Death and the Maiden Motif

Death and the Maiden by P.J. Lynch.

The Death and the Maiden Motif is a classic motif in art and literature.    It all goes back to the ancient Greek myth of Hades and Persephone.    The motif is centered on a beautiful young woman being pursued (and loved by) a man who is death incarnate.    The male side of the motif is death whether a literal member of the dead (vampire, ghost, zombie), a God of death (Hades), or just a symbol of death.

Medieval and Renaissance art featured this motif in paintings before it was adopted as a literary trope!   Hans Baldung was an artist who utilized the motif in several paintings.    The literary trope is much newer, becoming popular in the 19th century.

The Death and the Maiden motif can be seen as a version of the Beauty and the Beast story.    It is a much darker take on the classic tale, of course.    In Death and the Maiden the man rarely becomes transformed back to mere human.   This is a main point of difference from traditional Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast becomes human again (his curse breaking with true love).    The beautiful dichotomy of death and life, of maiden and death incarnate is one that makes for great literature!

Examples of this motif in literature abound.    The Phantom of the Opera is a prime example, Erik is a symbol of death and Christine is the maiden.    Dracula featured the motif, especially with Lucy being pursued, and turned by Dracula, and Dracula’s obsession with Mina.   The Picture of Dorian Gray featured a Death and the Maiden element with Sibyl Vane and her relationship with Dorian (he is death and she is the innocent victim).   

In more modern literature stories of Death and the Maiden are featured in YA literature.    The Vampire Diaries series by L.J. Smith featured a love triangle between a young woman and two vampires.    It is even discovered that she is part Celestial Guardian (a type of angel) making her even more aligned with life, as her lovers are with death!   Other YA novels that can be said to contain the trope are L.J. Smith’s The Forbidden Game trilogy, and Beth Fantaskey’s Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side (and its sequel).

Thanks to novels such as those I have mentioned above the motif has also made its way into film, television, and theatre!   Certainly many of the novels I have discussed here have been adapted to the screen and stage.    They also continue to inspire newer versions of this trope!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the Death and the Maiden motif.    Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Death and the Maiden by P.J. Lynch.   I found the image on

Further Reading

  • The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • The Vampire Diaries series by L.J. Smith
  • The Forbidden Game trilogy by L.J. Smith
  • Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey 
  • Beauty and the Beast from The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang