If a lousy or mediocre novel is making you feel bad, it’s an easy decision to stop reading it. But what if an excellent novel is making you feel bad? I don’t know about you, but I keep reading. After all, some of the best literature ranges from depressing to tragic.
I experienced this while recently reading Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor. The title character is a teen girl who leaves Ireland for England to try to find the feckless young man who got her pregnant. Felicia ends up being “helped” by the oily Mr. Hilditch, a middle-aged guy who has major psychological issues (we later find out why) and might be a serial killer.
Ugh, I thought as I read — this won’t end well. And the conclusion is indeed sad. But I’m glad I didn’t ditch the book. Trevor’s prose was superb, and the melancholy ending was different than I expected. One may figure something bad is going to happen in a depressing novel, but exactly what that something will be isn’t always predictable. Surprise in literature is often a good thing!
Other depressing novels I’ve read that I couldn’t put down? A classic that comes to mind is Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. One is 99% sure that the trajectory of Lily Bart’s life will never stop being downhill, but her story is masterfully told — and there’s always that unlikely 1% chance for redemption in any unhappy book.
Then there’s Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which an African-American character (Bigger Thomas) is dealing with poverty, racism, and a criminal-justice system with little justice. Those three strikes don’t augur well for a happy ending, but the novel is riveting.
Elsa Morante’s History is also a magnificent achievement even as readers can guess than Ida and her son Giuseppe are probably doomed because of their personalities and the World War II carnage that surrounds them.
Or Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which involves a hostage situation. It’s fascinating how Patchett humanizes the hostage takers almost as much as the hostages, but you just know that there will be plenty of deaths before you turn the last page.
George Eliot wrote novels with both sad and part-happy endings, but there’s something about Maggie Tulliver’s life in The Mill on the Floss that early on gives readers a sinking feeling about her ultimate fate. But what a masterful book!
In Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, Allie Fox is brilliant but borderline nuts. So when he takes his family from the U.S. to live in the Central American rain forest, it’s like watching a car crash (if a car could drive in a rain forest). But it’s hard to avert one’s eyes.
Then there’s Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As is also the case with most of Poe’s iconic short stories, things don’t end well, but the horror and spookiness are memorable.
Of course, with certain historical-fiction works, we absolutely know disaster awaits — perhaps from remembering what we read in our high school history books. But if the story is compellingly told, we’re willing to experience the heartbreak. One of many novels in this category is Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, in which we obviously don’t expect the protagonist to reach a ripe old age.
We also expect total disaster, or at best a mixed ending, in dystopian novels — yet are still fascinated by many of them. For instance, George Orwell’s harrowing Nineteen Eighty-Four is almost impossible to put down.
And don’t forget novels whose titles telegraph their “depressing-ness.” To name just two, there are Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — though readers of the former know it contains a measure of amazing uplift at the end.
In the theater world, some plays are literally labeled tragedies, so upbeat conclusions are clearly not in the offing. But Shakespeare is worth the time, isn’t he? 🙂
What are some novels that you avidly continued reading despite having a bad feeling about what would happen to the characters?
Here’s Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” — the song referenced in my silly headline!
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.