Editor’s Note: Sorry for the hiatus, dear readers, things have been quite busy and exciting on this end. Hopefully this essay will be enjoyable enough to make up for it.
Empress Jessamine Kaldwin dies ten minutes into Dishonored. It’s not a spoiler or a surprise—her death is stated blatantly in the game’s promotional material, and it is her demise that jettisons main character Corvo into his journey for revenge. One might say her death is the most important thing about her, and that she exists solely to affect the emotions of the hero. Such a state is both unfortunate and so common in pop culture that it has its own name: fridging, wherein a character close to the protagonist is brutally done away in order to propel the hero into action. The trope has come under heavy fire in recent years, as fridged characters (often attractive love interests) are inherently devalued and shown to only be important in terms of how the protagonist reacts to them. The only difference between a fridged characters and a sexy lamp is that a dead human usually prompts greater sympathy from the audience.
By virtue of her demise catalyzing the plot, it has been suggested that the Empress is a textbook case of fridging, and she is ultimately a prop in Corvo’s story. However, there is another argument to be made here: while Jessamine’s death does indisputably get the ball rolling, that’s not where her story ends, and the game knows it. In its handling of Jessamine Kaldwin, Dishonored dodges the fridging trope by giving her power and importance that are widely felt and subsist long after her death.
The term “fridging” comes from a scene in the Green Lantern comic book, where Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt is brutally murdered by Rayner’s nemesis and left in the fridge for him to find. The murder has virtually nothing to do with DeWitt, which the villain points out: he goes after her to get to Rayner, and she is tertiary to that. This event results in great angst from Rayner and he pursues the villain to get revenge, exclusively framing her death in terms of how it affects him. DeWitt becomes little more than an object with no control, agency, or even stake in her own demise—she exists only to motivate him.
Brilliant comic writer Gail Simone subsequently coined the term fridging to describe the phenomenon of women being murdered strictly for men’s angst, and being robbed of their characters in the process. (Simone and company’s Women in Refridgerators list is a great source of further information and industry responses to the trope.)
On its face, Dishonored fits this trope perfectly: the Empress is assassinated so that Corvo can be ejected from his comfortable life into the role of an assassin, and seek vengeance for her murder. This further extends to the DLC, where character development for her killer, Daud, springs from the guilt he feels at taking her life. The game isn’t called “Murdered”, after all—it’s about how the death of the Empress affects Corvo and what actions he has to undertake as a result, right?
Well, maybe not. If we take a step back, we can see that the death of fridged characters isn’t what makes this trope insidious. It would be unrealistic and problematic to suggest that no character death can have an emotional impact on their survivors, or that character death in and of itself is bad writing. Rather, the problem is the removal of the character’s power, and an implicit devaluing—the woman’s death matters, but she does not. The widespread application of this trope was presumably noteworthy for Simone not because characters happened to die, but because it presented the nasty message that women have no value other than to be killed to better their men.
By contrast, something different happens with Jessamine. While she does die early in the narrative and stays that way, she isn’t summarily removed from the story. Even six months after her death, passersby can be overheard talking about her, a statue of her still stands in the Flooded District, and graffiti of and about her can be found throughout the city. People around Corvo discuss her, and not just in relation to the mission or her affect on him; we learn how she was alternately despised and revered by her people, how her daughter misses her, how she was “stranger” than even Corvo knew, according to Anton Sokolov.
Even gone, she is still present in the minds of her people. While her death certainly has a powerful impact on Corvo, he isn’t alone in feeling the weight of her loss—an entire Empire remembers her, and it becomes clear that she still holds a degree of power that a fridged character could never hope to touch.
That isn’t to say that her influence comes only through tertiary channels. Despite her demise, she still directly affects the plot, though not in any recognizable form: following his escape from Coldridge Prison, Corvo is beckoned to the Void by the Outsider and given “the heart of a living thing”, a pulsing heart that speaks to him when he squeezes it. Voiced by the same actress as the Empress and notably fuzzy on the details of her death, it becomes clear that Corvo is bearing Jessamine’s harvested heart, keeping it as a constant companion.
While this could easily slip into macabre angst, Dishonored focuses much less on Corvo’s reaction to the Heart as it does on what she has to say. Corvo uses her to guide him to magical runes and can listen to her insights, many of which have to do with the world and people around them. However, she also says things relevant to herself, mentioning her family or remembering an event from her past. She will express thoughts and feelings in the moment—”Can you hear them too?” or “How can it be that I know such things?” or “Why am I so cold?” Perhaps most telling of all, she reacts with anger to those who harmed her, such as Daud and Hiram Burrows, or wistfully to her daughter Emily. She has not be resurrected per say, as her grotesque form is limited in its capacity to act and interact with others. However, there is still a character to be recognized there, one with something to say if Corvo chooses to listen.
This approach to the Empress’ death sidesteps the issue of devaluing a character whose death is plot relevant, simply by not forgetting she is a character. Fridging is easy, a cheap way to evoke empathy for the hero without having to justify his motivations. The fridged character isn’t nearly as important as how her death makes him feel, so the plot can carry on. Her direct affect on the plot, meanwhile, is non-existent; she doesn’t perish doing anything relevant to the rest of the world, but as a beautiful artifact crumbling in the villain’s hands.
What Dishonored does is significantly different, and much more real: while Corvo is deeply hurt by the Empress’ death, that is not the sum total of her worth. A tromp through Dunwall shows that her reach extends far beyond Corvo, into the homes of civilians and onto grimy shop walls, and we’re often led to believe that there are things about her that even her trusted bodyguard doesn’t know. She doesn’t die standing still, but attacking her killer to save her daughter. She is a person in her own right, a powerful one that is widely remembered by those around her, and that’s not something her death changes.
One might even say that, given how much attention she receives following her demise, this is really her story and Corvo is the observer, a Nick Carraway to Jessamine’s Gatsby. Certainly something is lost with her passing, but it actually feels like a loss rather than an excuse for action. Alex DeWitt lasts six volumes of Green Lantern—a blink in D.C. years—and where she does return it’s to influence, manipulate, or otherwise affect Rayner. Jessamine exists far outside that box, and though losing her certainly guides Corvo’s choices, it’s the reaction of one dear friend to the loss of another, not from hero to object.
For all intents and purposes, the Heart stays with Corvo after his quest is complete. Word of God has it that she will continue to exist as long as someone she loves bears the Mark of the Outsider, and Corvo doesn’t look to be losing that anytime soon. The jury is out on whether this is some form of malignant magic or a conscious choice on her part (or both), but there is nonetheless an important point to be made here: despite her demise, the Empress still affects the story and its characters in palpable ways.
Her presence in the minds of Dunwall’s citizens, her influence throughout the city, and her subtle affect on Corvo’s understanding of the world all suggest that not only is her power retained, but it far outlives her. Dishonored, then, does not fridge her to shuffle Corvo along, but creates a tragedy with wide impact that cannot be forgotten but must be overcome. While fridging demands a loss of power and significance, the game expertly dodges that by not allowing us to forget her importance. Even as Corvo fights to avenge her, he is never leaving her behind. On the contrary, she might just be the one leading him.