Essay Prize 2016: Second Runner-Up

Who is your favourite character from English literature and why?
By Emilia Kent, Second Runner-up of the Connell Guides Essay Prize 2016

I am beginning this essay in the way my chosen character might, as I believe that if you are going to write about your favourite character, especially one such as mine who holds so much power over everybody’s lives, then you must at least honour them. So, I will “offer you a glimpse of the end” and tell you that my favourite character is Death in the Book Thief because no other character has ever made me feel such a full range of emotions simultaneously. There it is: my essay in a nutshell but of course there is more than that to come, just as there was in the Book Thief when Death doesn’t just dance enigmatically around a spoiler but completely tramples all over it- and yet the book only gets better from there. The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger who is a German girl living under the reign of Adolf Hitler. However, despite the story being about Liesel, it is told from the viewpoint of the arguably more interesting character of Death.

This fresh viewpoint paints Death as far from the scythe- carrying, black- hooded stereotype as possible and forces the reader to assess Death in a new light. Whilst many may fear their end to the last, bitter moment, the character of Death in the Book Thief made me consider that Death really is “nothing but fair” in the vein that nobody escapes Death, but in a way, who would want to? Now to rescue this essay from becoming completely morbid, it is important to remember that although Death is, inescapably, the embodiment of the end of life, he is also one of the most genuinely gentle characters I have ever come across. Whether this is simply a product of the context of the book, with Hitler and the general Nazi regime being discussed so closely beside Death that it is impossible to not see Death as gentle, if only by comparison, or that the image created in your mind is of a wizened old man not unlike the generic granddad, but there is something despicably human about Death. It is near impossible not to imagine Death as vile and awful and yet the Book Thief shows death as having the one thing nobody particularly expected- “a heart”.

Moreover, it is not just the way the character of Death manages to challenge the stereotypes constructed by humans, but also the relevancy to today’s society. There are few characters who manage to be so completely timeless, as the problems challenged in the Book Thief match those still felt today, if only on a smaller scale. However, that comes with the premise of being Death- as with the awful guarantee that there will always be people dying, this character will always be so relatable. It is not the idea of the character though that makes Death so relatable- it is in the defensive way he refers to himself and his wise outlook on life that made me consider life in general. It is with great ease that Death makes me ponder life, cry and laugh- all simultaneously.

In addition, while Death carries with him a sense of shame for the profession he has entered into, he tackles it with a blatancy that can only be described as confidence. This only furthers his position as my favourite character due to how unapologetic Death is. He talks of the War with a stark straight-forwardness that is both refreshing and original. Mentioning his duty with reference to the context of the time, he simply states, “The bombs were coming- and so was I”. For him to, perhaps not happily, but confidently, associate himself with one of the things that humans fear most gives the reader some insight into the thoughts of Death itself and its surprisingly less complicated than most would expect. This ordered, methodical approach to such a morbid job allows the reader to be engaged in the book without ever being confused. This is further supported when Death comments on how “The sky was the colour of Jews” in reference to how the sky turns a different colour each time a person dies. This comment, which is a combination of frankness and incredible sadness as a result of the context of the time, displays to the reader that Death had to distance himself from the job in order to do it and yet was still affected each time a person’s heart stopped beating. This amazing merge of so many supposedly conflicting emotions creates an intricately designed and complex character with simple thoughts. The depth of the character ensured that I, the reader, engaged with him whilst also almost pitying him. He is saddled with the responsibility of delivering millions upon millions of souls into the next life and yet still maintains his humanity.

Likewise, whilst pondering why Death is my favourite character, I was forced to consider whether Death played the role of a projection of many people’s fantasies about life after death. At the risk of sounding entirely ghoulish, although no specific religion is mentioned, the idea that no matter how you died there is a significant moment after death and that perhaps the soul is immortal is a comforting one.

Furthermore, Death’s viewpoint on humanity is amusingly child-like in comparison to his straight-forward thoughts when discussing life. His endless bemusement towards the actions of humans is eye-opening. He switches between being scathingly critical of humans, such as when he references war in saying that, “I've seen so many young men over the years who think they're running at other young men. They are not. They are running at me” and being just simply confused. This simple commentary of war portrays his confusion towards why humans would choose to fight. This incapability of understanding human nature makes Death endearingly child-like and gives the reader a new way to view the pointless escapades of people. Seeing the history of mankind through the eyes of a character that has little understanding of people made me not only consider humanity but life.

To conclude, there really are endless reasons why Death is my favourite character; perhaps it is the way I strangely identify with his enthusiastic attempts to justify his hatred-inspiring profession but truly, I believe it comes down to this: I dithered endlessly over how I could possibly convey to you the full extent of how this character impacted on me, but as a person who refused to show emotion for even Marley and Me, I sobbed like a baby over the book thief. So, it is with great puzzlement that I concede that Death is the character that gave life.