For the most part, stories end well. That’s kind of how our story-telling works: character gets into conflict, then the conflict is resolved and he’s okay again. In fact, he’s probably better than before.
Sometimes, though, stories don’t follow this formula exactly and that ‘it’s now okay’ sentiment above proves false. Sometimes, characters end up in way worse situations than what they started with. These are the books that give you a downlift over an uplift. These are a sampling of the books that have tugged my heart the most, two of them actually made a tear roll down my cheek. But just one tear, one manly, strong tear. Pfft, I don’t sob over fiction. Whatever.
1. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
You can’t really say that this ended well for Heathcliffe and Cathy. It wasn’t the romantic love story you get used to from movies but the what happens when 2 really flawed people fall for each other but it doesn’t work out.
2. Beloved, by Toni Morrisson
This was the kind of story where the lives of the characters are so wrapped up in bad pasts that the guilt / depressive feel / no-escape is suffocating. Plus, who doesn’t feel super happy when people slit the throats of babies? Laugh a minute right there.
3. The Kite Runner by Khalid Hoessini
Though the book ends on the slightest of hopes, there’s no denying that there’s enough bad bits to make you wonder why the kid didn’t attempt suicide sooner. Story of how life, country, situation and relationships with parents affect the friendship of two children from different privileges. Man, I’m sensing a theme for dragging your readers through turmoil here: make the bad stuff happen to kids.
4. Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein
Yeah, the bad stuff happening to kids doesn’t end above. The children of a loving couple suffer when their mother develops post-natal depression after her last baby. Your heart will stop during the scene with the mother and baby in the bathroom, and the search for a safety pin. The bad childhood doesn’t end in adulthood, either. Yeah, not every character gets over the shit that happened to them when they were young.
5. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I began the story thinking that the character would eventually not be a giant bug by the end… unfortunately, good things just don’t happen people who transform over night into different creatures.
6. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Situated during the Salem witch trials, you quickly realise – against your will – that the bad, lying people are going to triumph over the good, moral people. You know how bad that feels? Really bad. And totally real because that’s generally what happens in reality.
7. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Piccoult
About a highschool shooting, which is pretty much a good enough setup for tragedy but Piccoult adds in a sub-story that seems as sad. Again, a book that involves young people. I know that Jodi Piccoult is known for her tear-jerkers, but this is the only one of her books that I’ve read so I’m not sure what’s the biggest tragedy out of all of them.
8. The Boy in The Striped Pajamas
Centred around the holocaust and one German boy on the right side of the fence (for a while) the story shows the innocence of children. You have to read it with ‘a pinch of salt’ and remember it’s fiction because some little things don’t make sense.
9. I’m Not Scared by Nicolo Ammanti
The bad things happening to kids just does not end! One summer, five friends discover the secrets of their town and parents, and innocence and life are lost.
10. This Charming Man by Marian Keyes
I believe this book falls under the genre of chick-lit, and I was led to believe that chick-lit didn’t have any scenes of domestic abuse, just love and silly squabbles. Oh, how wrong you can be. Told from multiple perspectives that was at first annoying but then awesome, the book shows how one man can manipulate many women in his own douchey, sexist way. Want to read something where a lady gets punched in the throat? This book is for you. Charming stuff.
11. The Alison Rules by Catherine Clark
Okay, don’t judge for me this because this one is a tween book but I read it when I was a tween. I hadn’t really read any sad books before, and it hit me quite hard when the character’s best friend suffers an ill-fate. If you want your 13 year old to cry – give her this book. Start ’em on the misery of fiction and life nice and young. Like all the characters in these books.
Honorable mention: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet for including a character so beastly you wanted to punch the pages.
Oh, and of course: Othello and Hamlet. But you expect that with plays under the genre ‘tragedy’.
There are a lot of other books I have read where bad things happen to characters to the point where you don’t know if there’s any goodness in the world any more, but these were the ones where the good resolution didn’t happen. I do believe – if I can recall correctly – that the last 2 ended well, but the rest didn’t have the happily ever afters that you expect when heading into a book. So I guess this list is actually lacking a lot of sad books that could technically be included.
A story with a tragic ending does not necessarily make a for a tragically awful book, however. Even if children die and adults are awful to each other, the writing, story and characters can still be interesting. Saddest thing you’ve ever read? Book where the ending never became happy?