We’ve all heard the phrases “No good deed goes unpunished,” “When bad things happen to good people,” and “Only the good die young.” So it goes in literature, as it goes in real life. Likable, ethical, admirable characters often have negative things happen to them.
In some cases, this is followed by a happy ending — as we witness the goes-through-trials-and-tribulations-before-life-gets-better scenario. In other cases, life does not improve for the unlucky characters. Either situation can make for compelling, depressing reading as most of us intensely relate to wronged protagonists we like.
I thought about today’s topic last week while upstanding, straight-shooting, known-for-his-integrity Robert Mueller testified before the U.S. Congress about his two-year investigation of the corrupt Trump and his corrupt administration — and was treated badly at the hearings by Republicans despite Mueller being a lifelong Republican appointed by Republicans. The reason for this disgraceful treatment, of course, was that the GOP was trying to protect Trump. Many Republicans know how guilty Trump is, but they’ve made a devil’s bargain to look the other way in order to get tax cuts for the rich, far-right judges, rigged elections, etc.
Adding to the sorry situation is the fact that Mueller is so boring and “by the book” that it makes it easier for Republicans — including despicable Attorney General William Barr, who “spun” Mueller’s damning special-counsel report into something much more positive about Trump than it was — to take advantage.
There are countless novels with exemplary beleaguered protagonists, so I’ll name just a few — starting with some 19th-century books.
The good-guy title character in George Eliot’s Silas Marner is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, after which the immoral perpetrator marries Marner’s fiancee. Silas then moves in despair to another part of England, and it isn’t long before most of the money he’s earned as a reclusive weaver is stolen. But this short (for Eliot) novel unexpectedly turns happy in a very moving way.
There’s also a negative-to-positive story arc in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. As a young woman, Anne Elliot breaks her engagement with Frederick Wentworth after immense pressure from several family members. Wentworth is nice, smart, and ambitious, but Anne’s snobby relatives feel the young Navy man doesn’t have the wealth and connections to marry into the Elliot family. Yet, as always in Austen novels, true love wins out — though not before various challenges.
Then there are novels in which at least some beloved, harshly treated protagonists don’t ever find happiness. Very sad, but perhaps more realistic.
It’s no surprise that several people meet terrible fates in the anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That’s of course the case with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s title character: the almost-angelic Tom, especially after he is purchased by the horribly evil slave owner Simon Legree. (BTW, Tom is not the stereotype he was later twisted into by some.) And Tom’s also-almost-angelic friend, the white girl Eva, dies way too young.
Another downer classic is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which most Pequod crew members die after Captain Ahab takes his whale obsession to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. Those doomed sailors could have said “Call me fish meal…”
A couple of the many later novels with sympathetic characters who don’t catch a break?
One would be Elsa Morante’s gripping World War II-set History, which is a great read despite being almost unrelentingly downbeat. The timid Ida is raped by a Nazi soldier, and lives in constant fear that her part-Jewish ancestry could doom her in fascist Italy. Her two very-different-but-each-charismatic sons ultimately don’t fare well, either.
Another is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — which, while containing a few hopeful notes, sees many members of the impoverished, mostly likable Joad family battered by events before, during, and after their epic 1930s relocation ride to California.
Your favorite novels that fit this topic?
My 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 — about developers insincerely responding to a welcome lawsuit — is here.