In some ways, our dealings with death have changed beyond recognition since the birth of the novel. Medical advances have transformed the statistics of infant mortality, death in childbirth and infectious disease. But if death seems less present in our lives and easier to ignore – for a while – we know that is a false and fleeting comfort. For die we still must. All our ingenuity cannot prevent it, for ourselves or our loved ones and it is our human capacity to love each other and the world that gives death its distinctive, bitter sting. By examining our looming fate in art and literature we can attempt to soften that sting, though our prospects are doubtful.
I’m not interested here in the most spectacular, moving or memorable literary deaths, but specifically in attempts to shed light on the experience of dying itself. An experienced death in fiction is unique, in that it is a story the living writer is always unqualified to tell. On the other hand, with her readers equally unqualified to judge, she has a kind of free rein. The perennially blank last page of life is a tempting target for the imagination. My own first novel merely sketched death with artistic licence, but in my second, Learning to Die, I stepped much closer to the brink, hoping to peer over, and was surprised by what I saw. It’s comforting to know that only my fellow speculators – the living – will judge the result.
Here are 10 fictional deaths that attempt to examine the experience or the immediate anticipation of dying, ordered roughly by the age of the character. Most occur near the end of their respective books, and for some merely appearing in the list is an egregious spoiler. You have been warned.
1. Unn in The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Eleven-year-old Unn sits hunched in a chamber inside a labyrinthine frozen waterfall, listening to a thousand drops of water falling. She does not feel cold. “Everything that should have been upright was upside down,” and yet “it was just as it should be”. Death arrives as a languid sleep.
2. Niels Lyhne in Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen
Disillusioned poet and unrequited lover Lyhne lies in a field hospital with a bullet in his lung, the pain “mercilessly stabbing and stabbing”. Confronted by oblivion, and having lived nowhere near enough, his only respite from terror is a descent into raving delirium as the infection spreads. There is no consolation, no epiphany and no hope. Finally, he dies “the difficult death”. To me this seemed an uncomfortably plausible fate for any of us, bullet or not, and reading it was difficult, too.
3. WP Inman in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
In the abrupt, upsetting finale of this Homeric tale of a US civil war deserter, the reader shares the dying Inman’s bewilderment. There is something he wants to say to his beloved, but just before we hear it the author courteously, cinematically lifts us away. Our last glimpse – of what seems a pair of happy lovers, his head on her lap – is from a distance.
4. Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Among the most nuanced treatments of death are those that succeed in conveying all its misery and waste, but also suggest some trace of consolation, of illumination to the living or the protection of a noble sentiment. The shell-shocked Septimus, perched on a window sill, does not want to die. Life is good. But the hateful, oppressive establishment is mounting the stairs in the shape of Dr Holmes, and the railings below are his only escape, his act of defiance. For the hunted, death is a certain refuge but a wretched one.
5. Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
“I hate to leave it very much,” thinks the wounded Robert Jordan of the world, with characteristic Hemingwayan economy, “and I hope I have done some good in it.” He has, to an extent – he has blown up his target bridge, inspired his comrades and been a decent enough chap in a brutal world – but he also hasn’t, because we, the readers, know who won the Spanish civil war two years later. The moment draws nearer, nearer – and then just before the final, heroic hail of bullets the curtain is deftly lowered.
6. Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Sydney Carton’s heroic demise in the novel’s final pages is a deliberate showpiece, with Dickens skilfully capturing the rushed brevity of the prisoner’s final moments as his turn at the guillotine arrives. The reader is caught unprepared as the blade crashes down and Carton’s world “flashes away”, in what we would now call real time. We do get his final thoughts, of course, but in a postscript. Those thoughts are too honourable, too beatifically wise to convince a contemporary reader, but the reader forgives.
7. Lisa in The White Hotel by DM Thomas
This is the most harrowing of my choices, so much so that I hesitated to include it. Lisa’s death at Babi Yar is not only sickeningly violent, but carries the terrible historical burden of the survivor testimony on which its circumstances were based. In Thomas’s novel, the coming atrocity looms over Lisa’s earlier life, and manifests in premonitory visitations of physical pain. The recent BBC radio adaptation of Dennis Potter’s unfilmed screenplay was a laudable reinterpretation.
8. Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
The apocalyptically drunken ex-consul is shot after a petty squabble with Mexican police. “Christ,” he remarks, suddenly sober, “this is a dingy way to die.” Lowry has delved into the man’s very core and is not about to turn away at the end. Firmin is thrown unceremoniously into a ravine and feels life “slivering out of him like liver”.
9. Harry Angstrom in Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
Resignation is a common theme in the fictional experienced death, and for characters granted this blessing, the word “enough” is likely to feature. It is powerful because we, the living readers, feel there could never be enough life, or enough love. On his deathbed Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, by turns blinkered and far-sighted in life, after a thousand pages of endearing selfishness, considers imparting a last pearl of wisdom to his desperate son. But no – enough, he thinks, and then repeats that simple word with a wider, cosmically wide significance. Enough. (We want more, but that’s the difference between us and him.)
10. William Stoner in Stoner by John Williams
The death from cancer of this disappointed academic is memorably and movingly related to the very last moment. “What did you expect?” Stoner asks himself as he reviews his so-so life. He feels no pain and his mind is sound. He reaches for a copy of his own neglected book and fingers the pages, wisely appreciating both its insignificance and its significance, then waits patiently “until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay”, and the book falls from his grasp. Death does not always wear black. Sometimes it’s more of a serene grey.
• Learning to Die by Thomas Maloney is published by Scribe, priced £12.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £11.43 including free UK p&p.