sublime deaths
March 5, 2008 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Looking for fictional deaths which might be described as 'sublime'.

I am trying to find examples in art (films, novels, poems, paintings, operas etc.) in which a character is depicted as having a noble or happy death as a result of a sublime experience (sense of awesomeness of nature/universe). The best examples would have no other reason, but ones where the character sacrifices themself for some purpose (e.g. to save loved ones) and then has additional experiences of the sublime are also useful.

To give you an example of the sort thing I am looking for. Here's the end of H.G. Wells short story 'The Country of the Blind':

From where he rested the valley seemed as if it were in a pit and nearly a mile below. Already it was dim with haze and shadow. The mountain summits around him were things of light and fire, and the little details of the rocks near at hand were drenched with subtle beauty - a vein of green mineral piercing the grey, the flash of crystal faces here and there, a minute, minutely beautiful orange lichen close beside his face. There were deep mysterious shadows in the gorge, blue deepening into purple, and pulse into a luminous darkness, and overhead was the illimitable vastness of the sky. But he heeded these things no longer, but lay quite inactive there, smiling as if he were satisfied merely to have escaped from the valley of the Blind in which he had thought to be King. The glow of the sunset passed, and the night came, and still he lay peacefully contented under the cold stars.(Online text)

Please quote passages or give online links if you can. Descriptions of happy deaths in general are also welcome.
posted by leibniz to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Fountain
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:08 AM on March 5, 2008

It occurs to me that these answers will be very spoiler-y.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:11 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: Sort of perversely sublime, but from the Brothers Karamazov:

I once knew a certain young unmarried woman, back in the last 'romantic' generation, who, after several years of mysterious love for a certain gentleman, whom, incidentally, she could have taken to the alter at the time of her choosing with a modicum of fuss, ended by inventing insuperable obstacles, and on a stormy night throwing herself from a lofty bank, resembling a cliff, into a rather deep and fast-flowing river and perished in it really for no other reason than her own caprice, solely in order to emulate Shakespeare's Ophelia; and one might even say that had this cliff, so long ago selected and favoured by her, not been so picturesque, and had there been on its site merely a flat, prosaic bank, then her suicide might possibly have never taken place at all.
posted by bluenausea at 8:12 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

The death of Darth Vader?
posted by jozxyqk at 8:16 AM on March 5, 2008

It's been awhile since I read it, but in T.H. White's The Ill-Made Knight (from the Once and Future King series), Galahad, Percival, and Bors die/are assumed into heaven after finding the Holy Grail because they have achieved perfection.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:18 AM on March 5, 2008

I would say Obi-Wan Kenobi.
posted by ericales at 8:24 AM on March 5, 2008

Spoilers, obviously: The lead character in Stranger in a Strange Land, the human-born Martian named Mike, allows himself to be killed brutally by a mob, while remaining happy and all-loving. After that, Mike reappears as a voice in another lead character's head to dissuade him from killing himself, and the last scene in the book shows Mike in Heaven being introduced as an angel. Sorry if the description is a bit lacking, but the book is a very hard one to summarize. From the Wikipedia summary:

In a last conversation with Harshaw, Smith fears that people will not accept a nonviolent path because humanity must have violence for "weeding out" the unfit; Harshaw tells him that if he has faith in the movement he has started and their ability to show people what is possible through self-discipline, then in all likelihood Smith's following will eventually dominate the world religiously and politically (it appears that they are already well on their way to doing so). A mob gathers while they talk; Smith goes out to address them and is brutally killed, his final words spoken to a grasshopper: "I love you" and "You are God". It is obvious that he is letting himself be sacrificed. Harshaw is shocked at how blasé the others are at Mike's death and attempts suicide by swallowing three unidentified pills; Mike returns as a voice in Jubal's head and both helps Harshaw vomit the pills and causes him to realize that Mike's sacrifice was only of the body, not of the soul. Smith is explicitly portrayed as a modern Prometheus, and implicitly as a messianic figure; in the ending of the book, one interpretation is that he is in reality the archangel Michael, who has assumed human form. The book ends with Mike promoted to another plane of existence, similar to Heaven, but a place where work is to be done. The original Rev. Foster appoints Rev. Digby as Mike's assistant.
posted by Meagan at 8:25 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: You can't go wrong with Slim Pickens riding the H-Bomb to a delirious oblivion at the end of Dr. Strangelove. Sublime, perverse, engrossing. The old H-Bomb ride is always a crowd pleaser.
posted by dinger at 8:28 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities:
They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man's face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
posted by cerebus19 at 8:30 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: The Stranger, by Albert Camus. (Obviously, spoilers follow). From the very end of the novel, when Mersault is to be executed:

I, too, felt ready to start life over again. It was as if that great gush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed so brotherly, made me realize that I'd been happy, and I was happy still.
posted by Polychrome at 8:32 AM on March 5, 2008

Thelma and Louise.
Into the Wild. (although the sublimeness of love came over him after the slow process of his death had begun.)
posted by ElmerFishpaw at 8:35 AM on March 5, 2008

Response by poster: I also found this at the end of Camus' The Stranger (though this one is a bit nihilist).

It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, i laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I'd been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.

I assume his earlier 'preparatory' book A Happy Death has a similar ending but can't find an online source. Does anyone happen to have a copy they can check in?
posted by leibniz at 8:37 AM on March 5, 2008

Response by poster: Ah posted too slow, thanks Polychrome! And everyone else so far.
posted by leibniz at 8:39 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: An ambiguous death, but the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man came to mind -

I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!
posted by thoughtless at 8:40 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: Did Dave Bowman die at the end of 2001? I think so and I seem to recall it seemed sublime... or something. I think it would qualify for your criteria.
posted by GuyZero at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: Don't forget Lester Burnham in American Beauty.

"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday. "
posted by keribear at 8:45 AM on March 5, 2008

The death of Meg Ryan at the end of City of Angels.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:45 AM on March 5, 2008

The Sandman.

Also, in the book within the movie, before the end of the book is changed, Harold Crick (Will Ferrel), in Stranger than Fiction.

On preview, guyzero, I'd have to say not exactly. He transcends physical existence. If you read the rest of the series, you find that he actually becomes a being composed of energy. Also, this is different than a normal religious afterlife, because he still has a tangible presence in our reality. I did think of suggesting him too though.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 8:47 AM on March 5, 2008

Damn, well I guess spoilers are to be expected, but one of mine is particularly spoiling. Jess, if you see this, could you perhaps add a spoiler alert at the top of my first comment?
posted by gauchodaspampas at 8:49 AM on March 5, 2008

Speaking of 2001...I always considered HAL's "death" quite poetic/sublime, as he slowly devolves into computer infancy, singing "Daisy Bell" (the song "Daisy Bell" being the first song "sung" by computer-synthesized speech back in 1962)
posted by Thorzdad at 8:49 AM on March 5, 2008

Charlotte's death at the end of Charlotte's Web would qualify, I think. I don't have the book handy, and it's not available online, so I can't give you a quotation.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:49 AM on March 5, 2008

Response by poster: I'd say HAL's death has pathos, but it's not really sublime. The Daisy song is after all, quite silly. And in 2001, you do get Bowman as an old dying man and the monolith (a classic sublime image) appears at the foot of his bed. Seems like a dying scene locally (although altogether I suppose he is just seeing the whole of human existence).
posted by leibniz at 9:00 AM on March 5, 2008

The patient in The Screwtape Letters, with possible qualifiers.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:05 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: From Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop:
He continued to murmur, to move his hands a little, and Magdalena thought he was trying to ask for something, or to tell them something. But in reality the Bishop was not there at all; he was standing in a tip-tilted green field among his native mountains, and he was trying to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes by the desire to go and the necessity to stay. He was trying to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest; and the time was short, for the diligence for Paris was already rumbling down the mountain gorge.
posted by expialidocious at 9:08 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: Soylent Green was all about subliminal death. You could choose when and how to die. In a multimedia room surrounded by the scents sights and sounds that were signifigant (or missing) in your life.
posted by Gungho at 9:17 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Milton's death in Jeffery Eugenides' Middlesex. Link to Google preview (page 510 if the link doesn't work).
posted by junkbox at 9:19 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: Text reversed to impede spoiler

Cillian Murphy's character in Sunshine

posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2008

well dammit it worked in preview
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:35 AM on March 5, 2008

Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry (the second book, maybe? Possibly the third) - a character dies of (apparently) sexual bliss as the consort of the goddess. Not a bad way to go, I'd say.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:47 AM on March 5, 2008

Peter Lake at the end of Mark Helprin's quite wonderful Winter's Tale. I would have to reprint an entire chapter to do it justice. I'll give you the last two paragraphs though;

"Now there are no more lakes in the clouds. The city is deep within its new dream. What of Peter Lake you may ask? Was the past fully reopened to him? Was he able to stop time? Did he rejoin the woman that he loved? Or was the price of a totally just city his irrevocable downfall?

At least until there are new lakes in the clouds that open upon living cities as yet unknown, and perhaps forever, that is a question you must answer within your own heart."
posted by elendil71 at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2008

There's a great one in Patrick Suskind's Perfume. Spoilery, of course, but Grenouille's death by perfuming himself and being literally consumed by lowlifes and crooks is equally sublime and perverse.
posted by mochapickle at 9:55 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: I can't believe I just thought of this, but Roy Batty's death in Blade Runner has to be included:
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack
ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost ... in time, like tears ... in rain. Time ... to die.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:04 AM on March 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I can't believe I'm referencing Christopher Pike, but his Witch might work.
posted by mkb at 10:09 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: The "death" of the Terminator (the good one, of course) at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day by being lowered into a pit of molten steel would probably work.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:11 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Did Dave Bowman die at the end of 2001? I think so and I seem to recall it seemed sublime... or something. I think it would qualify for your criteria.

If you read the sequels (and depending on how much canon-weight you're willing to give them), he merges with the monolith, but doesn't *die*, per se.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 10:15 AM on March 5, 2008

The death of Leland in Twin Peaks is not from his point of view, but Agent Cooper's monologue about it as it happens is pretty beautiful - I think it's this episode.
posted by mdn at 10:18 AM on March 5, 2008

If I understand what you're asking for, I think the death of Peter, Lucy, and Edmund in The Last Battle (the final book of the Narnia series) might qualify. It does bring up an interesting corollary which Neil Gaiman explored, however, in "The Problem of Susan."
posted by WCityMike at 10:24 AM on March 5, 2008

Also the death of Jaromir Hladík at the end of The Secret Miracle by J.L. Borges.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:26 AM on March 5, 2008

My entries to this thread. I wouldn't say all of these had noble deaths, but they were sublime.

- Raiders of the Lost Ark: Belloq.
- Donnie Darko: Donnie Darko.
- Dogma: Bartleby.
- A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy: Leopold.

- God Emperor of Dune: Moneo.
- Silmarillion: Beren and Luthien.

I'm sure I'll think of more later.
posted by sbutler at 10:51 AM on March 5, 2008

Would the multiple suicides of Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day work? I'm not quite sure they're what you're looking for, but they seem borderline to me.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:59 AM on March 5, 2008

Lord Jim?
posted by LionIndex at 11:07 AM on March 5, 2008

Best answer: Looking back, I guess I should explain my answers (for full credit!)

Raiders of the Lost Ark: Belloq. If you're one of the 5 people who hasn't seen this movie yet, Belloq opens the Ark of the Covenant. At first, nothing happens, but then these beautiful spirits and lights start pouring out. He exclaims "It's beautiful" before God kills him for his arrogance. If he, or anyone else, had looked away then they would have been spared. But the sight was too breathtaking.

Donnie Darko: Donnie Darko. The movie starts out with Donnie escaping death because he was sleepwalking when a jet engine falls through the roof of his house and lands on his bed. At the end of this very strange (but excellent) film Donnie realizes that in order to save the world he needs to travel back in time. He does, ends up on his bed where the movie starts, and is laughing to himself when the jet engine falls through.

Dogma: Bartleby. He's an angle who, with his friend Loki, is banned from Heaven. He desperately needs to get back, and in order to do so he hatches a plan that will prove God wrong, therefore undoing all of existence. Just as he is about to finish his plan, God stops him. But She takes pity on him and forgives his sins. As he weeps with joy, the sound of Her voice kills him, thus allowing him to re-enter Heaven.

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy: Leopold is a pretentious, stuck up professor that no one really likes. Woody Allen has invented this machine that shows images from the future (IIRC, it's been awhile). At the end, the machine malfunctions and "kills" Leopold. He turns into a woodland spirit full of all the joy and happiness he never had in life.

God Emperor of Dune: Moneo. He is the God Emperor's faithful companion, and shares in his Emperor's grand dream (the salvation of all humankind) even though he doesn't fully understand it. When the Emperor is killed, Moneo finally understands. As he falls down a deep gorge to his death, he professes his belief.

Silmarillion: Beren and Luthien. Beren is a man, Luthien and elf, and they fall in love. Now, at this time the history of the elves is caught up in the fate of three fabulous jewels that contain a marvelous light (the Silmarils) stolen by Lord Melkor. Beren is told that if he captures one for the elvish king, he may marry Luthien. He does, but is mortally injured. Luthien, heartbroken, dies too and pleads in the after-world for Beren to be returned. He is, but with the condition that Luthien must also lead a mortal life. They both live out the rest of their days with the Silmaril that Beren captured. It's stated that the glory of the Silmaril probably hastened their death.
posted by sbutler at 11:19 AM on March 5, 2008

Socrates in Pheadrus
posted by tessalations999 at 11:51 AM on March 5, 2008

What, no 1984? Perhaps it's the opposite of sublime since his moment of clarity comes from brainwashing.
posted by absalom at 12:16 PM on March 5, 2008

Response by poster: I've marked the ones I think might count as sublime deaths. Most of the others are cool but I don't think fit, or I just don't recognise enough to say either way.

What I'm trying to do is make an argument that experiences of the sublime may help reconcile someone to their mortality (or at least some aspects of it). Could use it for a wikipedia page as well maybe.

Thanks for the suggestions so far. The more the better!
posted by leibniz at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2008

From the very end of One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Macondo was already a fearful whirlwind of dust and rubble being spun about by the wrath of the biblical hurricane when Aureliano skipped eleven pages so as not to lose time with facts he knew only too well, and he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror. Then he skipped again to anticipate the predictions and ascertain the date and circumstances of his death. Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:58 PM on March 5, 2008

For some reason, I keep thinking of this story of the martyrdom of Stephen. He had just given a pretty ballsy speech to some priests, and they weren't particularly happy about it. From the New Testament book of The Acts of the Apostles (7:54-60, RSV):
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God."

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him.

Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Not sure if this is helpful, but it's certainly a pretty sublime death for some purpose.
posted by General Malaise at 1:19 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Into the Wild"
posted by Justin Case at 2:03 PM on March 5, 2008

Sam Tyler from "Life on Mars".
posted by genghis at 2:21 PM on March 5, 2008

Any of the early Platonic dialogues describing the trial and death of Socrates -- his attitude is one of serene and mysterious acceptance.

"You too must be of good hope as regards death, gentlemen of the jury, and keep this one truth in mind, that a good person cannot be harmed either in life or in death... So I am certainly not angry with those who convicted me, or with my accusers...

This much I ask from them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue... Reproach them as I reproach you, that they do not care for the right things and think they are worthy when they are not worthy of anything. If you do this, I shall have been justly treated by you, and my sons also.

Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god."

Plato, Apology
posted by voltairemodern at 2:40 PM on March 5, 2008

cowbellemoo: "The Fountain"

Was that really a death, though? I always thought the supernova scene (along with the whole "spaceship" subplot) was a metaphor for Jackman's state of mind in the present-day storyline.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:17 PM on March 5, 2008

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