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.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all