Child Heroines Who Die for Our Sins

Ryder, Danes in "Little Women" (1994)

Ryder, Danes in “Little Women” (1994)


 Today I report on a St. Mary’s Project that I am mentoring about child deaths in literature. Allison Riehl began her project concentrating on recent Young Adult Fiction, zeroing in on Bridge to Tarabithia and The Fault Is in Our Stars. It became clear, however, that there is a literary tradition at work, and Allison has added to her study The Old Curiosity Shop (Little Nell), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Little Eva), “Annabel Lee,” Jane Eyre (Helen Burns), Little Women (Beth), and The Birds’ Christmas Carol (by Kate Douglass Williams).

Allison is interested in how the image, which may have arisen in response to high 19th century child mortality, became symbolic of much more. For instance, sometimes children are depicted as innocents in a fallen world, and their deaths function as a form of Christian redemption. Little Nell and Little Eva die for our sins, and in our tears we have a chance to be cleansed and to begin life anew.

For Dickens our sins involve urban poverty, for Stowe slavery, for Bronte inhuman and puritanical schooling, for Poe an overemphasis on Enlightenment Reason.

Allison is discovering, however, that the deaths can also function as critical elements in coming-of-age stories. For instance, when Beth dies in Little Women, each of her sisters steps into her powers. It is as though she represents their own childhood, which must die if they are to become fully functioning adults. Likewise, when Leslie dies in Bridge to Terabithia, Jess is forced to grow up. He can no longer lean on her and must embark on his own quest.

Allison is examining whether the dying children are three-dimensional characters in their own right or simply instruments to help others move forward. She also wonders whether the answer is gendered since Dickens and Poe’s dying girls are fairly flat.

With women authors, the dying children appear to have a greater chance of becoming fleshed out, although perhaps not in the case of Stowe’s Eva. Eva appears to be the angelic voice challenging the defenders of slavery, and we watch as her far more complex father wrestles with his complicity in the institution.

It’s not simple with Bronte, Alcott, and Paterson (Terabithia), who created more nuanced dying children, especially Bronte with Helen Burns. Allison notes, however, that Beth and Leslie are reduced to instruments to a degree. For instance, Beth becomes increasingly saint-like, and Leslie’s primary function appears to be helping Jess grow up.

What are we to make of this? While Alcott can perhaps be given somewhat of a pass, writing as she was in the shadow of the 19th century “angel on the hearth” ideology, Paterson wrote Terabithia in 1977 at the height of the feminist revolution. Paterson is not alone in having difficulty imagining women having their own quest stories. I mentioned recently Ursula LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Even in contemporary fiction, Allison notes, girls rather than boys have to be the ones to die.*

I have just recommended Nancy Miller’s 1981 article “Emphasis Added: Plots and possibilities in Women’s Fiction” to help Allison sort this out. Miller argues that the power of literary tradition can be so overwhelming that women writers can’t imagine a different story, even when their own lives don’t correspond to it. Miller mentions the independent woman writer George Eliot, who doesn’t have any George Eliot-type characters in her novels.

All is not entirely lost, however. Though certain stories threaten to brainwash even powerful women writers, one can still pick up an underlying dissatisfaction in their fictions. Allison is finding uneasiness, showing up as subtle disturbances, in Little Women and Terabithia.

I wondered aloud recently whether the movie Titanic departs from the formula. In James Cameron’s film the boy must die for the girl is to step into her powers. To be sure, Leo DiCaprio is boyish rather than a boy, but he functions somewhat like Leslie in Terabithia. Because he slips off into the Atlantic, Kate Winslet must figure out how to save herself, and this in turn leads to a remarkable life where (we are told) she rides horses, flies airplanes, is a feminist, and has multiple careers. It makes sense that middle school girls flooded into the movie, making it the top box office success of all time.

That being said, however, I also have to admit that we don’t see Winslet living this full life whereas we do see her still mourning, as an octogenarian,  for the man who died.

Anyway, these are the issues that Allison is wrestling with. I’ll report next spring on what emerges.


* Dickens occasionally has boy children die, such as Jo in Bleak House and Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son, but they may be the exceptions that prove the rule. They certainly didn’t stir reader emotions the way that Little Nell and Little Eva did.

This entry was posted in Alcott (Louisa May), Bronte (Charlotte), Dickens (Charles), Paterson (Katherine), Poe (Edgar Allan), Stowe (Harriet Beecher) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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