Bleak, Bleak, Bleak

On the BeachWhen I was a senior in High School I openly complained that too much of what I read was depressing. I had just finished Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. If you recall, this novel presents a family that is beset by one disappointment after every disaster … but despite the hardships of life, Dr. Primrose keeps smiling and always expects to find a magic hedgehog nibbling candy-corn alongside the cotton-candy privet.

Of course, I grew up and gained an adult appreciation on life which allowed me to read these depressing books, often with far less angst than I experienced reading some pink and purple happy-shit. Besides, even the most embarrassing writing school will admit that a good story involves conflict and overcoming adversity. Let’s face it, even when the final outcome is positive, most of a depressing story is a downer. I remember reading Robert Ludlum: no matter how many times the hero escapes capture or death, another squad of cleaners jumps him when the hero has barely caught his breath. Is this hot action or a depressing view of life?

Well, several sources have been publishing lists of depressing books. Abe Books calls their top ten BLEAK:

“The Road was the most crushingly bleak book I’ve ever read. The description of post-nuke winter, the ways humans react in their various schemes for survival, the gut-wrenching participation in a Hobbesian world where nobody will ever be comfortable again, safe again, or be able to relax or even let your guard down again. For those born into it, it will be all they know, maybe they’ll survive like Middle Ages peasants. The nightmare will be for those who knew something else. Reduced to the roles of herd-animal, scavenger, and prey, played out among the bones of a forever past, knowing you have nobody to blame but yourself, and nobody cares, and nobody is ever coming to make it better,” wrote Tom from New York.

“The Road has unremitting bleakness, McCarthy never lets up, like real horror and the end-of-times wouldn’t give you a break. Quite horrific, I threw it in the bin when I finished, I didn’t want anyone else to have to read it. Brilliant book,” wrote Mark from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.

“A life so horrendous that we choose death instead of our hellish life. Can it happen to any of us? Will it happen to us and ours?” wrote Steve from Virginia.

“Are you kidding? There is not one ray of hope. Other than that The Road is a great book,” wrote Theodore from Texas.

“It was a very authentic portrayal of someone who was depressed/suicidal. Unsurprisingly, as it was written by Sylvia, whom we know later ended her own life with her head in a gas oven. It is a very well written and powerful book, but boy, there aren’t many laughs! If you are already depressed, avoid this like the plague…..if you are interested to get an insight into different states of mind, it is a strong candidate,” wrote Rebecca from London, UK.

“Remember Father Time hanging himself and the two younger children, leaving a note saying, ‘Done because we are too menny?’ Seriously, what can touch it?” wrote Carry from Vermont

“The fact that the protagonist gave up… he gave in to the despair and propaganda that Big Brother spouted. After tasting what freedom was like and having the woman he loved taken from him…he just gave up. Which makes him human I guess? What a bleak, depressing novel. I read 1984 in high school and threw it across the room when I read the last line,” wrote Jim from Ontario, Canada.

“This book breeds hate for mankind in the mind of the reader. I couldn’t get past the first 100 pages before I quit reading. It was either that or despise and distrust everyone I thought I knew and loved,” wrote Patrick from London, UK.

“The subject of concentration camps and the plight of the Jews in WWII is so serialized. This numbness I feel toward human suffering is the reason I choose the book,” wrote an unnamed customer.

“The Grapes of Wrath was sooo depressing. Everything is grey, sad, and hardship. Nobody ever smiles, everyone is so grim. Anything fun is seen as evil or frivolous. Money is so worthless people papered their walls with it. The dustbowl is everywhere. All life withered up, dry, beaten down to the point of giving up,” wrote Sarah from Nebraska.

“The book literally gave me nightmares about fleeing from a fallout-cloud. Soap opera stuff like love affairs, family problems etc happening in front of a nuclear-apocalyptic background gave me the creeps,” wrote Martin from Kassel, Germany

“I read it when I was 14 and idealistic about saving the world. It wasn’t just Ralph that cried at the end. I sobbed at the awful doomed picture of mankind. I’ve never been able to read it again,” wrote Nora from Bristol, UK.

“It was beautifully written, full of exquisite prose. But it just accentuated the dreadful reality described, with no way out, no solutions given, no hope,” wrote Jeremy from France.

Other lists are offered such as this top 15 most depressing books published by The Telegraph:

    • Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
    • The Odd Woman by George Gissing
    • 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade
    • Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
    • Platform by Michel Houellebecq
    • Beloved by Toni Morrison
    • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
    • Germinal by Emile Zola
    • We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
    • Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr
    • Jill by Philip Larkin
    • Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
    • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    • First Love by Samuel Beckett
    • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


How many of these novels have you read? Did reading them result in permanent damage to your mental health? Do you have your own list of bleak reading?

My experience applauds the inclusion of George Gissing and Michel Houellebecq on the Telegraph list. Interestingly, I held off reading Jude the Obscure for years under the impression that Jude would be such a downer that I might never want to read Hardy again. Jude was disappointing, especially after reading several titles by Gissing … Hardy is a wimp compared to Gissing. Amongst contemporary authors I suspect the odds on favorite for bleakness is Michel Houellebecq but there’s little argument that The Road is this generation’s King of Bleakness, dethroning such jolly fun as On the Beach and Lord of the Flies.

2 thoughts on “Bleak, Bleak, Bleak

  1. Of the three that are included on both lists, I’ve read The Bell Jar and Jude the Obsure. I’ve read over half of the first list but only four, less than one-third on the second list. Not warped (apparently). Some of my favorite books are listed above, whatever that says about my taste in reading–or my mental state.


    1. Well, you know that I go for weird and juicy fiction, the more transgressive, the better, but you make a good observation. Let’s see: I have read all but one from the first list (and I don’t think I ever will read Ayn Rand in this lifetime) and ten of the titles from the second list. Does that get me a ticket to Broadmoor?

      Did anyone else wonder why Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was missing from both lists? Talk about bleak! Maybe being a drama rather than a novel made it ineligible.


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