I you just need once of those dense 19th century novels that ends in complete and utter desolation and despair. Sure there’s no happy ending. Sure they’re depressing.
But hear me out. In some ways they’re the most indulgent books you can read. They’re histrionic. They’re suspenseful. They have that headlong out of control feeling that you find in the best horror movies. The ones where you can see there’s doom ahead but are powerless to stop it or know exactly what form it will take.
Books like that? I can think of six.
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
Maggie Tulliver is an excellent female character: intelligent, ambitious, and spirited. All is fun and games until romance, poverty and family antipathies make everything… not fun and games. Betrayal! Ostracism! A biblical flood!
The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
What is it with all of these final act biblical floods and deaths by drowning? Thomas Hardy is my favorite for excessive adversity and sorrow. Return of the Native blows all of the others out of the water, particularly in terms of excessiveness. It’s also my favorite, which isn’t a coincidence. Eustacia Vye is another excellent female character. She’s great at languishing, a scheming dreamer. Read it for the mummers, the moors, the toxic snake bites, the love triangles, and the plethora of deaths both natural and not in the grand finale.
Indiana, George Sand
I don’t think lack of passion in one’s life can cause illness, and if it can, George Sand certainly wouldn’t know (huehuehue, Chopin huehue). Anyway. Womanizers and three more drownings! (What is it with these people?).
Dangerous Liaisons, Choderlos de Laclos
Hey, no drowning! Quite the anomaly. Instead we’ve got this gossipy epistolary novel with lots of depraved and sexy behavior fighting it out with modesty, piety, and youthful innocence. So much vice. Duels. John Malkovich. Oh, and small pox!
Lady of the Camellias, Alexandre Dumas
So I guess I’m going to have to recognize disease as the runner up, following the wildly popular drowning. All you need is a little tuberculosis/consumption to get you in the tragic mood. Oh, and one problems- an enduring favorite.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
I do think it beats Les Miserables, most because LM ends with death from old age while Hunchback is all hangings and disintegrating skeletons. How much more turgid can you get than families rent apart and reunited, corrupt and lascivious church officials, and torture with iron vises?