"On The Face of It" by Susan Hill (a 5-10 minute read) is part of my curriculum, and I'm genuinely confused as to why the author decided to kill Mr Lamb at the end. The entire story is about optimism reigning over pessimism... but then the main character falls off a ladder and dies, while thinking that he's lonely and Derry would never come back.

This might be asking for too much, but it just doesn't make literary sense to me.


2 Answers 2


I can't tell you for certain why the author decided to end the story this way, but I can explain my interpretation of why this makes the story more powerful. What the author intended may not be the most interesting or answerable question anyway. Because we're talking about justifying why a person 'should' have died, and some of this is going to sound horribly callous, I feel compelled to add a disclaimer that I'm speaking purely from the point of view of analysing a story.

Sometimes, a single unrecoverable day can have the most impact on a person's life.

Let's imagine that Mr Lamb hadn't died. Probably Derry would have kept coming back and talking to him, and perhaps changed a lot as a person. But every friendship, every relationship, has its ups and downs. Maybe they would have quarrelled and, in taking leave of Mr Lamb, Derry would have returned to his old attitude to life. Maybe the old man would have lost some mystique in Derry's eyes, his wisdom would have seemed like more platitudes, and Derry would have stopped listening. Certainly there would have been other influences (such as his mother, as we see in Scene 2), trying to persuade Derry not to have anything more to do with Mr Lamb.

But now, with his newfound friend dead, there's no opportunity for Derry to see new facets of him or argue with him. He will always remain in the boy's mind associated with that one conversation. There's nothing he can do now to lower Derry's opinion of him - and conversely, Derry will never know what more he could have said to inspire him. Maybe Mr Lamb's death will inspire Derry to change his lifestyle in honour of the old man, more than he would have done for a living friend. Maybe this is the first time someone Derry knows has died. What's certain is that this day will always linger in the boy's memory, in a more visceral way than it would have from anything further Mr Lamb could have said.

See also: one of the discussion questions at the end of the text you linked.

Will Derry get back to his old seclusion or will Mr Lamb’s brief association effect a change in the kind of life he will lead in the future?

As well as making Derry more likely to remember and act on the wisdom of Mr Lamb, his unexpected death may also remind Derry of his own mortality. Mr Lamb had lived a long and apparently fulfilling life, and even though it was cut off in an abrupt and unexpected way, some of his memories and wisdom still lived on due to his effects on others. Seeing him dead might shock Derry into realising that one day he too would be dead - and that if he continues avoiding his fellow humans, he'll never have any legacy or way of living on. We all die in the end, but it's better to die mourned and satisfied than unloved and forgotten.

Finally, from a completely out-of-world perspective, killing off a character adds pathos to the story. If the last scene was removed, the tale would have been interesting in a more intellectual way: watching two characters discuss life and their respective problems is interesting and thought-provoking, but it lacks the emotional gut-punch of the ending, which perhaps makes the story more effective and memorable to many readers.

  • This is a brilliant answer, you've completely changed the way I was approaching the story. Thank you so much!
    – Aryaman
    Sep 6, 2018 at 13:21
  • 1
    @Aryaman You're welcome! Thank you for introducing me to an interesting story and giving me the chance to dig into it :-) (By the way, regarding your deleted H.G. Wells answer - I hope I wasn't bothering you too much in comments. You may well have a good point; I just think it needed more explanation to really be justified properly.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 7, 2018 at 1:55

Well, I think the reason might be this — though Lamb was always very optimistic, in the end his past bad experiences finally let pessimism dig in. He could not believe Derry would return in spite of Derry’s assurance, hence he went to fetch the apples by himself and died. He failed to walk in his own beloved path of optimism so life apparently failed him. In another perspective, he died after successfully passing over his legacy to Derry, who then became optimistic and open to life as was evident in his conversation with his mother. Derry was the one who had said no one will ever come to enquire whether Lamb was alive or dead, that he had no real friends. The irony is that a while later he did return and then cried for his loss. Unexpectedly, he found a friend in Lamb. So, Lamb even succeeded in making a true friend before his death who did not care about his artificial leg.

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