I’m not going to sugar-coat it (when do I ever?): authors are sadists. They get their jollies crafting wonderful characters that we adore and cherish, only to kill them in the most brutal and gut-wrenching ways. Every booklover has at least one or two character deaths that have left them scarred and reaching for the tissues. If you’ve read any of these books, I’m very sorry for your loss and for triggering those traumatic memories. If you’ve not picked them up yet, consider this an impassioned warning of what lies ahead. Here are the seven most heartbreaking deaths in literature.
Ted (The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham)
I’ll confess, I didn’t love everything about The Dressmaker, but the death of Ted is one of the cruellest I’ve ever read (and that’s coming from a book littered with corpses and all manner of cruelty). Tilly, the protagonist, overcomes her trauma and opens herself up to love, only to have her leading man, the kind-hearted and dreamy Ted, meet a very sudden and unfortunate end. As a joke, he jumps into a silo, as he used to do when he was a kid, believing it to be filled with wheat… only it was actually filled with light sorghum that couldn’t support his weight. He suffocated as he sunk down, never to be seen again, as Tilly watched helpless from the top. Gahhhh! Read my full review of The Dressmaker here.
Lady (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)
George R.R. Martin is famous (or infamous) for his fictional death toll, and A Game Of Thrones has more dead bodies than you can poke a stick at, but the one that truly broke me was that of Lady. Each of the Stark children has been given a direwolf of their own, to keep as a pet, and it’s a wonderful arrangement until Arya’s direwolf attacks the prince. Arya is clever enough to send her beloved pet off into the woods to hide, but Queen Cersei’s vengeful wrath demands satisfaction. She insists that Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, be killed in its place. And Ned Stark offers to be the one to do it, saving the gorgeous animal any unnecessary pain. The death of an innocent at the hands of a loving father! *sobs* Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.
Sirius Black (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling)
“Good one, James!” Sirius shouts, mistaking his beloved godson for his departed friend, right as Bellatrix Lestrange fires off a curse that sends him into that good night. His body falls through a strange portal, never to be seen again. J.K. Rowling is a cruel, cruel woman! You know what, pretty much every death in the Harry Potter series is heartbreaking: Dumbledore, Lupin and Tonks, Fred, Hedwig, Dobby… I’ll accept any answer except for Snape. That guy caused so much trouble just because he was butt-hurt that Lily didn’t love him back, I have no sympathy. Anyway, at least Rowling is kind enough to apologise for one death per year on Twitter.
Tom Robinson (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)
To Kill A Mockingbird is all about the loss of innocence, and Tom Robinson’s death is just that: the literal death of an innocent man, wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. So disheartened by his guilty verdict, and its racial overtones (Tom being a black man, accused of raping a white woman), he tries to escape prison, only to be shot by the guards. It’s the one time we see Atticus Finch truly shaken, so heartbroken is he that Tom didn’t live to see out the appeals process and his exoneration. Tom’s death had to happen, so that readers could fully understand the consequences of injustice, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.
The “Goldens” Prince Philip and Fatima (We Were Liars – E. Lockhart)
There are five beautiful golden retrievers in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, and I am emotionally traumatised by the needless death of two of them, Prince Philip and Fatima. They were lovable goofballs, treasured pets of the Sinclair grandparents. They ate starfish from the beach, only to vomit them up on the fancy carpet later, and adored tennis balls. Yes, they’re a metaphor for the pretty-but-vapid Sinclair sisters, but I was truly heartbroken by their deaths. They were sacrificed in the Liars’ foolish and futile attempt to destroy family privilege with an act of petty vandalism. What terrible waste! Read my full review of We Were Liars here.
Beth March (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a booklover who doesn’t list Beth’s death in Little Women as one of the most heartbreaking deaths in literature. Beth was the sweet one, the innocent one, the one who sought only to spread joy and care for others… so, of course, she had to bite the dust. In fact, her kindness is the very reason she died; she contracted scarlet fever while caring for a neighbour’s sick child. She died curled up next to Jo, satisfied that for once she would be the first of her sisters to do something. If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider Joey in that episode of Friends, who was so distressed he had to hide the book in the freezer… Read my full review of Little Women here.
John Thornton and All. Of. The. Dogs. (The Call Of The Wild – Jack London)
In just 84 pages, Jack London managed to cram in more heartbreaking deaths than the rest of this list put together. So many dogs died in The Call Of The Wild – some killed by humans, some killed by their fellows, some killed by the sheer exhaustion of their work i n the gold rush. What’s more, the only nice human in the whole book, John Thornton, the only damn one who shows these animals the kindness and respect they deserve, goes and gets himself killed by a Native American tribe. He is avenged, of course, but still! I can’t fathom the depths of London’s cruelty. Read my full review of The Call Of The Wild here.
As you can see, I’m of the firm belief that dog deaths are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature, and I’m not even sorry for crowding this list with them. Humans, at least, usually deserve what’s coming to them, and can defend themselves; our best friends with four legs, on the other hand… *reaches for tissues*. Which do you think are the most heartbreaking deaths in literature? If you can work through the pain, tell me in the comments (or share your grief over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
July 29, 2019 at 7:13 AM
I WILL NEVER EVER BE OVER SIRIUS DYING. Ever. It is many many years later — what year did that book come out, like, 2003? — and I am still heartbroken about it. This is a very good list, and by the way I count Sirius Black as a dog death.
July 29, 2019 at 9:30 AM
ZOMG YES! Sirius *is* a dog death, you’re so right! “Good one, James” was a little heavy-handed, but STILL SO HEARTBREAKING! 💔😭
July 29, 2019 at 8:35 PM
Ah, heartbreaking 🙁 Sirius’ death even more so, knowing it was partly Harry’s fault, for going off in his hot-headed hero mode, so predictably. And knowing that poor little Beth was based on L.M.A’s own beloved sister. I think poor Tom Robinson was a goner from the time Mayella Ewell screamed. If I was to add one, it might be Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables. Another gentle, friendly old man with a very sudden demise. You’re right, authors seem to love doing it to us.
July 31, 2019 at 8:28 AM
They’re so cruel, aren’t they?? 😢
July 31, 2019 at 6:20 PM
I thought the deaths in Nation by Terry Pratchett to be the ones that stopped me for a long time. In fact one of those books that causes you to pause for a long time and think.
July 31, 2019 at 6:45 PM
Ooooh, thanks for the recommendation – I’ll bear that in mind next time my thinking meat needs something to marinate in!