When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

Mueller for blog postWe’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.

99 thoughts on “When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

  1. I must say not very much good happened to Nell and her Grandfather in the Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens was obvi in social injustice mode there though. ( I am going to refrain from saying anything re Oscar Wilde’s quip here on the subject of Little Nell’s death.) I think Steinbeck liked giving a lot of his characters a hard time. Adam didn’t fare too well either in East of Eden for that matter. He had made his mistakes so he was not quite in the category of Nell but even so. The two lead in Atonement were shafted by Bryony as we’ve mentioned. As for Beth in Little Women/Good Wives. (Shudders)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great examples of decent characters getting battered by life, Shehanne! And an excellent observation that authors in social-justice mode can allow bad things to happen to certain characters in order to make a point — an often-effective point. Yes, hard to think of too many Steinbeck novels that leave one with a feeling more cheery than depressed — maybe “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Late Entry!!!
    I have been reading Tang Dynasty and even earlier Chinese poetry (“The Songs of the South”,BC era stuff) and have discovered what I believe to be the most enduring theme in them, though centuries intervene between the poets and their works: loyal truth-telling scribes turned out by clever court manipulators of royal favor, now withering away in obscure postings or worse, wandering without any post, away from family and the land of their birth– bad things happening to good people. Tu Fu, for example, writes most of his most-read poems in exile and in poverty.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I blame my suppliers– most of what I read I find on card tables covered in used books from all over and every era.

        This very weekend I acquired two Mencken books, Whistler’s “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” and Richard Halliburton’s The Royal Road to Romance”, signed by the author. Plus 4 books featuring the peculiar art of Edward Gorey– and I spent just upward of 10 bucks!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. John Steinbeck`s Of Mice and Men, story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California .
    Lenny was a giant, loved to touch gentle animals, touched a woman`s dress ans was accused of rape. George was Lenny`s protector but also needed Lenny as his comfort zone.But Lenny`s gentleness got him into trouble and eventually was shot down by George to save Lenny from himself.
    A devastating, heartbreaking but compassionate story.only Steinbevck could write.
    In Stieg Larsson`s Millienium series, Lisbeth Salander had a rough childhood to say mildly , but fough backand protected the ones who showed a little kindness risking her life.But in the end never got the Man she fell in love with Journalist Mikael Blomkvist

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! “Of Mice and Men” and Stieg Larsson’s trilogy are great examples of this topic!

      Many of John Steinbeck’s novels have good people going through very tough times, and the endings are often not happy. “Sweet Thursday” is among the exceptions.

      Lisbeth Salander is a really complicated character. Not a good person in some ways, but basically good at heart. And one could understand the negative qualities she had after all she went through growing up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • On Bobby Mueller, my take on that.
        A 74 year old man with a long reputable career was thrown into a performance theatrics for almost 8 hours ?
        Bobby Mueller`s long career will be remember forever while the others will be forgotton . Painful to watch these self serving Republicans to make a fool of themselves.

        Sooner of later trumps downfall together with his corrupt family will begin .

        Hope so !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        Liked by 2 people

        • bebe, I agree that history will be much kinder to Mueller than to the Trump crime family. And Mueller is definitely an exception in this era of famous people being “publicity hounds.” Also, those Republicans who slammed Mueller (a fellow Republican) indeed looked foolish, though I’m sure they felt proud of defending the disgusting Trump.

          I hope for Trump’s downfall, too. Not sure it will ever happen, but…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Scary thought…listening to Maher, he also said just like yourself Dave, that lying trump said even he looses he is not leaving.. Also July was a time to relax but folks have trump fatique, i know I have.

            No joy waking up every morning for so many of us , I wake up exhausted even I hardly turn on TV each day , listen to music instead..still….

            Also like Bobby, so ethical and still geot the raw deal.
            Not all rebublicans are questionable, now they do not have a single black congrssman after Bill Hurd annouced his retirement, so young, also I lked him.

            Liked by 2 people

            • bebe, Trump is definitely a dictator wannabe. And he IS so exhausting to think about.

              I agree that there are a few decent Republicans, but their numbers are few. And the GOP in Congress is indeed getting whiter and whiter, and male-er and male-er, even as the U.S. gets more diverse. 😦

              Liked by 1 person

            • At this late date in American politics, where approval for Trump among Republicans has never wavered, statistically speaking, except to go UP, there are no Republicans now who are not suspect of being racist white nationalists, since theirs is the party of Trump, and Trump is a racist white nationalist.

              Quiet and *crickets* will not do in the face of this assault on our population as it already exists. By which I mean: white nationalism naturally ends, logically, in genocide or expulsion of Blacks and Latinos. Wringing one’s hands silently on the sidelines while maintaining GOP party affiliation is despicable in the face of this crisis.

              Liked by 2 people

  4. Joseph Roth’s “Flight Without End” is my example of the week’s topic, though it’s not so much as Tunda, the major character, is a good person, so much as he is an ordinary one, who does what others did in pre WWI Vienna, and did what he had to during the war till capture. He managed to get himself out of prison camp, yet into the Russian Revolution, and after the White Revolution. Later still, he becomes a communist party functionary, but eventually he longs to return home. Home is utterly changed; his fiance has married, his brother has no room, and the novel ends with Tunda in the middle of a big city with nowhere to go and nobody to care, save author Ross and the readers to whom he has told the tale.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! That’s a great, poignant example of this topic — and I’m sure the ultra-skilled writer Joseph Roth pulled everything possible out of that plot line. Excellent summary!


      • Not sure why you think he’ll go then, though I hope he will, and will celebrate to possible excess should he do so. Neither side has any reason to believe in the results of our next election, though why that is is entirely different for each. Keeps me up nights.

        Liked by 2 people

        • jhNY, there is indeed a chance Trump won’t leave the White House if he loses in 2020 or even after his second term, if he gets one. Laws mean nothing to the Oval Office ogre. And, yes, election results are suspect — though I more than suspect that Democrats are the ones getting shafted, not Republicans.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Molly! “Persuasion” is definitely worth the time (and I think it’s the shortest of Austen’s six novels).

      I have not read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Sounds intense if the movie might not be watchable for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well Dave, I’ve mentioned here a time or two that “the Grapes of Wrath” is a book that had a profound effect on me, especially the ending! I’ve never really been able to forget it, even after all the years that have passed since I read it. I would truly say it’s one of the books that made me want to become an author myself. In the Steinbeck vein, your theme this week also brings to mind Steinbeck’s “the Pastures of Heaven,” a short novella of his that I only recently read. There are ample characters, some lovable and some not, that fall on some incredibly hard luck and times – it is one of those books that makes you feel like life just isn’t fair and nothing turns out the way it should! 😦 That being said, it was also an excellent read. It’s also quite interesting, as it’s one of Steinbeck’s earliest works. As for Mr. Mueller, I’m not brave enough to tackle politics in my posts or comments, but I will say that I have undertaken reading the Mueller report – page by page by page. I’m about half way done, and it’s interesting reading…. that is for certain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! All very well said!

      I totally share your admiration of Steinbeck, and agree that he often had good characters face very harsh realities and rarely offered happy endings (maybe the “Cannery Row” sequel “Sweet Thursday” was the closest he came to writing a novel with an upbeat conclusion).

      I’m impressed that you’ve been reading the Mueller report! I’ve closely read excerpts from and summaries of the report, but can’t quite bring myself to read the report itself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Trump has been Unfit For Office (that’s the one UFO that’s real) since he took it. Impeachment, the 25th Amendment, censure– all are to me just avenues toward a goal: get rid of the UFO guy.

        But impeachment is also a Constitutional obligation, as per the oath office each of our elected representatives has taken. And the Constitution, whatever its drawbacks and frustrations, is all we have, and all we must obide– a piece of paper that bears the weight of the democracy and the union– so long as it is able.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Unfit For Office = UFO — nice! And, yes, there are measures to try to rein in an existential threat to democracy like Trump. Whether those measures are used, and how they’re used, is the question.


  6. Wanna talk about injustices? remember that time I went to the Moon but Neil Armstrong got all the glory? That’s not fair!

    Good… by whose determination? Being true to my penchant for overreaching I can argue that in Bram stokers , Dracula, Renfield is a victim of circumstance neither good or bad due to his madness.

    We know that in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley were all dealt a raw deal but in the end so were the “GOOD” citizens of that “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama.

    Now to Mueller, I invite everyone to independently research his record. For me, given what I know about him for years I would categorize him as a cunning, manipulative, malevolent agent of evil.

    Robert Mueller was one of the key architects of the “WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION” lie, a war waged on false pretenses costing billions of dollars to the tax payers and thousands of lives on both sides. Post 9/11 he was responsible for the detention of hundreds of Muslims with no ties to terrorism, so much for Habeas corpus. Mueller is no Renfield, he is a vampire.

    Funny, over the weekend at a family gathering I tore into a so privileged, hedge fund manager tool family member over his use of the epithet Uncle Tom. I have painted UT a bit more of a hero but only to turn and say, you would be lucky to be called UT.

    However the final injustice I have to mention is that I’m trying to like this post and it will not take.

    As always typos, grammaticals and or other errors are baked at 360 degrees and served with love.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jack! Great comment! Loved the seriousness and the humor. 🙂

      I totally hear you about Robert Mueller. His past has indeed been very troubling; how could it not be as an elite Republican? I guess I overdid the “Mueller is a good guy” thing in my post because I thought he conducted a legitimate investigation of Trump and company when he could have hypothetically done a whitewash like most other Republicans would have done these days. Of course, if Mueller were more publicly indignant about how corrupt Trump and those who surround/surrounded Trump have been, and if Mueller had stepped out of his self-imposed “objectivity” a bit, he would have been of much more service.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would recommend a great NYT journalist, Maggie Astor–Not that kind of Astor either– for her take on Mueller 🙂
        The worst thing about the incredible waste of money and time that was the Mueller investigation in the hope that it gave people; of having substantial charges being brought up against Orangina, when it was a moot point since Mueller made it clear from the start that he would support the DOJ ” policy” of not indicting a sitting POTUS.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Ha! Thank you, Jack! I know that Maggie person. 🙂

          You’re right — the Mueller investigation gave some people hope. A naive hope, of course — Trump and his enablers and fans were always going to ignore, spin, twist, and demonize the report. If Mueller had brushed aside the DOJ “policy” and forcefully said a sitting POTUS should be indicted, that would have been great and might have helped. Then again, that probably would have had little effect. 😦

          Liked by 1 person

          • As the number of Democratic representatives who are on record in support of a Congressional impeachment inquiry has now reached a majority, I think the Mueller Report has been more effective than many of the professional coolers (a Vegas term) in corporatist media would like us to believe.

            Liked by 2 people

            • That’s a good point, jhNY. Whether impeachment proceedings will “officially” start is still unknown, but there’s no way a majority of Democratic congresspeople would be in favor without Mueller’s report.

              Liked by 1 person

        • That “policy” is policy. Look into exactly how to challenge it, and I think you will find: an administration through its own efforts may choose to visit that policy and revise it– but why would an administration change a policy that could be used by its political enemies the moment they changed the policy?

          So far as I have been able to discover, there is no legal way to mount a challenge to the policy, as no one would have legal standing to mount the challenge. No federal prosecutor could take it upon himself to challenge it, as he works for the DOJ, and cannot pursue an indictment of a president on his own, because it’s against policy. (State prosecutors may indict a sitting president, in theory, for violations of state law, as the OLC policy is a federal policy that does not apply to states.)

          Maddening? Yep, but no point in bemoaning what was never possible, or legal if attempted.

          I do agree with your assessment of Mueller in operation over the years, but feel it’s important to point out: that despite the fact they turned on him like ravenous hyenas, Mueller was the very best Team GOP had on its shallow bench to do such an investigation. Which says nothing good about the Elephant Party With No Memory.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I hear you, jhNY. Even a policy that’s not formally a policy can have roadblocks that are hard or impossible to circumvent. Basically, a President such as Trump can do anything he wants when an Attorney General and DOJ and Republican-controlled Senate without integrity are on his “team” rather than even vaguely a watchdog.


            • That is a formal policy, the OLC finding, though it has never been tested for its constitutionality, and as I outlined above, I’m not sure how it can be, practically.

              The last time it was tested,in-house, natch, was during Clinton’s presidency– and then, it was tested and found good enough to keep in place, which just shows how unlikely a sitting administration is going to find reason for change, when change could go against its chief executive.

              The formulation of the policy begins and ends in political expediency, and in haste: the political necessity of the Nixon administration to find a way to shed Agnew while not putting Nixon in further danger of losing office through court action.

              Liked by 1 person

                • And every sitting president who does nothing wrong is also happy to have it, since the opposing party would likely go after him in court regardless, should it look like something that would weaken the president or enhance their chances before the next election.

                  Liked by 2 people

                  • So true, jhNY. Look at the way Obama, whose administration barely had a hint of scandal, was treated by the Republicans. (I had some mixed feelings about Obama’s centrism, but he was obviously not corrupt.)

                    Liked by 2 people

  7. “Persuasion” is maybe my favorite of Austen’s novels!

    I just started reading “Stalingrad” by Vasily Grossman. It’s the first part of the story that is continued in “Life and Fate,” which was published abroad back in the 80s. “Stalingrad” itself was just published in English for the first time last month, and the translation is based on the complete unpublished manuscript as well as the censored version that was originally published in the USSR in 1952. The publication history of both books is complicated and full of ups and downs, just like the plot of the stories themselves.

    Anyway, I just started “Stalingrad,” so I can’t say how it’s going to end up for everyone, but having read “Life and Fate,” I know that one of the most positive characters is going to die in a Nazi concentration camp. She is based on Grossman’s own mother, who died in a concentration camp in real life, something that haunted Grossman for obvious reasons for the rest of his life.

    Very downbeat, but also in keeping with Grossman’s determination to expose the horrors of the concentration camps. He was a reporter during the war and was one of the first to report on them, describing Treblinka as early as 1944, when most people still had no idea what was going on.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Elena! “Persuasion” is also my favorite Jane Austen novel, with “Pride and Prejudice” second. 🙂

      “Life and Fate” and the just-started-by-you “Stalingrad” do sound compelling and depressing. So many World War II-era novels in which good people suffer horrible fates — including in concentration camps. Other concentration camp-set novels of course include William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “Spark of Life.” That Vasily Grossman had a personal family history of that sort indeed must have made his writing even more powerful.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Pleased to read you like Grossman’s “Life and Fate” well enough to read another work. I have had “L+F” on my shelves for a while now, bought without knowing the author or the book’s history, but have yet to crack it, for fear the investment of time would not pay off. Now I see my fears are groundless. I will have to confine my reading of the thing to my apartment, as that’s a lug too far, a fat book like that.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. Dave, you probably know that “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton is one of my favorite novels and movies. It’s unusual for me to love both. Lily Bart makes many mistakes, especially for being too trusting of others and for her penchant for gambling. However, she is served poorly by all of New York’s high society, including her relations, which has dire consequences for her throughout the book. By the end though she turns out to be the most ethical one of all, paying off her debt to Trainor and protecting Selden, the man she loves. The ending of both book and film always make me weep, but as we all know, life isn’t fair.

    I love both “Persuasion” and “Silas Marner” — good choices for this column!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Yes, “Persuasion” and “Silas Marner” are such great books — as is “The House of Mirth”!

      Edith Wharton’s novel is VERY relevant to this topic, and you described why so well. While Lily Bart is somewhat vain and spoiled, she is basically a good person with a lot of integrity, as you noted. Given her time and place and situation, it’s admirable that she wouldn’t marry for (desperately needed) money, instead holding out for a love match. Overall, Lily is treated shabbily by too many people.

      I’ve never seen “The House of Mirth” on screen. 😦


  9. Hi Dave,

    I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was completely sucked into the hope of The Grapes of Wrath. It was only towards the very end that I thought maybe this wasn’t a happy ever after story. Lots of respect for John Steinbeck.

    Speaking of being punished for a crime you didn’t commit, the good guy in The Count of Monte Cristo definitely doesn’t have a good time of it.

    And lastly, James and Lily Potter. Need I say more? 😦

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sue! Great examples of this topic!

      Edmond Dantes of “The Count of Monte Cristo” was definitely railroaded. Some good ensues (Dantes’ revenge) after lots of suffering (Dantes’ harsh imprisonment), but one doesn’t get the sense he’s ever completely happy again.

      Harry’s parents were of course murder victims. Both good people, though James did have a bit of cruel streak, if I’m remembering correctly.

      And, yes, even though “The Grapes of Wrath” concluded with a moment of poignant humanity, John Steinbeck resolutely avoided a truly happy ending — as much as we would have wanted one. Perhaps the Joad family’s (fictional) descendants fared okay in California decades after the novel’s timeline.


      • I felt almost tricked by The Grapes of Wrath. The story starts with a poor family with no money, heading to greener pastures where they would be happy and eat oranges and be rich and be happy. I must have been about three quarters of they way through the book, and I asked WHEN are they just going to get there! And then I realised…

        Dante’s revenge never felt good or happy for me. Justified? Sure. Satisfying too. But not happy.

        I’d like to think that James Potter grew out of any kind of high school bully that he was. I don’t think Lily would have married him otherwise. Though I must admit, I can be a bit idealistic when it comes to all things Potter 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hear you, Sue. If “The Grapes of Wrath” were completely fictional, one could see the possibility of a happy ending. It would have been heartening. But the novel was a heavily researched documentary of sorts (albeit fictionalized), and Steinbeck opted to “tell it like it is.”

          Excellent point about James Potter!


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