In Novels, Emotional Variety Includes Joy and Anxiety

My daughter Maria pitching a no-hitter on April 11. (Photo by my wife, Laurel Cummins.) 

As is the case with people in real life, a fictional character often experiences intense happiness and deep sadness in one novel — or even in just a few pages of one novel. Certainly no surprise there — life always has its peaks and valleys — but the roller-coaster ride can make for interesting reading as the character’s emotions, and readers’ emotions, get whipsawed.

An admittedly rather trivial real-life example of the above is my teen daughter Maria’s recent softball experience, which went from a losing-filled Spring 2021 travel season to a so-far-undefeated Spring 2022 high school season that included her pitching a no-hitter last week.

Examples in fiction? A countless number; I’ll discuss a few that came to mind.

One is the Joad family’s experiences in California after having to leave their Oklahoma farm in The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck’s characters mostly fared miserably on the West Coast, but there was that brief positive interlude of them making some decent money and living in a humane government camp.

Also in California, the title character in Jack London’s Martin Eden goes through lengthy lows as a struggling writer, followed by the brief highs of publishing success, and then…

Love affairs — whether in or out of marriage — can be euphoric, yet the joy might not last as things gradually or quickly go south. The title of Erich Maria Remarque’s wartime romance A Time to Love and a Time to Die telegraphs that, and there are also various ups and downs for the relationships in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and numerous other novels.

Silas Marner? Life is mostly good for George Eliot’s protagonist before a grave betrayal sends him into solitude and depression. After which… 

In Morgan’s Run by Colleen McCullough, things are also going well for 18th-century Englishman Richard Morgan before he’s unjustly imprisoned and shipped to a penal colony to Australia, where he faces daunting hardships while managing to carve out some contentment. 

Preteens and teens can certainly have major swings of happiness and sadness. Think orphan Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables — who, in addition to experiencing major life events such as finding a home — navigates the tricky situations of friendship, school, and more faced by most young people. Or the title character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, who engages in some enjoyable kid hi-jinks while also facing a scary situation later in Mark Twain’s novel.

Any examples you’d like to offer that fit this theme?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a problematic approach to potential overdevelopment near one of my town’s six train stations — is here.

100 thoughts on “In Novels, Emotional Variety Includes Joy and Anxiety

  1. Dave, Emotional Variety Includes Joy and Anxiety.
    How about Bela Mitra , in Jhumpa Lahiri`s The Lowland.

    Bela Mitra is the biological daughter of Udayan and Gauri, though she is raised in Rhode Island by Gauri and Subhash. Bela is, for all of her childhood and much of her adult life, ignorant of the truth of her parentage.
    Bela is politically-minded, socially conscious, and fiercely independent .
    All she knew was that Subhash was her Father, every night Subhash helped her brush her teeth, then by her insistence lay beside her until she fell asleep.
    As she grew up she became fiercely independent and was successful, but remained deeply scarred by her Mother`s abandonment when she was 5 with address unknown.

    Fast forward, her mother Gouri became successful in her career, had multiple relationships and wanted to visit Bela whom she abandoned.
    The climax was my favorite part, when Bula decided to put Gouri in her place saying Gouri meant nothing to her.
    She has only one father, Subhash who raised her to be successful in life who taught her to be kind and helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave I founf this somewhere and loved it…

      Drop a pebble in the water,
      And its ripples reach out far;
      And the sunbeams dancing on them
      May reflect them to a star.

      Give a smile to someone passing,
      Thereby making his morning glad;
      It may greet you in the evening
      When your own heart may be sad.

      Do a deed of simple kindness;
      Though its end you may not see,
      It may reach, like widening ripples,
      Down a long eternity.

      (Joseph Norris)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read a lot of those books, Dave, and you’re right about the highs and lows. I think that’s one of many reasons they’re classics – that emotional rollercoaster. Congrats to your daughter too on the awesome season and the no-hitter. Great example.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 🙂

      “Ethan Frome” is a terrific mention — that excellent novel is a real roller-coaster of emotions, repressed and not so repressed.

      And Vonnegut has a point about making tough things happen to likable characters. That creates lots of drama, sympathy, and more.


  3. I think, Dave, that sportspeople are especially exposed to up and downs and that for parents it’s such great moment when it goes well for their children:)
    In general I think life goes more or less in periods of happiness and unhappiness and I also feel that these unhappy or sad times make us stronger, more capable to fight!
    I have the feeling that all your mentioned books have helped us in order to fight. At the moment I am reading “Lélia, ou la vie de George Sand by André Maurois and this book about the famous French writer shows us “just” a women with many ups and downs, who really did her very best to do what she thought to be good and right, without being forced by a man.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Martina! 🙂

      VERY true that athletes experience intense highs and lows.

      And, yes, literature reflects life in the emotional swings characters face. And those emotional swings can indeed make many people stronger, even as they can be disastrous for some.

      Wonderful that you’re reading the book about the amazing, independent George Sand! Her novel “Lelia” is SUCH a compelling book! Few novels have ever been written so well.


  4. Okay… I’m out of my league here (Congrats to your daughter!! & congrats to the dad!)
    Yet, I can’t help but think of Buck…. “Call of the Wild”.
    You mentioned Jack London in this post.
    Certainly Buck was a dog, not a person. Nonetheless, his ups and downs are a genuine roller coaster ride.
    Do we feel for an animal, as we feel fr a human? In this tale, I do.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pressed send too soon but I think you will know what I meant! I couldn’t ever reread the first book without feeling sad about what was to come. Even though I knew the legend and how it turned out, that first book worked a kind of magic that made me feel hopeful. Maybe I should take this to a therapist!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Is it trivial? I can imagine how much it means to Maria to feel that success after a tough time. (I may cheer for another Maria, I hope!). I suppose books that have success at the end after lows leave the reader feeling comforted that things can turn out well. As a child I loved ‘The Sword in the Stone’ by T H White for that reason but the following books broke my heart. I know they were following the legend of ‘The Once and Future King’ – Arthur but the series seemed to say – that there is no happy ever after, people grow up, lose their innocence, make bad decisions, betray each other and fight losing battles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Maria! 🙂 I hope you, as another Maria, have continued writing success. 🙂

      Yes, books with happy endings can be very nice, often in a wish-fulfillment sort of way because happy endings in real life are far from guaranteed. And an interesting observation by you about that King Arthur series; with some series, we’d prefer that they had ended with just one novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Yay, for the great softball season! This is a great topic and fits with so many books. What this really made me think about is the current trend in books of going back and forth through time instead of the previously more common sequential time order. I wonder if this makes the peaks and valleys in the characters’ lives more or less pronounced…

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “Small” joys and sorrows can be still intense nonetheless! Congratulations to your daughter on her achievements!

    Speaking of small wrt joy/sorrow how about The Little Prince? Short (not small 🙃) book, but packs more than many long ones…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Endless Weekend! 🙂 “Small” joys can be joyous indeed. 🙂

      I agree with you about “The Little Prince.” More depth and impact than it might seem at first glance. Back in the 1990s, we named one of our cats Exupery after the author. 🙂


  9. Tolstoy’s monumental novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” seem to contain every emotion I can think of such as joy, despair, anger, anxiety, hatred, affection etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Maria is amazing!!! Pitching a no-hitter is awesome. Congratulations.

    The words that came to mind when I read your post and follow-up comments were: Endings, Redemption and Moving On.

    One of the struggles of reading is experiencing the ups and down of characters that I have come to admire and with whom I identify. I know that am in the hands of a brilliant writer when he/she draws me into the narrative and evokes my strongest emotions. Even when I do not like the story. I remember reading James Michener’s Hawaii – YIKES!

    We want a happy ending, redemption, or a some form of closure for it gives us hope and instills a belief that obstacles can be overcome, that love lasts and good overcomes evil. But there is always a caveat in the overarching story of humanity. In life, there are things that happen that cannot be undone. There is a cost, which is captured in the following quotes that still have the power to bring tears.

    “But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

    “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.” Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

    A great post – will be back for the follow-up discussion.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Your daughter Maria is a winner who works hard to be an ace soft ball pitcher, nice photo of her and her teammates!

    I had read Kristin Hannah’ ” The Four Winds” and it was a story about losing everything during the dust bowl, the family had a store then all was dark, literally and figuratively, and they had to find themselves again and re-invent their lives as millions are doing today and have had to do in history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michele! 🙂 I’m glad the photo captured some of Maria’s teammates; it’s a great group of friendly and talented players.

      “The Four Winds” sounds very interesting. It’s inspiring to read novels in which the characters deal with harrowing challenges and find some some happiness.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Creative but difficult theme. Many authors, or their publishers, will see the dynamics of good fortune and adversity as an important selling point of a novel. Novels that are among my favorites alternate, or vacillate, between hope and despair, despondency and lightheartedness, success and failure, while maintaining a consistent undercurrent of pending disaster or a profound sadness. Great Expectations (Dickens), The Go-Between (Hartley) are great examples. The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert) is a qualifier. There’s so much more. I wouldn’t know where to begin, really!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Dingenom!

      You’re absolutely right that there are so many novels that mix “good fortune and adversity” (nice phrasing there 🙂 ). I guess that juxtaposition is central to a lot of literature.

      I appreciate the three examples — one of which (“Great Expectations”) I’ve read. Dickens definitely put many of his characters through some major ups and downs.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Hi Dave,

    I recently finished re-reading Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath and the Pulitzer Prize winning story reminded me how a generally depressing theme can deliver a rewarding message that resonates with readers. I was criticized recently in a workshop for an unhappy chapter that had ‘no redeeming qualities.’ Pshaw, I say. Life is full of unredeeming qualities waiting to be told.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. HI Dave, congratulations to your daughter. You must have all been thrilled. The book examples I can think of off the top of my head are I Am David by Anne Holm. Most of David’s journey home was a series of highs and lows, good people and bad ones. There is also The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper has a lot of tense moments, as does The Thorn Birds. When Dane dies it is beyond sad. Divine Comedy has a lot of emotional vacillating by Dante who feels a variety of different emotions towards the souls he meets. The Red Badge of Courage and moments of great emotional suffering, but also great heights of courage as does All Quiet on the Western Front.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Robbie! 🙂

      Many great mentions! “The Last of the Mohicans” does indeed have various emotional swings, as do the other four excellent novels in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” series. And, yes, “The Thorn Birds” has numerous high highs and low lows. And the mood swings in war novels — including “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Red Badge of Courage” — are often totally dizzying. I think of some of the battle scenes in Sir Walter Scott novels, the Outlander books, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” etc.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Dave, it this that most successful novels include a lot of emotional highs and lows. That is what draws people to them. We want to know our own experiences are normal and that we will recover from the lows. Romeo and Juliet is also very emotional as are many of Charles Dickens’ books. I have recently bought Great Expectations as an audio book so I can listen to it (again!). It’s my personal favourite. I love Miss Haversham and Magwitch.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Robbie, you’re right that many of the “most successful novels include a lot of emotional highs and lows.” There’s drama in that and, as you say, we can relate to that — with the hope that the lows will be recovered from. Not always the case, but we hope. And I agree that Shakespeare and Dickens wrote many works in which the characters and stories had compelling emotional swings.


      • I came back, Dave, because last week, I thought of a great book for your post about memorable clothing and then I couldn’t remember it. It has just popped into my head: The Invisible Man. He was quite defined by his clothes and also the lack thereof. I found he to be a very fascinating and twisted character.

        Liked by 1 person

                  • HI Dave, I have not read that story. I went deeply down an “The Invisible Man” hole last year. I was trying to understand the psychology of the MC. I think that book is underrated. H.G. Wells had an incredible understanding of the worst human characteristics and emotions. I loved War of the Worlds because the depictions of the Martians were fascinating. The idea of a creature that developed its brain and intellect to a point where its physical self degenerated and it became completely dependent on its creations for survival has a ring of truth when you look around our modern world. The destruction of the Martians due to bacteria was a stroke of genius. PS I don’t appreciate the film which completely missed the point of the novel.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • So true, Robbie, that “H.G. Wells had an incredible understanding of the worst human characteristics and emotions.” And I agree that “The War of the Worlds” novel was brilliant in its concept and execution. Unfortunately, movie versions of many novels don’t do the books justice.

                      You might have heard the 1940 discussion between H.G. Wells and Orson Welles, who of course did that famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.


  15. I love your real-life example, Dave! Good for her. 🙂
    E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars” offers emotional peaks and chasms. Main character Cadence Sinclair Eastman experiences over-the-moon highs as the story opens on a teenage ‘s summer spent with cousins and a new (and first) romance. Soon, though, an unidentified trauma shifts us to Cadence’s experience of depression and a trauma-induced amnesia which is itself confusing and painful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Donna! 🙂

      It sounds like “We Were Liars” does indeed offer significant highs and lows. Just googled it, and it’s apparently a very well-regarded young-adult novel. Great description by you.

      BTW, after you and Rebecca Budd recommended “The Midnight Library,” I found it in my local library yesterday. (In the morning, not at midnight. 🙂 ) Will get to it in the next few weeks!)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Haha! Hope you like it!
        Yes, We Were Liars is a YA, although I didn’t know it when I got it, and it seems like it’s attracting a wider audience. It’s not the next Harry Potter, but it does have some crossover. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’m sure I’ll like it!

          And, yes, many YA novels are crossover books also appealing to adults. Among the many that come to mind — in addition to the “Harry Potter” ones you mentioned — are “Anne of Green Gables,” “The Yearling,” “The Hate U Give,” “Holes,” “The Hunger Games” trilogy, etc.

          Liked by 2 people

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