Top 10 Unhappy Families in Literature

Katherine Hill, whose debut novel The Violet Hour is published today, looks at the unhappiest families at the centre of our favourite books…

Unhappy families

You don’t have to graduate to Tolstoy to know that unhappy families are literature’s fuel.

As a child I first learned it from fairy tales and The D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, as well as various musicals and Shakespeare plays. I was a contented only child, yet messy family stories always held my attention. From the mother mourning her hell-bound daughter to the brother forbidding his sister to dance with a rival, these were relationships that, in their archetypal intensity, might somehow illuminate the world.

Though of course, when a story focuses on one family tie, questions arise. What about Persephone’s father, or her husband? What about Maria and Bernardo’s parents? And what about her kids, and their kids, and so on? As a reader, I’m particularly guilty of this kind of radiating speculation, which is why I so admire the ambitious sagas that implicate entire human ecosystems. (Especially, I confess, in contemporary America: I am nothing if not a curious, and furious, citizen of my realm.) While it takes just two people to make a family, a story of multiple bonds has the benefit of complicating individual characters, varying perspective, and expanding narrative possibilities, literary features I always seem to crave.

So, for the purposes of this list (which, inexcusably, doesn’t even include Anna Karenina!), I’m limiting myself to families of three or more. Here, in chronological order, are ten of the best unhappy families in literature:


1. The Royal Family, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603). It’s no coincidence that the melancholy prince’s first words—“A little more than kin, and less than kind”—set forth the ultimate family problem, or that Hamlet’s clan has been a favorite of Freudian readers since Sigmund Freud himself. Whatever we think of Hamlet’s feelings for his mother (or father, or uncle), there’s no denying that the Bard’s most famous play epitomizes a family in crisis.

2. The Earnshaws and the Lintons, Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights (1847). Every proper edition of Wuthering Heights features a genealogical table outlining, with striking symmetry, the intermarriages of the Earnshaws and Lintons. In the popular imagination, Brontë’s novel is all about the romance of Heathcliff and Cathy on the moors, but it is also as elemental a depiction of interfamilial intimacy and jealousy as you’ll find on any shelf. “[I]f she were so insane as to encourage that worthless suitor [Heathcliff],” Edgar Linton warns his sister Isabella, “it would dissolve all bonds of relationship between herself and him.”

IgorGolovniov /

The Brothers Karamazov, actor Kirill Lavrov and actress Svetlana Korkoshko, circa 1969 (© IgorGolovniov /

3. The Karamazovs, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Virginia Woolf wrote admiringly that Dostoevsky’s novels are filled with “crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the tops of their voices about their most private affairs.” If that isn’t a perfect definition of “family” I’m not sure what is. The family here belongs to Fyodor Karamazov, a scheming, licentious, deadbeat drunk whose complicated relationships with his three (or maybe four) adult sons—the lustful Dmitri, the rational Ivan, and the spiritual Aloysha—drive the action of this Russian murder mystery-cum-philosophical treatise.

4. The Spraggs, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913). Not every unhappy family story is a tragedy. Take Wharton’s satirical masterpiece, which tracks the indomitable ascent of Undine Spragg, the daughter of a Midwestern financier. Determined to take New York and Europe by storm, Undine’s method is marriage, divorce, remarriage, repeat, and the novel’s portrait of her beleaguered but enabling parents, Abner and Leota, is among its finest. Like the cranky Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, the Spraggs are among the many great literary families made miserable pursuing stable matches for their children.

5. The Pollitts, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940). Sam Pollitt is an idealistic, egotistical scientist who revels in his seven progeny. His wife Henny is a violent snob, fantasizing suicide and threatening murder, often in the same soliloquy. Where he is control, she is disorder. Where he is light, she is dark: “He called a spade the predecessor of modern agriculture, she called it a muck dig: they had no words between them intelligible.” Meanwhile, Louie, Sam’s daughter from his first marriage, is torn between the two. Packed with emotional intensity, high comedy, and dark truths, Stead’s tour de force is a novel of family as total war.

6. Sethe’s family, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). There’s no unhappier figure than the mother who kills her child, though being her teenage daughter or boyfriend isn’t too rosy either—especially with the spiteful ghost baby tearing their house apart. At once devastating and oddly light-hearted, Morrison’s most famous novel places family at the very epicenter of slavery’s trauma: “It shamed her—remembering the wonderful soughing trees [of the Kentucky plantation] rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.”

7. The Levovs, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997). A powerful, searching novel about the gulf between the so-called “Greatest Generation” and their Baby Boomer children, American Pastoral is the tragedy, as imagined by Roth’s recurring alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful Jewish glove manufacturer whose only daughter Merry commits an act of political terrorism at the height of the turmoil of the 1960s. “And what is wrong with their life?” Zuckerman wonders. “What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” What indeed.

8. The Lamberts, in Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections (2001). Love it or hate it (and as a writer of Scandinavian and Midwestern descent, I mostly love it), Franzen’s tragicomic breakout is by now the classic contemporary novel of coming home for Christmas. Every one of the emotionally repressed Lamberts—Enid, Alfred, and their adult children Gary, Chip, and Denise—exists in relation to the others, and in the end, it’s hard not to feel that their demands, judgments, and memories of each other, however maddening, however cruel, are part of what it means to be a family.

Columbine High School © Katherine Welles /

Columbine High School – site of the infamous shootings which in part inspired Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. (© Katherine Welles /

9. The Khatchadourian-Plasketts, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003). What if you had everything you ever wanted: a meaningful and challenging career, a loving and challenging partner? What if the only thing missing was children: something you weren’t even sure you wanted, but from which you were afraid to definitively opt out? And what if one of those children turned out to be a bad seed, a truly sociopathic killer? Would it in any way be your fault? I get chills even thinking about this book, a brilliant and thoroughly frightening nightmare of modern parenting and the monsters American politics begets.
10. The de Leons, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). In the long tradition of fictional immigrant families, the de Leons of New Jersey may be cursed. Oscar is a fat sci-fi nerd in unrequited love, his angry sister Lola can’t seem to keep him out of trouble, and their cancer-ridden mom Belicia never stops working or berating them. Not that their Dominican ancestors fared better. “Call it a whole lot of bad luck, outstanding karmic debt, or something else,” narrator Yunior declares in his delightful literary vernacular. “Whatever it was, the shit started coming at the family something awful and there are some people who would say it’s never ever stopped.”

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