The League of Extraordinary Beleaguerment

Colleen McCullough

When I read another novel, it often sparks an idea for a thematic blog post that includes elements from that book mixed with similar elements from novels I’ve read in the past. It’s not always a “Eureka!” moment, but sometimes it is.

As was the case this past week. I’m currently reading Colleen McCullough for the first time — her riveting novel Morgan’s Run — and, about a quarter of the way through the 600-page book, I came across this line about 18th-century protagonist Richard Morgan: “He is six-and-thirty, and God is trying him as He tried Job.”

Eureka! That gave me the idea for a blog post about beleaguered characters who are hit with one gut-punch after another — whether it be deaths of loved ones, ill health, loss of jobs, unjust imprisonment, etc.

How do these characters deal with all that? Do they cope to some extent, or succumb to despair? Are the gut-punches partly their fault, or mainly instances of bad luck? Do things get better eventually — or never?

Basically, novels with this type of scenario can be heartbreaking or inspiring or some combination of the two. And we of course usually feel a great deal of sympathy for the beleaguered protagonists, unless they’re villainous.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific about the travails of Robert Morgan as his life morphs from England to the early settling of white people in Australia, but that decent/moral/capable man is absolutely pummeled by life in a good chunk of the book by McCullough, who’s best known for The Thorn Birds.

Among the many other compelling novels in which the main characters don’t catch a break — until sometimes they do — are George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Stephen King’s Rose Madder, and Martin Cruz’s Smith’s first Gorky Park sequel Polar Star, to name just a few.

Any novel you’d like to mention with beleaguered protagonists?

Note: I’ll be slower with my replies at times this week, but will reply eventually! 🙂

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” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about everything from a proposed nature trail to an overpriced new apartment building — is here.

94 thoughts on “The League of Extraordinary Beleaguerment

  1. Hi Dave,

    I know you and the commenters have probably moved on from this topic, and it’s actually a bit older than I’d realised (where does the time go!), but I’ve just discovered a book that makes The Grapes of Wrath seem like a collection of Joad family picnics. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is about one trauma after another. It’s also really anger provoking. Unlike the Steinbeck novel, this time around it was apparent to me from page one that the government would do all that it could to make sure its people continued to suffer. A wonderfully written book that I’m so glad to have read.

    PS. Embarrassed to say that I’ve never read Sir Walter Scott so have nothing to contribute this week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan!

      If “A Fine Balance” makes “‘The Grapes of Wrath’ seem like a collection of Joad family picnics” (great line!), it must be a REALLY devastating book. Glad it was very much worth a read despite its downbeat nature. Some leaders are indeed sadistic.


  2. I’m not a voracious reader like you . Interesting to get an insight into what you write. One of the most remarkable book written by her is TheThorn Bird. A good read.

    On Sun, Jul 18, 2021, 23:42 Dave Astor on Literature wrote:

    > Dave Astor posted: ” Colleen McCullough When I read another novel, it > often sparks an idea for a thematic blog post that includes elements from > that book mixed with similar elements from novels I’ve read in the past. > It’s not always a “Eureka!” moment, but sometimes” >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, ssanjoy! 🙂 And I appreciate the mention of “The Thorn Birds,” which has been enthusiastically recommended by several people in this comments section 🙂 If my local library has that novel, I will read it this summer!


  3. Why worry over a beleaguered character or two when you can worry over “A Beleaguered City”?

    That’s the title of a novella by Mrs. Oliphant that first appeared in 1880. It has all the makings of an ur-ghost story, as it concerns the return of angered ancestors.

    The residents of a French town, Semur, grown unmindful of the old ways and the old religion, are first named on a mystical sign on the cathedral door by ‘nous autre mortes’ and then told “Go! Leave this place to us who know the true signification of life.” Driven from their homes by the spirits of their forebears, as a dark cloud literally descends over the abandoned town, some of the townspeople flee, but most find places of refuge nearby, trusting themselves to the care and protection of the mayor and other town worthies such as the local priest.

    The spirit-occupation lasts three days, the gates of every entrance barred, though what exactly happens inside the city behind the cloud cannot be seen, and what precisely the ancestors mean to impart to their descendants is likewise obscure, except after, and even then, to only a few. Trumpets blare out from time to time, but what they signify none of the living can say. Occasionally a boat passes from the town and under a bridge and away, then back again, and the mayor recognized his own dead daughter and father in one, but mostly, time passes and confusion reigns over the living, though they keep busy patrolling the city walls and transporting foodstuffs to their encampment from the surrounding country.

    Finally there is a trumpeting that seems to be a summons, and the mayor and another man enter the town. Soon after, all the city gates are open, the cloud has lifted, the spirits departed. A great and impassioned Mass is held at the cathedral for the returning townspeople.

    But, apart from some mostly opportunistic musings as to what must be done to respect the wishes of the ancestors, soon, as the mayor writes, “The wonderful manifestation which interrupted our existence has passed absolutely as if it had never been. We had not been twelve hours in our houses ere we had forgotten our expulsion from them.”
    “Everything, I say, is as it was– everything goes on as if it would endure forever. We know this cannot be, yet it does not move us. Why then, should the other move us? A little time, we are aware, and we, too, shall be as they are– as shadows, and unseen. But neither has the one changed us, and neither does the other.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Wow — a novel with “Beleaguered” in the title! I had no idea. That’s what I get for never reading Margaret Oliphant. 🙂

      Her book sounds absolutely fascinating, and I appreciate your vivid, detailed description of it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t know when i might have come across “A Beleaguered City” otherwise, but it is the first section in “Six Novels of the Supernatural”, edited by Edward Wagenknecht, published as part of the Viking Portable library series, printed in 1944.

        It’s where I read that Walter de la Mare flu-centric novel, “The Return” I wrote in about recently. Just now, I’m in the midst of another, “Portrait of Jenny,” by Robert Nathan.

        Best part? I had never read any of the authors in the volume, nor heard of any of the novels. So far, they’ve all been good.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave,

    I think I was about three quarters through The Grapes of Wrath before I realised it wasn’t a feel good story about a new life in California. I remember asking What more can happen to these poor people when I suddenly realised that was kind of the point of the book!

    I’m currently reading Madame Bovary and she is also not having a very good time.

    I think I must like that sort of thing though. I read The Casual Vacancy for my book group a few years ago and I was the only one to enjoy it. Everyone else complained that all the characters were so miserable and dysfunctional. And they said it like it was a bad thing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan!

      Yes, “The Grapes of Wrath” is almost totally downbeat — which, as you say, was John Steinbeck’s point (as he depicted the injustice and inequality that exists largely “thanks” to the rich and powerful). But, as you know, there are heartfelt and inspiring moments, too.

      So true that Emma Bovary was not happiness personified.

      I laughed a LOT at your funny last line! 😂 I also liked J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy,” despite — or perhaps because of — how depressing most of it was. Depressing works if a novel is excellent, and “TCV” is!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad to see you mentioned the Count of Monte Cristo – I can’t think of a more fitting book for this week’s theme! Same goes for the Grapes of Wrath. In the classics family, I might also give Gone with the Wind a mention. Despite her many personality flaws, Scarlett does get dealt quite a hand full (many, many times) and it’s no wonder she grows a bit hard in the face of it. For more recent reads, I might bring up “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. Without divulging too many spoilers, that poor Kya definitely gets knocked around by life quite a bit. This week’s theme also made me think of Jennifer Chiaverini’s most recent book about Mary Todd entitled “Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters.” A historical fiction novel that reminds us how badly the real Mary Todd Lincoln suffered throughout her life, which perhaps amplified her notorious difficult streak.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Grapes of Wrath” came to mind VERY quickly when I was writing this post. And you’re right that there’s also a strong beleaguerment element in “Gone With the Wind.”

      Mary Todd Lincoln? DEFINITELY pummeled by life. 😦 Death of children, death of her husband, psychological issues… Horrible.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Dave, I am glad you are enjoying Morgan’s Run. Richard does get whacked with one thing after another in that book, but, wow, what a great tale. I mentioned Gone with the Wind above, and I think Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights fit into this category as does 1984. Poor old Winston never gets a break.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Morgan’s Run” is definitely a great tale, Robbie! Thanks again for recommending it! Only about 50 pages left until I finish. 🙂

      Yes, plenty of character beleaguerment in the Bronte sisters’ novels — also including Charlotte’s “Villette” and Anne’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” And Winston’s lot is indeed a hard one in Orwell’s iconic novel. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Dave, I feel so privileged to be able to follow an esteemed writer like you!! Not flattery only, but a long empty part of my life that desired to do what my high school Honors English teacher, Mr. Maiman, involved us students in doing, and that was dissecting and analyzing famous stories. Alas, I failed to continue that into adulthood, but it has been awakened. Thank you dear sir. I was racking my brain trying to figure out where I’ve seen the name Colleen McCullough before, and then you helped me: The Thorn Birds! I think that was one of the stories Mr. Maiman had us dissect, so yaay, I’m feeling like I might deserve to be in your circle. Also, you mentioned James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and previously you referred to The Scarlet Letter which we also analyzed. In College, my Honors English professor also challenged us with some other classics and though difficult, I remember always feeling a sense of triumph when these professionals acknowledged our interpretations of these great works. I look forward to reading some of these works you and your followers mention. Thank You (bowing!)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Yasmin, and welcome to this literature-discussion “circle”! 🙂 Discussing classic novels, as well as more recent ones, is so interesting.

      Sounds like you had a memorable high school Honors English teacher! A wonderful thing! I also had a couple of HS teachers who helped me develop an interest in great literature, and I’m very grateful to them.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The mention of King Lear brought to mind just about every Shakespeare character ever. He did like to put them through the mill a bit – Macbeth (his own undoing…or is it fate), Romeo and Juliet (another fate one)….I suppose the list could go on! So I won’t.
    Mentions of Steinbeck made me think about ‘Of Mice and Men’. George spends a lot of the novella reacting to Lenny’s actions. He seems worn down from when we first meet him as he works out how they’re going to get through each day without any problem.
    This list, so far, is pretty much lifted from the GCSE English exam texts so I shall complete it with ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. The final scene when Ralph realises all he has lost, despite surviving a plane crash, surviving the best and worst of a deserted island and the deaths of those around him, does not make for a happily ever after ending.
    In fact none of these plays and stories have a happy ending, so I shall add Kamala Markandaya’s novel ‘Nectar in a Sieve’. The main character overcomes tremendous loss and hardship to finally find contentment back where she started.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      Excellent mention of Shakespeare. Many of his characters do go through a LOT. Great plays (at least the non-comedic ones) are of course often like that.

      Same with Steinbeck’s works. “Of Mice and Men” (as you mention), “East of Eden,” “The Winter of Our Discontent,” etc. — all have…discontented…characters. Of course, he did also write some lighter-hearted novels such as “Cannery Row,” “Sweet Thursday,” and “Tortilla Flat.”

      And “Lord of the Flies” — definitely! Dystopian-type novels have many beleaguered characters. “1984,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and so on are obvious examples.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Steinbeck writes some excellent characters and ‘Cannery Row’ is a great book. I was fortunate enough to go the National Steinbeck Centre in Salinas just a few years ago (and then on to Monterey). To visit places he features in his novels some 70 or 80 years earlier was amazing.
        And yes, dystopian novels as a whole do have many beleaguered characters, a genre I entirely overlooked! My reading material over the past couple of years has been of the more lightweight persuasion to try and counter what’s going on in real life!

        Liked by 2 people

        • What a great visit that must have been, Sarah! I’ve been to California many times but somehow never got to “Steinbeck Country.”

          I totally hear you about how reading dystopian novels during the past year or so would be adding insult to injury. I’ve read a few, but…

          Liked by 2 people

          • It was a brilliant visit, part of a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco. So many cultural highlights to take in!!
            Yes, my reading and viewing habits have changed somewhat. You’ve done very well to try and persevere, although I’m sure it’s not been easy!

            Liked by 2 people

      • Hi! I’ve never read ‘Gone With the Wind’ but did see the movie many, many years ago. If memory serves, Scarlett was perhaps mistress of a lot of her problems…but I stand to be corrected on that one!

        Liked by 2 people

        • HI Sarah, I haven’t seen the movie, I’ve only read the book twice. Scarlet did create some of her own problems by pushing against the norms of society for women at the time. She was driven to make money because of the terrible poverty she experienced after the civil war when the plantations and farms in the south were burned. She did experience a lot of horrible things in the aftermath of the war. I felt sorry for her because she was condemned for working and making a success of her businesses. She did help a lot of other people and get them back on their feet. I don’t know how historically accurate the novel is, but her hardships were very compelling.

          Liked by 2 people

          • That sounds like a book to add to the list and quite a recommendation if you’ve read it twice. I’m sure the movie and the novel perhaps differ in their interpretation of some of the characters. I imagine there was a very Hollywood treatment of the female characters for example!

            Liked by 2 people

            • Maybe, and I don’t write as a reader of the book, but rather as a person who knows the Margaret Mitchell, while writing, conceived a mental picture of Rhett Butler which inspired her: Clark Gable. In other words, this is a book written in the age of movies, by a writer awed and influenced by the medium. I’d guess the characters in the book are very much like the characters on screen.

              As an old son of the South,during one of its periodic revivals (1961), I was taken to the movie at age ten, in what seemed to be in my mother’s eyes, a kind of rite of passage. Being ten, mostly I remember the vast expanse of the wounded in various states of disrepair, and that big fire. Also, the equestrian demise of Bonnie Blue.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Interesting! I wasn’t aware the book was published just a couple of years before the film was adapted.
                Lovely to have those memories of going to the cinema. Did ten year old you know it was such a long movie before you went??

                Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, Dave, the first one that springs to mind is “We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates. Instead of just one character, the entire family unravels relentlessly. If I recall correctly, a few family members rebound to a sense of normalcy, but it’s a long haul for sure.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo!

      That’s a very interesting mention — whole families rather than one person who are beleaguered in a novel. “The Grapes of Wrath” is another example of that — albeit a much different one, I assume (I haven’t read “We Were the Mulvaneys”).

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I am in the middle of reading Rachel Kadish’s “I Was Here” because I enjoyed her brilliant book, “The Weight of Ink.” I marvel at how authors can take you into the thinking of characters. It seems that we must go deep to understand, to feel empathy, and rejoice at how resilience comes to those who have been broken. How bravery and kindness have power to overcome tragedy and heartbreak.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Beautifully said!

      In some novels with beleaguered characters, resilience and bravery and empathy and kindness are indeed important elements involved in making things better (in those instances where things do get better).


  11. I read The Thornbirds and loved it but not the first time. I tried to read the book and couldn’t for some reason. Then everwhere I went I noticed people devouring it. So I tried again, thank goodness.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is the first beleagured character that came to mind when I read your latest challenge. The entire Bean family in Charolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine. (If it weren’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Liz! That’s a terrific mention! Life does treat Ethan Frome quite shabbily, and readers’ hearts ache for him. “Ethan Frome” was the first Edith Wharton novel I read, and I quickly moved on to the also-excellent “The House of Mirth,” “The Age of Innocence,” “The Custom of the Country,” and her magnificent ghost stories.

      “If it weren’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all” — that line too often says it all. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  13. My beleaguered protagonist, Johnny Zewiski certainly fills the bill in my novella, Vistula. The story starts out with him amid a line of unfortunates, their hands tied behind their backs. In front of them, the ice-choked Vistula river and behind them a Nazi machine gun crew, anxious to finish the execution and get back to shelter. It gets worse from there.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you! That is intense/horrific beleaguerment, well and vividly described by you — including your powerful last line. Life is so unfair sometimes for certain people, in fiction and in real life. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  14. The Thorn Birds, Dave, it’s at least 50 years ago when I read that book with enthusiasm! I also remember some of your mentioned books, but maybe one you didn’t is “I know hy the caged Bird sings” by Maya Angelou. Maya, the girl, really goes through a most difficult childhood and is even sexually abused by her mother’s lover. She loses her speech in consequence, which she gets finally back and to confidence thanks to the help of Bertha Flowers.
    It’s always a pleasure to read your Sunday post with challenging questions.
    Have a good week.

    Liked by 5 people

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