Some Novels Are Built on Characters Feeling Guilt

Guilt. It’s a five-letter word that feels like a four-letter word.

Many fictional protagonists suffer from guilt, which can make their lives difficult and give a novel plenty of drama. Those characters often evoke our sympathy, mainly because someone who feels guilt has a conscience. Of course, the action or actions that cause people to feel guilt range from deliberate to accidental, which can affect what we think of those erring folk.

I just read William Kennedy’s mesmerizing/melancholy Ironweed, whose main character’s entire life changes because of guilt. Once a very good turn-of-the-20th-century Major League baseball player, Francis Phelan has become a homeless alcoholic wandering the streets of Albany, New York, in 1938. Things went downhill after a perhaps-drunk-that-day Francis accidentally dropped and killed his infant son. The young father, who also killed a strikebreaker around that time, never forgave himself and proceeded to leave his wife Annie and two other kids and allow his life to go to hell. One feels a mix of pity and “why didn’t you try to deal with things better?” for Francis — who was forgiven by Annie, their son, and (to an extent) their daughter.

Phelan’s companion in homelessness, former singer Helen Archer, began her downward spiral after an awful betrayal by her mother. But that mom feels no guilt, even on her deathbed.

(Above are Meryl Streep as Helen and Jack Nicholson as Francis in the 1987 Ironweed movie.)

Moving to other novels and characters, Raskolnikov experiences a huge amount of guilt after committing murder in Crime and Punishment — even as he had delusional hopes he wouldn’t feel that way. Few authors have ever depicted guilt as feverishly as Fyodor Dostoyevsky did via his classic novel’s nerve-wracked protagonist.

Like Francis, a haunted Eve Gardiner becomes a guilt-ridden alcoholic in Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Eve was an adept English spy during World War I who thought — upon regaining consciousness after being tortured — that she had betrayed a fellow spy. She believes this for decades, until…

In Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, the title character felt guilt about the bus accident that left his late wife Sonja paralyzed from the waist down. Ove didn’t cause the accident (revealed in the novel’s back story); he had noticed that the bus driver had alcohol on his breath when he and Sonja first boarded but didn’t say anything. Unlike Francis (whose guilt was of course more direct), Ove stuck loyally and lovingly with his wife until Sonja died years after making the best of her radically changed life by becoming a beloved teacher.

Sophie of Sophie’s Choice lives for years with almost unbearable guilt over a choice she made while in Nazi captivity. There is also plenty of survivor’s guilt in William Styron’s novel, or virtually any Holocaust/post-Holocaust novel.

Obviously, there can be guilt over adultery or other kinds of problematic romantic affairs — as felt, for instance, by Christabel LaMotte in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

And what about parental guilt when a mom or dad (more often the mom) feels they are not spending enough time with their kids because of career-related responsibilities? One example is Claire in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series going through long days of intensive medical training while her daughter Brianna is young.

There can also be guilt over shabbily treating a friend. That’s the case for the young Amir, in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, who does not do right by faithful childhood pal Hassan. There is some measure of atonement, though hardly enough, for Amir later in the novel.

Finally, there’s of course guilt over acting cowardly — as in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In some cases, the protagonists might at least partly make up for that by behaving bravely later on.

Novels you’ve read with characters feeling guilt?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the effect of Covid on my town — is here.

It’s Hard to Err in the Decade of ‘Eyre’

Last week, I discussed the 1940s as a stellar decade for novels. This week, I’ll jump back a century to perhaps an even more stellar literary period: the 1840s. The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Nikolai Gogol, early Fyodor Dostoevsky…

The novel as a medium truly came into its own in the 1840s — no previous decade had such a large and varied array of what would become fiction classics.

Let’s start with the astonishing two-year run by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. Charlotte’s 1847 Jane Eyre — my favorite novel — is of course the gripping story of an independent-minded orphan who becomes a governess and falls mutually in love with her employer Edward Rochester. Published later that same year was Emily’s Wuthering Heights — a highly original and tempestuous tale of romance, obsession, and cruelty. Following in 1848 was Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the compelling early feminist novel chronicling a woman’s escape from a bad marriage. Anne (Agnes Grey/1847) and Charlotte (Shirley/1849) also wrote other, not-as-memorable novels in that decade.

(Pictured above are Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 Wuthering Heights movie.)

For Charles Dickens, the 1840s was his most productive decade — churning out one absorbing novel after another — even as several of his most-admired books (including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) would come later. My Dickens favorites from the ’40s include The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), and Dombey and Son (1848).

Another English author, Willam Thackeray, wrote 1848’s Vanity Fair — starring the smart, witty, manipulative, unforgettable Becky Sharp.

Over in France, Alexandre Dumas blazed through the 1840s with novels such as his highly entertaining The Three Musketeers and the riveting revenge saga The Count of Monte Cristo. Both books were finished in 1844 — how’s that for an authorial year? There was also his less-known-but-great Georges (1843), the one Dumas novel that reflected the author’s part-African heritage; and Twenty Years After (1845), the satisfying first sequel to The Three Musketeers.

Another French author, Balzac, penned most of his best novels in the 1830s, but the excellent Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep came out in 1846 and 1842, respectively.

Over in the U.S., Herman Melville wrote several very good semi-autobiographical sea novels in the 1840s before authoring 1851’s extremely good Moby-Dick. They included Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Redburn (1849).

Two of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” quintet came out early in that decade: The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper did not write the five novels chronologically; for instance, The Deerslayer — which I think is the best of the series — is set from 1740 to 1755 while the previously written The Last of the Mohicans (1826) takes place later (in 1757).

In Russia, Nikolai Gogol’s eye-opening Dead Souls came out in 1842. Fyodor Dostoevsky started his novel-writing career with 1846’s Poor Folk; the masterpieces Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) would arrive quite a few years later. I haven’t yet read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1840).

Don’t worry, next week’s post won’t focus on the 1740s — though Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Joseph Andrews (1742) were pretty darn good. 🙂

Your favorite novels of the 1840s?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the election and more — is here.

Great Novels and Not-Always-Great Politicians Were Born in the 1940s

When one looks at U.S. politics these days, one can’t help but think of the 1940s. Joe Biden, the centrist President-elect, was born in 1942. His far-right Republican opponent Donald Trump (who makes Lord Voldemort seem like a choir boy) arrived in 1946. Another far-right Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was born in 1942. Another centrist Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was born in 1940. And 1941 was the birth year of progressive Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Biden in the Democratic primaries. Yes, the U.S. has some older leaders.

Anyway, you probably know where this is heading: I’m going to discuss the 1940s as another memorable decade for novels — mentioning only ones I’ve read until the next-to-last paragraph. The content in many of those books was of course affected by World War II and its aftermath, with anti-Nazi themes unsurprisingly part of the mix.

The decade began with a bang as three 20th-century classics were published in 1940. The trio: Native Son by Richard Wright (pictured above), who took a searing look at how racism shaped the lives and perspectives of his African-American and white characters; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the amazing debut novel written when Carson McCullers was in her early 20s; and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the gripping novel set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. (It’s my favorite book by Ernest Hemingway, who I have mixed feelings about.) Graham Greene’s 1940 The Power and the Glory, which focuses on a not-very-priestly priest, gets an honorable mention.

In 1941, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished The Last Tycoon was posthumously published. This compelling Hollywood novel would have been quite something if completed.

The year 1942 saw Albert Camus’ memorable/existential The Stranger and John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, the latter about a Northern European town occupied by the Nazis (though the Nazis aren’t named per se). A rare Steinbeck novel set outside California and the U.S.

Nineteen forty-three? I got nothing. 🙂

Two of the most interesting novels of 1944 were written by authors who were older, but not quite as old as the politicians mentioned in this blog post’s first paragraph. One book was The Razor’s Edge — among W. Somerset Maugham’s top works despite the author being 70 — about a World War I veteran trying to find some meaning in life. The other was Gigi, published when Colette was 71. A rather frothy, lightweight novella that doesn’t measure up to Colette’s many deeper works, but her most famous book.

In 1945, Erich Maria Remarque came out with one of his very best novels: Arch of Triumph, about a German surgeon in Paris who had fled the Nazis, and his tempestuous romance while in the French city. There was also Animal Farm, George Orwell’s renowned allegorical look at authoritarianism; and Cannery Row, John Steinbeck’s expert blend of social commentary and humor.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men was probably the most important 1946 novel with its take on American politics, corruption, and more.

Albert Camus appeared again in 1947 with The Plague, his riveting novel about a disease-devastated Algerian city. That year also saw the publication of James Michener’s debut novel Tales of the South Pacific, which consists of interrelated stories set during World War II. It of course inspired the musical South Pacific, but the book is more substantial.

A highlight of 1948 was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country — set in apartheid South Africa.

The most famous 1949 book was indisputably George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. That year also saw the release of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, about an American couple who don’t fare well in North Africa.

Among the well-known ’40s novels I haven’t read are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944), Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (1945), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948).

Your favorite novels from that decade?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the election and more — is here.

As Election Nears, Novels Get ‘Trump-ified’ Again

Soon after Trump took office in 2017, I wrote a post changing the plots of famous novels to make them about the despicable new U.S. president (aka Liar-in-Chief, Racist-in-Chief, Misogynist-in-Chief…). Today, as Election Day nears on November 3, I’ll do something similar — using titles of some of the novels I’ve read since 2017. I’ll go backwards chronologically, starting with books I’ve finished most recently.

Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry: for voting for Trump in 2016.

Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets: in which the Trump family recites “Roses are red/money is green/our corruption and greed/are worse than obscene.”

Wilkie Collins’ No Name: about the impossibility of deciphering Trump’s scrawl of a signature.

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: because she moved to Canada after Trump was elected.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give: Trump never stops giving it. Who says he isn’t philanthropic?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah: America hopefully says “nah” to a second Trump term.

Carolyn Keene’s The Secret of the Old Clock: Nancy Drew investigates why the clock in Trump’s White House is turned back 60 years rather than 60 minutes every November.

Diana Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross: Non-reader Trump was eager to start this Outlander novel before realizing it didn’t glorify the white-supremacist, cross-burning Ku Klux Klan.

Martin Cruz Smith’s The Siberian Dilemma: which asks whether Trump adores Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin or ADORES Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.

Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers: if Trump steals a second term and makes all nine Supreme Court justices far-right-wingers, this novel would be renamed Nine Perfect Strangers to Decency.

H. Rider Haggard’s She: the story of a woman almost unimaginably evil. About time there was a novelization of Ivanka Trump’s life.

Lee Child’s Blue Moon: Jack Reacher hopes enough Americans are “good to go” vote “blue” to defeat Trump.

Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network: would’ve been about Fox News if the book were titled The Malice Network.

Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune: what — a second novelization of Ivanka’s life?

Lisa Genova’s Left Neglected: shows Trump and other non-liberal U.S. politicians doing their anti-progressive thing.

John Grisham’s The Racketeer: an alternate history of Trump being a criminal-minded tennis player rather than a criminal-minded golfer.

Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues: about Trump and his fellow Republicans suppressing the vote on Native-American land, among other places.

Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers: Trump and his fellow Republicans do everything they can to seek the continued support of Shell and other oil companies.

James Houston’s The White Dawn: Trump likes it that color any time of the day.

Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool: anyone who sees through swamp increaser Trump’s fake promise to “drain the swamp.”

Janet Evanovich’s Two for the Dough: a Trump-Mitch McConnell buddy book.

Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk: not about any home in which Trump ever lived.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: ironically titled novel about Brits (among other populations) being impatient with Trump’s pathologies.

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes: people watching Trump approach a podium.

Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood: what Trump would desperately need if he got a transfusion.

Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking: it sounds like that when Trump never shuts up.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: when those stars are the Trump family.

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower: much better than the Trump saga Parable of the Sewer.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: about Trump cheating on his taxes for decades. Actually, not a secret.

Sue Grafton’s D Is for Deadbeat: about Donald (Trump) stiffing creditors, contractors, towns where he’s made political appearances, etc.

Walter Mosley’s A Red Death: what will hopefully happen to the red-state-oriented Republican Party that has cynically and spinelessly enabled Trump.

Any novels you’d like to “Trump-ify”?

(Thanks to jhNY for recommending The Financial Lives of the Poets — a novel funny and topical enough to partly make up for its unlikable male protagonist. Also, thanks to Mary Kay Fleming for recommending A Man Called Ove author Fredrik Backman, whose My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is a quirky novel about a loner girl, her unusual grandmother, and their sharing of a fantasy world.)

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 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a planned return to in-person schooling in my town and a reprieve for a group trying to kill needed local rent control — is here.