Sherlock: Let’s talk about murder. Imagine someone’s going to get murdered at a wedding. Who exactly would you pick?
Mrs. Hudson: I think you’re a popular choice at the moment, dear.
—from “The Sign of Three”, Sherlock
When I was in high school, I used to be obsessed with murder mysteries. My mom and I watched the entirety of CSI Miami, and I went on to read all the Sherlock Holmes books and fangirl about and critique the movies and shows. Nowadays, I don’t read near as many mysteries, save Sanderson’s The Alloy Era series, but I still enjoy the occasional who-done-it because of the intellectual challenge.
As I’ve gotten older and my tastes have changed, I can no longer tolerate some things that I once did. I still enjoy action and adventure, but I don’t like much violence, and I’m more sensitive to death in stories.
Death in fiction is disturbing. Sure, it’s not as intense as it would be in real life, but it’s not appealing all the same. Yet it’s there more often than not. But what exactly are the different stances on death, and how do readers deal with them?
Caution: this post contains spoilers for films The Mission and Les Miserables. Proceed at your own discretion. Likewise, this post may contain controversial opinions that are not necessarily the same as those of readers.
Pacifism vs. Revolutionaries
In the film The Mission, two priests have an argument about morality and the defense of the mission where they serve. *caution: spoilers ahead* As the Spanish are coming to claim the territory and sell the natives at the mission into slavery, one priest—who happens to be a reformed slave trader—argues that they should fight back, and the other—the man who led the first to become a priest—argues for peaceful protest.
For a while, I really struggled with the dilemma—if I found myself in the situation, which would I choose? Would I fight to protect peoples’ freedom even if it meant killing, or would I protest nonviolently, standing up with people even if it meant injury or death? And does it really matter because they both die as martyrs in the end? *end spoiler*
A little while later, I was reading Les Miserables and reflecting on the rational behind why many of the young—and sometimes old—men joined the revolution, whether it was to escape poverty and destitution, to stand up for human rights, or simply because they had nothing but their lives to lose. While I don’t remember all of the great prose, I remember thinking, “Wow, Victor Hugo is so persuasive he could convince me to be a revolutionary.”
*spoiler* Of course, like in The Mission they all die, save Marius. *end spoiler*
Another time, my dad put on the movie Tears of the Sun in which a group of Special-Ops are on a mission to rescue a doctor in Nigeria and end up bringing refugees along with them. As the team and the refugees are headed for safety, the Special-Ops team fightr off rebels along the way. My dad told me situations like the ones in the film were one of the reasons he joined the military—to protect the innocent.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
In the end, I decided I’d rather be a revolutionary than a pacifist. I’m not for killing but when it comes to the innocent, I’m for protecting them.
Casual Death and the Value of Life
Perhaps one of the most disturbing moments concerning reading came when I was studying for my English Lit degree. We had read The Road for or speculative fiction and were discussing it in class. When we inevitably addressed the cannibalism present in the book, one of my classmates said, “I don’t see why the girl had such a hard time with it.” Essentially, she gave me impression that in a post-apocalyptic world, killing somebody else to ensure one’s one survive was acceptable.
I was stunned. How could somebody blatantly disdain a child’s horror and advocate for cannibalism? Weren’t they missing the point of the book?
Another novel—one that I actually enjoy—that addresses the devastation of death is Illuminae: “Sure, the story kicks off with the deaths of thousands of people, but *** forbid there be cussing in it, right?”
While profanity is a topic for another time (one I briefly touched on in Controversy in Fiction: Censorship), the book makes an excellent point. Why is death more readily accepted in fiction than swearing? So it’s okay to read about a book about genocide or a cozy mystery—an interesting choice of words—but when you have a bunch of swear words in a young adult novel reflecting the degradation of society, some readers lose their minds.
I’m not saying that I’m an advocate for swearing in fiction, but I do think it’s important for readers to establish their priorities. Perhaps one of my favorite quotes considering justice versus mercy concerning death comes from Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the wise cannot see all ends.”
Let’s chat! What’s your take on murder in fiction? Have any favorite quotes from fiction that influenced your stance?
Update: next week I’ll be posting a book review a day early in celebration of the book’s release day. While you’re welcome to come by on Sunday, the review will be up on Saturday.
Movie references: Sherlock, CSI Miami, The Mission, Les Miserables, and Tears of the Sun
Literary references: Brandon Sanderson’s The Allow Era, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring