We all grieve when the protagonist of a novel dies, but how about when we mourn over characters who aren’t as prominent? They might be the friends, mentors, peers, and family members who share the spotlight at times but who either peripheral to the main action or because of other circumstances drift apart from the storyline at some point along the way, due to their untimely ends. From the unexpected deaths to the horribly slow ones, we offer you ten secondary characters who passed too soon but who will not be forgotten.
Helen Burns from Jane Eyre
“By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings.”
After Jane awoke, she realized that graceful and studious Helen had died in her sleep during the night, with Jane’s arms still clasped around her neck. There’s a beautiful scene right before Helen passes where Jane questions her friend about the afterlife; Helen’s conviction of her place in Heaven is a comfort to her beloved schoolmate, as they each whisper to each other “goodnight” for the last time. We can guarantee that this passage has been making good-hearted, Victorian-loving girls swoon for years.
Rue from The Hunger Games
“Slowly, one stem at a time, I decorate her body in the flowers. Covering the ugly wound. Wreathing her face. Weaving her hair with bright colors.”
Katniss Everdeen says goodbye to her teammate and friend, Rue, during the Hunger Games, but remembers her fleetness and compassion throughout the trilogy, even as she devises ways to storm the Capitol and kill President Snow. Rue might have been small, young, and seemingly frail, but her competitors underestimated her ability to survive for so long.
Beth from Little Women
In the chapter titled, “Beth’s Secret, ” Beth says to her sister, “It’s like the tide, Jo, when it turns, it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped.”
Josephine March might be the headstrong main character we love in Louisa May Alcott’s novel about four sisters who endure hard times but manage to have adventures and attend dances despite their low station, yet we still deeply mourn the loss of her sister, Elizabeth. Beth is the calm and virtuous third daughter who is always attempting to please her sisters, or at least not get in their way. She would definitely have befriended Helen Burns from Jane Eyre if such things were possible, since they are both models of feminine grace and placid dispositions.
Ahmet in The Lovers
“She turned her eyes to the rocks and there she saw something. The kickboard. It was knocking against the rocks, each wave turning it round and round, like the hand of a clock.”
In Vendela Vida’s newest novel, a middle-aged widow heads to Turkey on an extended vacation and eventually befriends a young local boy who collects shells on the beach. It’s a sad, moving scene when Ahmed dies (which is only heightened by Yvonne’s presumed culpability), but Vida is able to inject the right amount of bathos into her work, so we are left with fragments, meditations, and keen observations on grieving and living as a stranger in a strange land. As a side note, Vida is co-founder of The Believer and wrote the screenplay to Away We Go with her husband, Dave Eggers.
Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
“He had thought he knew Dumbledore quite well, but ever since reading this obituary he had been forced to realize he had barely known him at all.”
Albus Dumbledore is a good-natured wizard and mentor to young Harry Potter, who carries the burden of being “the boy who lived” despite Voldemort’s attempt to kill him as an infant. We all know the story by now, but much is revealed about the hoary old wizard after Dumbledore’s passing. For instance, did you know that his name is an anagram of “Male bods rule, bud?”
Orange Juice in Life of Pi
“To the end she reminded me of us: her eyes expressed fear in such a humanlike way, as did her strained whimpers.”
The boy watches, helpless, as the hyena tears at the orangutan’s throat, thinking he will be the next to die. It’s a moving scene from a novel about survival despite the odds. Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel survives 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean with a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Or does he?
Spiros Antonapoulos in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
“At night when he closed his eyes the Greek’s face was there in the darkness — round and oily, with a wise and gentle smile.”
It may not be the most politically correct of passages, but it is at this time when we finally get a sense of how much Singer loved his friend, who was a glutton for food, drink, and merriment. Antonapoulos is sent to an insane asylum by his cousin, Charles Parker, after his erratic behavior begins to disrupt his cousin’s life. It’s a heartless move, and one that we as readers never forgive him for when we see how much Antonapoulos has deteriorated due to the institution’s bare walls and bland diet.
Kid Sampson in Catch-22
“Those who spied drops of him on their limbs or torsos drew back with terror and revulsion, as though trying to shrink away from their own odious skins.”
Yossarian was right, McWatt was crazy, though he never intended to kill Kid Sampson, who foolishly jumped up only to be sliced to bits by the plane’s propeller. It’s a disturbing, grotesque, disgusting scene, and it really makes us feel for all the foolish kids who are just trying to have a little fun before they are forced to serve in a protracted war.
David in Bend Sinister
“Citizens die so that the city may live. We cannot believe that any personal bereavement can come between you and our Ruler.”
Professor Krug loses the one person most dear to him when his son is kidnapped by the State, but when David is returned to him, Krug realizes the child is an imposter, and that his own son was tortured and murdered in his place. Since the State is unrelenting in its dim-brained brutality, eventually Krug goes mad from his loss.
Grampa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath
“Ain’t nothin’ the matter with me…I jus’ ain’t a-goin.”
Grampa Joad, the patriarch of the Joad clan, doesn’t want to leave his home in Oklahoma and wager on a better life in California. Drugged with a healthy dose of “soothin’ syrup” before the family heads west for better prospects, he dies on the first day on the road, from a stroke and a broken heart. It’s a sad tale of a rambunctious old man who desperately clings to his homeland while he sees his family give up and move on.