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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star