The other day I watched the Johnny Cash video of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song Cash covered to perfection. That under-four-minute masterpiece, filled with musings on mortality just months before the gravely ailing Cash died, might be the saddest music video ever made.
You probably know where I’m going: After watching “Hurt” — which you can see here, and from which the image atop this blog post was taken — I thought about the saddest novels I’ve read. Many VERY well worth the time, even cathartic in some cases, but heartbreaking nonetheless.
One such book is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The plot alone is poignant enough, but the beautifully crafted prose — touching on matters such as life’s fleeting moments of happiness — makes a nearby box of tissues an absolute necessity.
There’s also William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which, as a novel with a Holocaust theme, is naturally going to be devastating. But when Sophie has to make that fateful choice promised by the title, the despair gets almost unbearable on a one-family level, too. Another sorrowful Holocaust novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, takes an even more unsparing look at life in a concentration camp.
Albert Camus’ classic The Stranger, written during World War II, is also an almost total downer.
Going further back in time, I’d add Edith Wharton’s memorable The House of Mirth, which chronicles the dismal descent of a woman (Lily Bart) who is doomed because she has some integrity and is trapped in a patriarchal society. Maggie Tulliver’s limited choices and opportunities as a female make the masterful The Mill on the Floss perhaps George Eliot’s most melancholy novel. And the miserable mining milieu in Emile Zola’s Germinal leaves readers despondent even while admiring the novel’s power.
Obviously, dystopian and/or apocalyptic novels — like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man — can make readers completely disconsolate. I’ll also include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four here, although that book has a few moments of joy before all hope is crushed.
Other very depressing novels? Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, George Sand’s Lelia, and Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, to name a few.
What are the saddest novels you’ve read?
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at signage, a subdivision, spinelessness, and resurfaced streets — is here.