The air is crisp and leaves are falling from the trees. The Starbucks pumpkin gave birth to a pumpkin spice latte. (Or turned into the latte? I’m not clear exactly, but it happened, and now we can all be basic AF with our PSLs.) The simple truth is this: fall is here. And this got me thinking of falls, namely the noteworthy falls in literature that make characters and stories so captivating and so lasting.
I asked around with the Book Riot contributors: what are your picks for noteworthy falls in literature? Sure, we know about Humpty Dumpty and his great fall, Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole, Adam and Eve and their fall. But what of falling in love, falling from grace, falling apart, or just plain physically falling?
So here are our picks, noteworthy falls in literature to usher in the first day of fall.
Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In a final battle against his greatest enemy, both Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty fall to their death at the Reichenbach Falls. At least, that’s what Holmes’ faithful companion and diarist, John Watson, seems to believe.
This death was Conan Doyle’s way of getting rid of a character that everyone else loved, but had taken its toll on him by then. By popular demand—Sherlock Holmes’ fans are, and have always been, quite vocal about their obsession with the character—Doyle was forced to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life, by having a boulder conveniently stop his fall, while Moriarty is forever lost into the abyss of the Falls.
I find this fall quite peculiar, as Doyle was a master at making up silly solutions for intricate problems, and to this day, his readers are willing to overlook every fault in the stories (he once called John Watson “James”), and just go along with it for the sheer brilliancy of the detective tales.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The fulcrum of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is boarding school student Phineas’s fall from a tree, which ultimately leads to main character Gene’s coming of age. Had Phineas not fallen there’s a significant chance the remaining events of the book would have never happened. Kids and teens may fall from trees on a fairly regular basis, but the consequences are rarely so dire as they are for the students of Devon. Beginning with a broken leg, this fall illustrates not just a physical fall in space due to gravity, but a sort of fall from grace and innocence, as well. The symbolism throughout A Separate Peace is strong, but no example is so stark as is Phineas’s tumble.
Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey. The Red Star is the source of Thread that falls on Pern, killing any organic material it touches. The dragons exist to flame Thread out of the sky before it can touch earth and burrow. F’nor and his dragon Canth decide to fly between directly to the Red Star, which is really like a comet, to see if they can figure out how to mount an attack direct at the source and eliminate Thread forever. But there’s no air, and they both get sandblasted and barely make it back between to Pern. They fall from high above, unconscious, and all the dragons of Benden Weyr fly to make a ramp to catch them and help land them safely. In addition to being an exciting part of the book, it was pivotal to the aim of the dragonriders because they learned that they can’t just go to the Red Star as they’d been hoping and they have to reevaluate everything.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I mean, it’s right there in the title. This powerful, tragic tale follows the disgrace of Okonkwo, a respected leader in his Nigerian village, against the backdrop of European colonization. But what it’s really about is how people allow fear to rule their lives and keep them from love, happiness, and human connection. There aren’t many books I would say changed the way I look at the world, but this is one of them.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. When Gollum topples over the edge into the fiery cavern of Mt. Doom, in the midst of his gleeful celebration dance, after having finally wrested the Ring from Frodo, it is perhaps one of the most consequential falls in literature. Gollum holding up Frodo’s finger, the Ring still on it, and then falling to his death in a pit of lava is certainly a mental image I’ll never forget. It’s a dramatic and triumphant moment, but it’s also a fascinating plot choice. The Ring is destroyed, but not because Frodo had the will to destroy it himself, or because Gollum showed any remorse. Essentially, the Ring brings about its own downfall. Gollum’s fall is an accident, a misstep, one made possible by the greed, corruption and evil of the Ring itself. When I was younger it irked me that Frodo didn’t actually conquer the Ring. As an adult, this dramatic fall is one of my favorite parts of the whole book—not only is it deeply believable, but it illuminates the complex, nuanced nature of good and evil, and the ways in which life—at its most important moments—is often random, surprising, and out of our control.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Thomas Christensen (Translator), Carol Christensen (Translator). In one book you have falling in love, heartbreak, and falling apart. Tita and Pedro are in love but since Tita is the youngest of the family, she is forbidden from marrying and Pedro ends up marrying Tita’s sister Rosaura—I know! Tita’s emotions, unbeknownst to her, pour from her into the food she cooks, having great effect on those who ingest it, including Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding cake. The original falling in love is so epic it lasts through a lifetime of obstacles.
Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin. I loved this novel, which came out this summer, about what happens to Aviva Grossman in the years after she has an affair with the Congressman she’s interning for and it becomes public, in part thanks to the blog she is writing about it. The story is told in five sections, narrated by different people in her life, and that works really well in piecing together who she becomes after her fall from grace.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. This novel begins with a fall from the sky: after terrorists blow up a London-bound plane, two Indian actors onboard fall to the earth, and in the midst of the fall, they are transformed, one to an archangel (the angel Gibreel), the other to a real-life symbol of Satan. And after they miraculously survive, they must put their lives together despite these new identities. The book relies on magical realism, post-colonial narratives, and issues of race and religion. It is worth noting, as we’re discussing mighty falls, that this is one of Rushdie’s most notable works not only because of the excellence of the book itself but also because of the backlash that came after its publication. When the fatwa was issued against Rushdie, he went into hiding, experiencing his own fall, his own shift.
Sarah S. Davis
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I love redemption stories, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has plenty of them. From a washed up music industry executive to a has-been actress, Goon Squad examines the pivotal moments when people who have fallen far can reclaim their glory or lose themselves in the abyss of failure and loss forever. I loved Goon Squad’s innovative structure, which tied together different short stories of varying structures and styles through interrelated themes and relationships. It is an effective way to signal to the lost that they are not alone.
Kindred by Octavia Butler. The novel’s premise is almost universally known by now: a black woman’s fall through time, from 1970s LA all the way to Antebellum Maryland. Bet we’re all grateful our own falls have never been quite so life-wrecking.
Dana Franklin must save her slave-owner ancestor’s life long enough for him to father her great-grandmother, and somehow keep herself alive and sane in a society that considers her the next thing to cattle. It’s a haunting, deeply disturbing read, and I couldn’t recommend it more.