There are ample numbers of wonderfully moving characters in literature. A plethora of memorable, sob-inducing protagonists, misunderstood villains, and total mensches to be found in classic books. And then there are the martyrs, those individuals who occupy a glittering circle of self-sacrifice and nobility. These are the blessed souls who come in like a wrecking ball and lay down all they have for a cause, a group, or a person.
In the spirit of holiday giving, we present 9 of literature’s finest martyrs.
The Grand Poobah of martyrs isn’t even human. It’s Shel Silverstein’s benevolent, bordering-on-masochistic apple tree. For decades, she gives and gives and gives and the boy takes and takes and takes, until all she has left to give is her shriveled stump carcass—and then he takes that, too. In the end, after being decimated by the boy she loves, the tree is happy. Or delusional. Whichever you prefer.
Dally Winston (The Outsiders)
The Greasers are dead. Long live the Greasers. Brooding Dally and his switchblade probably aren’t going to be canonized like Joan of Arc, but he died for the little good he saw in the world: his gang. That’s pretty gold, Ponyboy.
Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web)
The fact that “SOME SPIDER” isn’t the phrase that leaps to mind should be proof enough of Charlotte’s undying (or, well, not exactly) dedication to a cause. Zuckerman’s famous pig kept his bacon because of one intrepid little spider and her expanded vocabulary. And when she gave up the ghost with such little fanfare and notice, we wept, Precious, we wept.
The hands-down least frequented booth at Career Day would be for the Receiver of Memory gig: “Come one, come all, kids, to be the vessel into which we funnel all memories of pain and suffering (and pleasure and exhilaration, too)!” As the only ones cognizant of what the Sameness has lost, young Jonas and the Giver bear an unendurable burden that would be enough for anyone to wish for release—or at least a sled ride.
Lemuel Pitkin (A Cool Million)
In Nathanael West’s riches-to-rags satire, poor, pitiful, gullible Pitkin is continually dismembered, losing in succession his eye, teeth, thumb, scalp, and leg. The buffoon maintains his Barney Fife personality, however. That is until his death, when he’s exploited as a martyr for the political purposes of the pseudo-Fascist National Revolutionary Party and the deceptively and delightfully named Shagpoke Whipple. All hail the American boy! Right?
J.K. Rowling’s series is essentially the story of one young boy who is told nothing he needs to know except that absolutely everything is up to him. In fact, to finally foil Voldemort’s timed-to-final-examinations overthrow attempts, Harry is forced to willingly offer himself up as a lamb for slaughter. And he does this. Just as he always does everything (or at least the stuff Hermione doesn’t have the time to do). It’s hard out there for an orphan.
Cash Bundren (As I Lay Dying)
To save time here, Cash is William Faulkner’s Jesus-like character, right down to the carpentry. And in a book so darkly, tragically comic that it should have been a Coen brothers adaptation yesterday, Cash is the lone voice of reason. On the least-fun road trip since the Donner Party, the eldest Bundren is all business (the business of getting Ma in the ground, that is), allowing his broken leg to fester to the point of disuse and never complaining about it. But at least Vardaman doesn’t think he’s a fish.
It might seem odd to deem a feared character in Russian folklore who bills himself as “deathless” as a martyr, but Koschei loved. And Koschei met his end—an end, anyway—because of the fiery Marya Morevna. Catherynne M. Valente takes you from repulsion to heartbreak in this retelling of the traditional story. Whatever it is, it’s magic.
Winston Smith (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
“He loved Big Brother.” Has there ever been a more devastating final sentence? Winston physically lived, but for all intents and purposes, our little freedom fighter died in Orwell’s dystopia. There was no other way: Thoughtcrime is death, and the Proles are not dependably outraged. But while it lasted, you burned bright, Winston.
Who’s your vote for the biggest martyr in fiction?