Gorey, Edward: The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963)

The Independent's Great Art series

"One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing," was Oscar Wilde's joke, at the expense of Dickens and his too calculated tear-jerking. But in fact, deaths in fiction are often funny.

They're funny when they're contrived with elaborate invention, or when they're excessively pitiful, or gratuitously sudden, or inexorably inevitable, or fantastically unlucky, or mechanically repetitive. They're funny because they show fictional characters to be the helpless playthings of their creators' imaginations. They're additionally funny because we laugh on the rebound at our own propensity to callous laughter.

The deaths in Edward Gorey's picture book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, are funny in all these ways: "G is for George smothered under a rug, H is for Hector done in by a thug ... M is for Maud who was swept out to sea, N is for Neville who died of ennui, O is for Olive run through with an awl, P is for Prue trampled flat in a brawl ... R is for Rhoda consumed by a fire..."

The Gashlycrumb Tinies is many things. It's a rhyming alphabet of 26 boys' and girls' names. It's a Dance of Death, detailing 26 varieties of misadventure. It's in a tradition of cruel comic verse: Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter, Belloc's Cautionary Tales, Graham's Ruthless Rhymes. It's a homage to the Victorian cult of childhood innocence and child mortality (eg Little Nell).

Of its kind, it's a perfect work. All its resources are mobilised. Each death becomes as inevitable as the rhyme of each couplet, but also, with the turning of each new page, a surprise. (It's wrong, really, to take individual scenes out of sequence, and out of book form.)

There's continual play between the death announced in the words, and the picture. As with Prue, just opening the bar door (she is doomed to be "trampled flat in a brawl") there may be a stretch of implication between present and future – between the innocuous image and the doom foretold. Likewise, "T is for Titus who flew into bits": he is eagerly unwrapping a parcel.

Gorey does the timing joke every way. The death happened ages ago. The death is – uh-oh – on the very verge of happening. The death is happening before our eyes! He alternates heartless shock and heartless beautification. While "K is for Kate who was struck with an axe" is a scene of gruesome, bloody horror, Rhoda dies in a graceful tulip of flames.

The Tinies are always tiny compared with the whole scene. They are minute figures, stranded, lost, enveloped. This is literally George's fate, as we imagine him on his adventure, crawling under the great carpet and never finding a way out. Neville's existential doom is expressed by the way his head pokes up, pathetically small, in a blank expanse of wall and window.

There's an equivalent effect in the ink-drawing itself. The thorough, patient, detailed shading and crosshatching with which Gorey fills each image conveys the artist's craftsmanly indifference to the human catastrophes he has devised.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies knows all the tricks of comic heartlessness. But it wouldn't delight if there weren't something that resists this heartlessness. It's the 26 girls and boys themselves, from Amy to Zillah – always so imperturbable, so determined, so intrepid, so resilient, so perky – dying, dead or about to die, but little life forces.

The artist

Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was an American illustrator, and one of the strangest, most original graphic talents of the post-war period. He created numerous picture stories, with memorable titles: The Curious Sofa, The Doubtful Guest, The Fatal Lozenge, The Loathsome Couple.

His work was surreal, macabre, melancholy; and childhood-centred, Anglophile, deeply literary. His imagination fed on the Edwardian and Victorian imaginations – the haunted nursery, murder in the country house, aristocratic pornography, nonsense rhymes and cautionary tales. Gorey lived alone in Cape Cod.

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