Literature is a vehicle for the human experience. As one of the most essential and universal aspects of the human experience, it’s no surprise that grief is also a well-known literary theme. However, you don’t have to study English Literature to recognize these themes for yourself. In fact, they’re more common than you think.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Are Death and Grief Popular Themes in Literature?
- Famous Books With Literary Themes About Death
- Famous Books With Literary Themes About Grief
Reading books about death might sound somber and unpleasant, but it can be a way to gain a greater perspective about life. By reading stories about love, loss, and life, we come to terms with our own mortality. Yes, we will all die someday. Still, this just makes the highs of life and experience that much sweeter and more meaningful.
In this guide, an English major and full-time writer takes you through the most well-known books with literary themes about death and grief. Odds are you’ve probably seen some of this before (or maybe read a few yourself). Soon, you’ll realize symbols of mourning are more common than you think.
Why Are Death and Grief Popular Themes in Literature?
First, why are death and grief amongst the most popular themes in literature? This is a cross-culture phenomenon, spanning the full scope of humanity. The simple answer for why death and grief appear so often in art and literature is because these mediums mirror life. Throughout history, the only certainty has been death.
It’s absolutely certain that we will die someday. It’s also certain that someone we love will die, likely before our own death. In centuries past, humans were much closer to death thanks to things like plagues, war, and famines. This means death has long held a large role within popular culture and art.
One of the main reasons death and grief are focused on by writers is to answer the big question: What is the meaning to life? Rather, is there a meaning at all? If we’re all destined to die, is there any point to human existence? When every aspect of daily life reminds us of impending death or loss, why do we keep moving forward?
Perhaps literature is a way to answer these questions that have no answers. By expressing ourselves and our feelings—through both fiction and nonfiction—we connect with others. Not only do we expel these feelings from our minds, but we also find a way to make sense of them within the pages of a narrative. Grief, at its very core, is a disruption. Literature is a way to make sense of that disruption, drawing connection and understanding from a painful loss.
Famous Books With Literary Themes About Death
There are endless books about life after death and books about death itself. Believe it or not, some popular books even hide death in plain sight, often as a central character. Have you read any of these famous books below?
1. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
First, Oscar Wilde’s classic isn’t afraid to ask big questions about mortality. The protagonist values his youth and beauty above all. This leads him to sell his soul for eternal youth, hoping to escape death. However, by the end, he learns there is no real escape.
2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
In The Book Thief, death is personified as the narrator of the story. Throughout the tale, readers gain glimpses into the mind of Death, a character who is haunted by the cruel nature of humans during WWII Germany.
3. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a story of both trauma and death. The moral ambiguity in this story leaves readers to question their own judgment when it comes to “right” and “wrong,” as well as the lingering effects of trauma on the psyche.
4. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut is no stranger to themes of death. Grave imagery is rich throughout this novel, including depictions of graves, headstones, and more. This is a way to remind readers through dark comedy that death is inevitable, so you might as well live life to the fullest.
5. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
My Sister’s Keeper is the story of a family struggling to come to terms with the death of one of the children. Unfortunately, death can lead to feelings of guilt, and it can impact the whole family dynamic. This story attempts to come to terms with these challenges.
6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
In a post-apocalyptic society, what’s the point of life or death? With death so common, it loses its power. There are some things that are worse than death.
7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
For Hazel, the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars, death is coming sooner rather than later. She continues to make peace with her terminal diagnosis, even if some things get in the way. She’s determined to make the most of the time she has.
8. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
After an accident, Will Traynor is confined to life in a wheelchair. Though he develops a very real relationship with his aid, this book has us questioning what it really means to live. Most importantly, it identifies that there are no simple answers.
9. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
It’s not clear which of these friends saves each other at the opening of All the Bright Places. How does one turn a corner to stop counting days and start living them? The answer isn’t always easy.
10. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
As Mia watches her soul leave her body after an accident, she has to question whether it’s worth staying tethered to life at all. What has she really lost? Most importantly, who is she leaving behind?
Famous Books With Literary Themes About Grief
Death and mortality are common themes, but so is grief on its own. Grief comes in so many different shapes and sizes, making it a natural topic for literature.
11. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
In The Lovely Bones, a young teenager narrates the story of her family’s grief after her death. Though this story focuses on the drama of finding her killer, it also explores the way grief changes families forever.
12. Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
Boy-hero Harry Potter is no stranger to loss. Harry’s grief for his parents is a running theme throughout the entire series. However, this sense of loss also leads him to form other powerful connections with friends.
13. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Friendship is at the heart of Bridge to Terabithia. A new friend shows Jess, the narrator in Bridge to Terabithia, that a magic world lives beyond their backyards. This is where their friendship grows, even after his friend’s unexpected death.
14. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A retelling of Homer’s The Iliad, this story is heartbreaking from the first pages. The narrator expects his death from the beginning, but it’s only through his relationships that he understands what it means to lose someone.
15. Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman
A coming of age story, Call Me By Your Name is about the loss of one’s youth. Grief comes in many shapes and sizes, and it doesn’t always relate to living things. In Aciman’s book, readers come to grieve their own nostalgia, first love, and youth. This pain is very real.
16. The Last Post by Renée Carlino
In The Last Post, a young widow learns what it means to continue her life after love. After her husband dies in an unexpected accident, she falls head-first into her grief. Though it seems impossible to come out on the other side, she discovers a second chance at love after loss.
17. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran
After losing his father in the 9/11 attack, nine-year-old Oskar wishes to solve a mystery his dad left behind. As he becomes closer with other 9/11 survivors all struggling to cope with their own grief, he recognizes the power of communal healing at a young age.
18. Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
Two girls who live very different lives share very similar grief. Though both lost their fathers in a tragic plane crash, they have little in common. It’s how they learn to navigate the aftermath of grief that they discover the things that truly matter most.
19. A Job You Mostly Know How to Do by Pete Fromm
Losing a partner just as you’re starting a new life together is one of the most devastating things one can experience. Fromm shares the story of a man’s first two years raising his daughter on his own after losing his wife in childbirth. Emotionally resonant, this is a story about resilience above all.
20. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
When we love someone we love, we often struggle with questions of “why” and whether we could have done anything. This is exactly what Yaa Gyasi tackles in Transcendent Kingdom. In this story, a Ph.D. candidate studies addiction in mice, hoping to learn more about what led to her brother’s death.
Grief and Loss Reading List
Just as music is the soundtrack for our memories, books are the language of loss. Authors have used literature as a way to express feelings that are too complex to describe in simple words. Sometimes, descriptions aren’t enough. Feelings are best explored through stories, themes, and symbolism.
These books above have clear and not-so-clear explorations of death and grief. Whether death is a character, a friend, or something uncertain, it’s always there. Though these books don’t answer any of life’s (or death’s) big questions, they do remind you that you’re never alone.