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When Characters Die

I’m not sure if there is a “normal” reaction to some deaths in literature. Take Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis.” For those who haven’t read it, the story is about a young man who wakes up one morning and finds that he has turned into a giant cockroach. Rejected by the family that he loves, the young man eventually dies from a combination of starvation, depression, and an untreated injury. I expected to be disgusted by the story. I did not expect that I would cry my eyes out at the young man’s (young cockroach’s?) death. I don’t normally cry over books, and I certainly didn’t think I would be sad for the world to be rid of a giant cockroach. But “The Metamorphosis” is really about abandonment, not cockroaches, and I can hardly imagine a more powerful way to picture that feeling.

Usually, however, my reaction to the death of even a favorite character is “Drat it.” Other reactions include anger (“Keeping Prim alive was the whole point of this stupid series!”), relief (“Whew, Boromir died decently and can’t mess up anything else”), and outright glee (“Macbeth is dead! Macbeth is dead!”).

Sometimes you spend an entire story anticipating death, but in most of those cases you feel prepared when the character in question actually kicks the bucket. Not so in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Demons.

Yes, it’s a lovely title. Disclaimer: There are no actual demons in this book, but it is very useful for several reasons. Smart people will see “Dostoevsky” on the cover and drool. They may read it and benefit. Your relatives will see Demons on the cover and be disturbed. You can then educate them about literature. Paranormal romance lovers will see Demons on the cover and want to know if it’s like Twilight. Try convincing one that Demons was the first great work of Russian paranormal fiction. If you succeed, you get to snicker as they wade through 700 pages, looking for the next Edward Cullen.

Yes, it’s 700 pages. And somehow the plot doesn’t drag. Actually, Demons based on a real event. In 1869, a Russian student named Ivan Ivanov was murdered by a radical group of which he had once been a member. After the murderers were arrested, Dostoevsky followed their trial with interest. Eventually he based Demons on the murder. (The “demons,” incidentally, are the ideas that Dostoevsky believed were destroying Russia.)

The book is both the funniest and saddest Dostoevsky novel that I have read so far. The funniest, because I found myself laughing repeatedly at the awkward situations into which Dostoevsky sticks his characters. I can’t remember laughing at Crime and Punishment or The Idiot. But Demons is also the saddest. It’s just when the student is about to die that you most want him to live.

Good writing? Yes. But it’s more than that. The student in Demons comes across as one of the most human of Dostoevsky’s characters—flawed, yes. But with a capacity to love more than most. That’s the worst thing about his death, and about a lot of deaths in literature. If he had lived, what would he have become? Thanks to Dostoevsky (insert angry mumbling), we will never know.

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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Classic Literature


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