not speak. Yet everything he had to do was right here, in his head. He thought of Guarav, his son, his living flesh. ‘Help me,’ he said.

And then he realized that the thing that was blocking his passage was cleared, and he was falling; his body began its short earthly flight – which it completed almost instantaneously – before Yogesh Murthy’s soul was released for its much longer flight over the oceans of the other world.

There are other notable dying moments that come to mind, such as the death scene in One Day by David Nichols which I thought was very movingly written, and the heart-wrenching drowning scene from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell where the character fights for her life through the growing realization that she will be absent from all the future important moments of her child’s life.

OK, I’ll stop there. I hope I haven’t depressed anyone with these notes on dying. Can you think of any other memorable dying scenes that deserve a mention here?

Coming up on the blog later this week I will have my first ever guest post, from new author Anne Goodwin. Keep an eye out for Anne who is on a blog tour to coincide with the launch of her novel Sugar and Snails. My copy has been dispatched so I will tell you more about the book as soon as possible.

13 thoughts on “Dying a fictional death

  1. Very interesting article, Clare. I was thinking about how the writer deals with the idea of ‘killing’ a character, and what sort of decisions have to be made. In a couple of books I’ve read, a death of a main character has occurred and I really had to wonder about the purpose of it; was it to shock, or because it fitted in with the narrative, or had some purpose or meaning as a plot device… or was the writer just fed up with the ‘person’ and ‘killing’ them seemed like a good (or easy) option?
    Lots to think about, thank you!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Lois! The death of an important character is a great opportunity to create a climax and pack the emotional punch but who knows the workings of the writer’s mind (unless there’s a Q&A in the back of the book!). There must be a temptation in some situations to kill off characters to solve plot problems.

      1. In a couple of books I read where there was a death it made me really cross because it didn’t seem to fit, it seemed gratuitous, and in one case it was the main character of a series of about ten books and I really felt the writer was fed up with him!! Good lesson for writers… think carefully about death!

  2. Great topic, if yes, a little depressing. Anna Karenina’s interior monologue as she goes to the railway station is one that pierces my heart every time. And as for Hazel’s wise, tender passing on in ‘Watership Down’ – my eyes fill with tears just writing this.

      1. The thing is that with Watership Down and The Little Prince, the ending is supposed to be uplifting (perhaps because they are for children, after all, no point in depressing them for life). But reading them as a grown-up to my children, I was bawling my eyes out.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed A God in Ruins, Clare. Ted’s calm and dignified approach to death was certainly memorable as were some of the deaths Atkinson described during the war, eg, Ted’s colleague who simply lets go of the drifting lifeboat and allows himself to be carried away by the sea’s waves. Thank you so much for the mention – much appreciated.

  4. Well, Clare, you’re certainly tackling some meaty fictional moments here on your blog. I loved the extracts you’d selected and was especially pleased to be reminded of Last Man in Tower. I had been a little worried about the way I’d started off my guest post for Thursday with a reference to “lying on your deathbed” but seems I’m perfectly in tune with the way your blog’s going!
    Excuse me for pointing out the obvious, but the downside of these eloquent descriptive passages is that none of us can know what it’s really like and even near death experiences might not mirror the actual experience. In fact, could that be the writer’s worst nightmare: getting to grips with how to describe death when it’s too late to use it?

  5. You and I seem to have similar taste in reading, although I’m always a little behind. I’m just getting into “A God in Ruins,” and liking it very much.

    A priest who often visited the sick and dying said that so often the dying person waits until everyone leaves the room before taking his last breath. He thinks it’s because it gives the person a chance to meet his God without being interrupted.

    In “The Sea” by John Banville that’s what happens. “Anna died before dawn. To tell the truth, I was not there when it happened. I had walked out on to the steps of the nursing home to breathe deep the lustrous air of morning.” He ends the book on the following page with a memory of swimming in the sea. “As I stood there, suddenly, no, not suddenly, but in a sort of driving heave, the whole sea surged, it was not a wave, but a smooth rolling swell that seemed to come up from the deeps, as if something vast down there had stirred itself, and I was lifted briefly and carried a little way toward the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened. And indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing, just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.

    “A nurse came out then to fetch me, and I turned and followed her inside, and it was as if I were walking into the sea.”

    1. Thank you for that lovely extract from The Sea. We really do have similar taste in books. I’m just getting into Goodreads, a late adopter. Will see more of you there when I get the hang of it.

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