From Dumbledore’s death to news of a new Martin Amis novel, Literary history is full of saddening moments. Since someone asked, here are my top five saddest moments in literature.
The Failure to avoid War in Homer’s Iliad
It might seem strange to start with an ancient martial epic but war, and the misery it entails, seems to be eternal. The Iliad describes a conflict that no one wanted and which people tried desperately to avoid. At unexpected moments the epic will contextualise events, puncturing bravado or creating sympathy, giving it a profoundly anti-war feel. Over 250 individual deaths are described, most in vivid and brutal detail. Not one warrior comes to a glorious end, all are dragged down to Hades, broken and cursing their fate.
‘One generation of men will grow whilst another / dies.’
The poem is full of deceptively sad moments that only reveal themselves in retrospect. When Menelaos and Paris square up to fight, for example, they have an opportunity to settle the dispute before the war even begins. Both the Greeks and Trojans are willing Menelaos to win, they have laid down their armour and blurred their battle lines – recalling Christmas 1914. Of course Aphrodite whisks Paris away on a cloud and see the war for what it was, a torment visited upon man by the gods.
The Rise of Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace
When we first meet Pierre Bezhukov he is a pompous, gluttonous yet strangely likeable schlub. By the end of the novel he is a new and better man. Yet it is hard to rejoice in his transformation given the tremendous costs it entailed.
Napoleon’s invasion, romantic chaos and, most importantly, the death of his friend, Andrew Bolkonsky, are all integral in Pierre’s growth. The sadness then, becomes all pervading, tragedy becomes woven into his character as we see that there can be no salvation without suffering.
The Lear Cordelia relationship in King Lear
This is grand tragedy but King Lear also contains some of Shakespeare’s most intimate and tender moments. Lear’s descent from King to madman goes hand in hand with the unravelling of his relationship with Cordelia. That we’re invited to philosophise on how far Lear is responsible for his plight only highlights Cordelia’s raw, irrational loyalty towards him and makes their relationship all the more poignant.
The Death of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons
As seen above, the great Russian Novel has given us so many tragic men, women and moments, but the greatest, in my mind, is one of the more subtle, gentle endings. It is the demise of the arch nihilist Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.
The young doctor plans to practice medicine amongst the surfs and be of service to mankind whilst denying all authority and irrationality, which includes love. Naturally he falls for a charming widow and makes a bold declaration of his feelings. When he is rejected he retires away to sorrowfully fulfill his plan, catching Typhus from a patient.
The abiding image is of his two elderly parents tending to his grave. In life he’d never been able to express the affection he obviously felt for them and tried to dismiss them for their lack of enlightenment – yet they cannot tear themselves away from his resting place. ‘Is that love of theirs to be wholly unavailing? No, no, a thousand times no!’
The love-triangles of Norwegian Wood
Unlike some of the entries here, Norwegian contains no cataclysmic events, nor any great ideological clashes. And whilst it has more than its fair share of tragic deaths, it is in fact the love-triangles of Murakami’s most popular and accessible novel that I’ve chosen as my saddest moment/event/thing in literature.
The first triangle revolves around Naoko, her boyfriend Kizuki, who committed suicide aged 17 before the story begins, and Kizuki’s best friend, and our narrator, Toru Watanabe. Naturally the connection between Toru and Naoko is tainted at conception but it offers them a chance for salvation and meaning. The second involves Toru, Naoko and the boisterous Midori who offers Toru a different kind of salvation and a chance at happiness.
What makes many of the other moments on the list so tragic or sad is that they could have been different: War could have been averted in the Iliad; things could have gone differently for Bazarov, all the ingredients were there. But here, as much as the reader might will Toru towards Midori, we cannot shift the idea of Naoko, like a burden you can’t put down. Murakami has constructed a web of relationships from which characters cannot escape. It’s an intractable situation and one that is unutterably sad.