Throughout thousands of years of literature, death has been used to create conflict in story lines, show transformation in characters, or give closure to plot lines and character arcs. However, the reoccuring pattern of female casualties – often gruesome, at the hands of men, or because of men –raises the question of whether so many female fictional deaths are necessary. Why is killing off female characters so popular? Is it a harmless trope? A critique of patriarchal societal structures? Or are the murders of fictional women part of a deeper problem, prevalent in not only literature, but the rest of society too?
One such novel where the only prominent female character is killed, is ‘Of Mice and Men’. Curley’s wife, who isn’t deemed worthy of a name, is repeatedly called a ‘tramp’ and a ‘whore’ for not conforming with her husband’s, and the other men’s, expectations of what a woman should be like, as she flirts with the other men supposedly because she’s ‘lonely’. At the end of the novel, she is killed by Lennie who ‘[breaks] her neck’, signifying not only her powerlessness in life but in death too. It’s interesting to note her sexuality, so often described earlier on in the book, plays some part in her death as this is what intrigues Lennie about her. Is the death of Curley’s wife an illustration of the unjust limitations on women or is her death meant to be interpreted as her own fault; something she could have escaped, if she would have only conformed to expectations of women at the time to be a subordinate housewife who is content with her lot?
In ‘Oliver Twist’, a novel written a hundred years prior to ‘Of Mice and Men’, readers are presented with another brutal female death in the form of Nancy – again, one of the only female characters in the book. She is beaten to death by Bill Sikes, her lover, who is enraged that she defies him to protect Oliver. At best, Nancy is seen as a martyr, who dies because that was the best thing she could do; at worst, her death is simply a narrative device to display the brutality of her lover, and symbolises, again, the punishment that befalls women who don’t conform to society, or to the men in their lives.
Another example of a female death in literature is that of Juliet from ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In recent years, it has been argued that Juliet is a sapling of feminism, defying her parents to marry Romeo and killing herself to retain her power. However, while Juliet’s death may have been powerful and transgressive in Shakespearean times, the suicide could potentially represent her lack of options, as she is driven to death by the other people in her life. Her death ultimately displays Juliet’s powerlessness; her life is controlled by first her parents and then Romeo when she attempts to escape their control, resulting in yet another prevalent, powerless female death in literature. The way Juliet dies further reinforces the lack of substance in her character, as she ‘stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger’. Daggers can symbolise sacrifice and loyalty, therefore looking closely, this suggests she remains loyal to Romeo up until her death, but looking at the bigger picture, perhaps Shakespeare only intended her to be an empty vessel to convey the consequences of actions, rather than a complex character with individual thoughts, feelings and liberties. Overall, Juliet appears to have an impact outside the bounds of the story and is significant within the realms of literary analysis, but within the story her role is arguably minimal, drowned out by the voices and actions of the male characters; the most important action she takes being her suicide.
Over the years, there has been a slow – and not always linear – shift in the representation of women in literature. With the prevalence of social media today, the increase in educated authors (both female and other genders), and the arrival of the fourth wave of feminism, we have begun to see larger change in the diversity of literature, amongst other minority groups too. Although there are often setbacks within the literary community, these changes in the modern day are important to celebrate and distinguish from literature of the past, so we can keep pushing for more varied representations of women and other minorities in the future, which do not end in predictable powerless deaths that leave readers rolling their eyes or fighting the urge to throw their book at the wall.