Death in Fiction

For whatever reason, death has become a pervasive theme in my writing. In reviewing the short stories I have written over the past few years, death figures prominently in well over half of them. Death also plays a very major role in my current project. In the opening scene, the protagonist watches as her mother steps unexpectedly in front of a moving train. Later in the novel, our heroine discovers that an aunt she never knew also died a tragic death. In these instances, death helps both to define the characters, as well as to move the plot along. In my The Whalesinger’s Daughter, Jessica, the protagonist does not know whether her mother’s death was suicide or merely a tragic accident. In order to find the answer, she travels back to the place of her mother’s birth and in the process learns not just about her mother’s past, but also about her own.

Death also plays an important role in one of my favorite short stories, “The Precipice” which appeared originally in Volume 1 of Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things, and will soon appear in audio at Audible. In this story, a young girl and her father must deal with the sudden death of the girl’s mother. Both are distraught, as is to be expected, but their grief also manifests itself in other, unexpected ways. The father draws inward, the daughter grows angry. The two barely speak to one another, and this silence between them inflicts nearly as much pain as the mother’s death.

Another death also plays a role in this story: that of a mother whale and her calf which accidentally swim up into the Klamath River. The girl and her father hear about this on the local news, and the girl immediately wants to go see the whale. She wants to see it partly to get out of the house and away from the heavy silences there, but also because this is what her mother would have wanted to do. In contrast to the girl, the father is hesitant. He understands where his daughter does not that the mother whale  is sick and most likely dying. He tries to explain this to his daughter, but the girl at first refuses to listen. It is only later, when the truth of her father’s words become apparent that she comes to understand not only how much he cares for her, but how also how much he loved her mother. These two deaths taken together shape not just the story but the characters within it. Without death, there could be no story.

The question I have recently come to ask myself is why death plays such an important role in my fiction. Like anyone else middle aged or older, I have encountered my share of human mortality first hand. I’ve lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends in their twenties and thirties. Most recently my father in law died, and though he was seventy six and had lived a long and mostly productive life, his sudden and unexpected death still shook those of us that knew him. To think that a person can be there one moment, so alive and present, and the next moment gone entirely can be profoundly unsettling. For the religious there is comfort in thinking that the dead lives on in the afterlife. But for those of us without such strong beliefs, death takes on a much darker hue. What is the point of life and of consciousness if it all just comes to an end? I don’t know that there can ever a final answer to this question, and maybe that’s why death plays such an important role in my work, and literature in general. I may not know the answer to this question, but I will all continue to ask it until I can ask no more.


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