In his book Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut encouraged writers to: “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” Sometimes, that can mean torturing your favorite characters. Other times, it’s best just to kill them.
Great deaths in fiction so often make the reader’s heart ache. It’s not fair, we know. But there are the occasional deaths in fiction that serve more as entertainment than heartbreak — some that are shocking, hilarious and still sometimes devastating despite their “WTF?!” factor. For those who like to walk on the dark side, who don’t believe in karma, here are seven of the most bizarre deaths to gape at:
1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: Wardrobe Malfunction
We meet Miss Havisham in her tethered wedding dress, hobbling around with one shoe and hoarding everything from the day she was left at the altar, including an uneaten wedding cake. Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella, unsurprisingly has some issues with men herself: She’s a cold, heartless bitch.
Havisham eats it up too, relishing in the vicarious heartbreak she causes a poor boy named Pip. Of course, like any good Dickens character, she comes around and repents in the end, begging Pip for forgiveness. After he leaves, Havisham idles by the fireplace, neglecting to realize her wedding dress has caught fire until it’s too late.
2. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare: Death by Bear
In typical Shakespearean fashion, King Leontes publicly accuses his wife of infidelity, throws her in jail and orders the death of his illegitimate children. He bids his subject to take his infant to the shore and leave her there to die. Like I said, typical drama — until the king’s subject Antigonus actually does it and karma bites him in the ass. The last readers and play-watchers alike see of Antigonus is him exiting "pursued by a bear." Seeing as he’s never mentioned again, it’s pretty clear how that worked out. The bear always wins.
3. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: An Impulsive Swim in the East River Gone Wrong
Drowning during an impulsive swim isn’t exactly the most bizarre death out there — it was the unfortunate end to the late, great Jeff Buckley, after all. What is strange about this death is that no one, and I mean, no one swims in the East River. Most people in New York City only occasionally realize they’re living on an island surrounded by water, let alone have any desire to get near the polluted swamp that we call the East River.
Regardless, it’s a pretty strange idea to begin with, especially on a cold day. When Rob Freeman follows Drew Blake into the gross city waters, he drowns though Drew survives. The death is so haunting that Drew dedicates his life to becoming a doctor and probably never, ever thought of attempting to swim in the East River ever again.
4. How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira: Beaten to Death for Serving Poisonous Ice Cream
Aira’s novella begins with a simple premise: A family moves to a bigger city, where a father promises to take their child, Cesar, out for ice cream. Cesar chooses a cone of strawberry ice cream and is horrified by the taste. Still, his father urges that he stop being difficult and just finish it, tasting the ice cream himself only to realize it tastes strange for a reason: It’s poisonous. The father murders the ice cream vendor, and Cesar recovers from cyanide poisoning in the hospital. Strawberry ice cream never seemed so vicious.
5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Abrupt Ascension
I could fill this entire list with bizarre deaths written by Marquez, especially from his most famous novel, but for now, let’s stick to one: Remedios the Beauty, named for her enchanting looks, is a few generations down the Buendia saga. She literally drives the men around her crazy (accidentally killing one who falls to his death just trying to catch a glimpse of her in the shower — like I said, so many bizarre deaths). But Remedios own death might be the most surreal. For no apparent reason, one day Remedios the Beauty floats from her bed up toward a mysterious light and waves goodbye to her family “in the midst of her flapping sheets” around her. She’s lost forever to the atmosphere. Judging from Marquez’s biblical allusions throughout the novel, heaven is a safe bet, but I’ve always thought an alien abduction might be funnier.
6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: Getting Hit by Car After Fleeing from News That Your Husband is Hot for Your 12-Year-Old Daughter
Some know Lolita only for it’s creep-factor and it’s tragedy, and dark humor might not be their thing — but perhaps this instance of vehicular manslaughter will get a little chuckle out of you! The context adds to the humor: Humbert has been raving like a mad man about his lust for Lolita and his contempt for her mother the whole time. At one point, he even considers drowning the mother in a moment that seems totally loving and heartfelt to poor Charlotte Haze, who has persuaded him to marry her with the threat that he’d have to move out otherwise. In ways, both Humbert and Charlotte are totally delusional, so no one really needs to be taken seriously. Their newlywed bliss is tarnished when Charlotte reads Humbert’s diary — the ravings of a lust-consumed pedophile — and freaks the fuck out. In true melodramatic fashion, she gets hit by a car and dies after fleeing from Humbert’s secrets. Whether or not you agree it’s funny, it’s certainly bizarre.
7. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Death by Lasers
Billy Pilgrim already knows he’s going to die: He’s received a very serious death threat, and he has the advantage of time travel on his side. In fact, he’s gone to that very moment — the day he will be a messianic figure of sorts, reciting an important speech to a baseball stadium full of his admirers — several times. He knows he will be assassinated in true Vonnegut fashion by a high-powered laser.
Are there any other strange, sadistic literary deaths you would add to our list? Tell us about about them in the comments below!
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
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