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.
  • Susan Schmidt

    I’m eager to hear more about this project, Robin. Of course, the idea of scapegoating leaps immediately to mind. However, last night we watched, The Maze Runner, a dystopian film in which children are being forced to go through a grueling situation for some purpose. (Alas, the book/movie is a three parter…) Interestingly enough, since the task is one that is mostly physical, the young people are all boys. However, a girl shows up at the very end. It will be interesting to see if a woman’s perspective is needed in the next installments.

    And with all the shootings in schools in the past years, I wonder, too, are we as a country (world) too comfortable in letting our children die for our sins. I see this violence as being a symptom of a greater disease that is part of humanity and only popping up, like toadstools from a deeper connection, in mentally ill persons.

    A few years this phrase from the last prophetic book in the Old Testament came to mind ‘5″Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. 6″He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:6)

    Luke then describes John the Baptist is this Elijah “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” John, of course, came to prepare the way for Jesus. Jesus values children and describes the Kingdom of God as being entered easily by children.

    My question is: why don’t we value our children more? And perhaps even our girls? I just saw He Named Me Malala, a powerful film about the life of the young woman who advocated for girls learning and was targeted by the Taliban. China is starting to reap the results of its one child policy, where girls were aborted or left to die ( Of course, we think these things are horrible, but are we making progress in the US in valuing our children and beyond valuing them – letting them lead us?

    My hope is that we will need no more innocent victims, no more sacrificial lambs, no more scapegoats. The burning question in my mind is – how do we make this transition?

  • Rachel Kranz

    LOVE this, Robin & fascinated to see where you & your students will take it.

    One thought on the Nancy Miller article, which has sort of been my bible since I first read it. It’s not that women can’t IMAGINE other stories, exactly. It’s that the structures of literature & literary reception (both critics and readers, although we only have records of the critics) mean that alternate experiences–especially women’s–don’t COUNT as a story. It’s sort of the way someone who grows up speaking nonstandard English can’t IMAGINE writing a novel in that “dialect” (even calling it that demeans it from being an alternate LANGUAGE)–because it’s “ungrammatical” and doesn’t COUNT as an authoritative authorial voice. Changing the grammar is both an issue of imagination and an issue of courage, but it’s also an issue of power–that’s why it’s so telling that women who had BOTH when it came to their own lives still were not able to write stories that reflected their own lives. That is, George Eliot COULD NOT have a heroine who lived with a man as she did with Lewes, or a heroine who took a man’s name. George Sand COULD NOT have a heroine who dressed as a man (as she did) or who took multiple lovers (as she did). They could imagine DOING it–but HOW could you put it in a story?

    There’s something about deep structures, too–where certain things CAN’T BE SAID in a language, even when you try to translate them into another language. E.g., Russian has no language for “privacy.” I THINK French has no word for “loneliness.” And that’s just vocabulary, not even deep structure. In English we say, “I AM hungry,” in French we say, “I HAVE hunger,” in Russian we say, “It is hungry TO ME.” How do you force your language into the meanings of the others?

    I didn’t mean to be picky–just that this issue of what a writer is and is not capable of is sort of like the arguments about the Trinity or the nature of God–VERY hard to pin down but CENTRAL to the creation of subsequent thought & religious activity! 🙂 And I’m still trying to figure out what the power is that keeps women and authors in general from doing something, when it seems apparent that nothing can physically prevent you from writing the story. And yet somehow, it cannot be written…(Until someone breaks through and does it.) What is that thing that PREVENTS? Or REQUIRES? (Little Eva and BEth & the others sort of HAVE to die, don’t they? It feels NECESSARY, which I assume is why your student is drawn to it.)

    All very interesting–THANKS! 🙂

  • Merrian Oliver-Weymouth

    As an Australian, I thought of Judy in ‘Seven Little Australians’ by Ethel Turner and published in 1894 You can read it on Project Gutenberg.

    Judy dies a very Aussie death, her back broken by a falling tree and everyone scrambling to find words to help her go because there is no faith beyond the socially conventional. The hymn is interesting. ‘Abide with me’ is sung at all ANZAC Dawn Services even in this secular age, so it remains a very Aussie choice.

    My personal reading is that she dies because her personality is not fit for 19th Century conventional womanhood, there was no way Judy could grow up safely as herself into the social and cultural space available to her.

    Judy’s death is the penultimate chapter, and the final chapter shows her absence marking the surviving children and them all growing up, taking that mark with them into their futures. Her stoic father’s reactions are true to him as well, not overnight changes.

  • Pingback: Studying the Psychology of the Thriller()

  • Robin

    Allison is going to look into Seven Little Australians, Merrian. Thanks for suggesting it. The way you describe it, it resembles My Brilliant Career (although she doesn’t die). The question Allison is wrestling with is whether the child who dies is a full-fledged character or just a conduit for someone else. How would you describe Judy?

  • Meg Lines Thrash

    Interesting. You might add Jane Eyre’s devout friend in boarding school (I forget her name which might be significant).

  • Merrian Oliver-Weymouth

    I think Judy is a fully fledged character who stands out because she is not a conventional Victorian child. If Judy didn’t die I think that for me, the book would end with a sense of worry for her and the future. I find the last chapter so interesting because each person visited by the author is a little bit broken by Judy’s death and the author describes the shape of that.

    Also be prepared for the whipping talk as physical punishment for childhood infractions was a thing.

  • Robin

    I’ll be reporting back on what Allison discovers. When I think of whipping in the era, incidentally, Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child” comes to mind.

  • Robin

    Helen Burns is a very interesting case, Meg. She gives Jane a model for resisting oppression, which Jane can’t follow but takes important lessons from. It’s interesting that male readers of the time loved Helen Burns because they associated her with Little Nell, even though she is very different. You, on the other hand, are more interested in the Jane who actively fights back against unjust authority. (So yes, I think it is significant.)


  • 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.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete