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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Saddest Books Revisited

Back in May of 2006, I posted about a college here which was offering a course on the five saddest books ever written.

I added a few of my own and since then various commentators have offered others. The list is in the order that the books were mentioned on the blog, not in order of sadness.

Currently, the list looks like this:

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
The Awkward Age by Henry James
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
To The North by Elizabeth Bowen
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Eugene Onegin by Aleksandr Pushkin
The Masterpiece by Emile Zola
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography of by Jean H. Baker
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
The Diving Bell & the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Le Rêve (The Dream) by Emile Zola
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
A tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Paula by Isabel Allende
Blood of the Lamb by Peter deVries
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
A life’s Music by Andrei Makine
Native Son by Richard Wright
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Anna Kerenina by Leo Tolstoy
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
The Barracks by John McGahern
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The World I Made for Her by Thomas Moran
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

44 Responses to “Saddest Books Revisited”

  1. jlmunn says:

    Thanks for reminding me of a few titles I hadn’t considered in a while, and for making me think of one I didn’t see on your list, Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

    It’s a perfect rainy day here for curling up with a great sad book!


    J.L. Munn

    jb says: Hi JL, good to see you here. I’ve added the book to the list. I haven’t read it . . . yet.

  2. Robert says:

    Still no Anna Karenina? Outrageous! I’m off to hurl myself under a train.

    jb says: Hold it there, Robert. I’ve added it to the list. (Jeez . . . hysterics . . .)

  3. Andrew says:

    I have to stick with Charile & the Great Glass, I think, John. Though Anna Kareneina was pretty sad all right. Remarque’s All Quiet I was very impressed and moved by recently.

    jb says: Hi Andrew. I’ve added the Remarque book. It’s a while since I read it, but I remember being touched by it.

  4. Mukund says:

    I love how Arthur C. Clarke is in the same list as Edith Wharton; my English teacher would freak out at that (but I wouldn’t!). If I had to add a book, it would be A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

    jb says: You didn’t have to, Makund, but seems you did anyway. I’ve added it to the list.

  5. Robert says:

    Whew! That was close.

    jb says: Good to see you’re still here.

  6. kimbofo says:

    Wow. What a wonderful list. I certainly agree with “The Story of Lucy Gault”, “The Road” and “All Quiet…”

    May I suggest a couple of additions: “A Long Long Way” by Sebastian Barry and “The Barracks” by John McGahern? Both books left me feeling slightly devastated.

    jb says: OK, Kim, they’re both up.

  7. John G says:

    Yes, Lucy Gault would be my no. 1 in this list. What about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin ? For all the final reconciliation, the overwhelming feeling at the end is of the lost decades of a life together, as a consequence of pride and misunderstanding. I t had me weeping.

    jb says: Hi John G. Added today.

  8. Stuart Wilson says:

    I didn’t realise I had read so many ‘sad books’ What about Greene’s “The Quiet American” which I think, apart from being so prescient with regard to the coming morass the U.S. was about to find itself in, was so poignant.

    jb says: That’s one I read and won’t forget in a hurry.

  9. bloglily says:

    Next will you do the funniest books? You know, for after we’ve throw ourselves under a train and need some cheering up.

    (Thank you for this list John — I love books that make me think and make me cry. Remains of the Day was like that for me. There was something about the narrator’s distance from his own life, and his inability to choose love and happiness over a tragic devotion to duty that made me terribly sad.)

    jb says: Remains of the Day. Ah, I remember it well. I’m sure we’ll find a place on the list for that one.

  10. Eli James says:

    Yikes! How ever did Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator get on that list?! It was one of the highlights of my childhood – reading and rolling on the floor, laughing at the president of the United States (if i was not mistaken Mr Hilton was the terrorist in that book ;-))

    So how can it possibly be sad?!

    And is that the list in order of sadness (from tear jerking at the top to lump inducing at the bottom)? If so, i’m finding it slightly funny that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is sadder than Anna Karenina. So, John. Did you cry reading Roald Dahl?


    jb says: Eli, I haven’t read it. It was, like most of the others, a suggestion. Should it be removed?

  11. Lo says:

    Great list, but what about A Farewell to Arms? Surely the ending, when he walks out of the hospital into the rain is one of the most beautiful and at the same time saddest scenes in American literature…

    jb says: It’s on the list now.

  12. Eli James says:

    I think it should … it’s pretty lightweight, funny stuff. In fact, i wouldn’t mind going back and reading it again!

    Try it, John. There’s a certain charm about children’s books – so carefree and fun.

    jb says: I’ll get it tomorrow. I love children’s books. Remind me of my past.

  13. Andrew says:

    There is the possibility that I may have not been quite serious with Charlie & the Great Glass Elevator.

    jb says: You are bad, Andrew. Taking advantage of me like that. I might lose faith in humankind after this. Anyone else want to confess while I’m still capable of forgiving you?

  14. Andrew says:

    Though I might go and give it a read after Eli’s enthusiasm.

    jb says: Yeah, me too. But I don’t believe you. Bet you don’t read it.

  15. Andrew says:

    You’re probably right not to trust me, John. And I think I might follow your lead in not believing in my future reading of Charlie either.

    jb says: OK, now I don’t know if you’ll read it or no.

  16. Kim says:

    I’d like to nominate The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The book’s concept of time travel leaving a partner unable to properly grieve had me in tears for hours.

    jb says: Hi Kim, I’ve put it on the list. To be honest it didn’t get me that way. I thought it was an interesting concept but I didn’t shed a tear.

  17. Sasha says:

    How about “The World I Made for Her” by Thomas Moran ? It left me the closest to despair I’ve felt in a long time.

    jb says: OK, it’s on the list.

  18. Brendan Frost says:

    Hey John…

    It seems old Gabo did it for me. Love in the Time of Cholera ended in a ridiculously perfect chapter, immensely reaffirming and also incredibly sad, and I cried, slowly, but surely. It’s still got me shivering.

    Great list… do you plan on chopping it down to one of your own personal preferences? Just curious.

    Thanks for this entry.

    jb says: I put Cholera on the list. Yes, I do plan to work with the list. But you know what happens to plans?

  19. Grits says:

    <p>What about the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop? Does that not get even a honorary mention? It is said “a nation wept” when the final installments arrived from England in New York harbor. The docks were jammed and people wailing, “Is Little Nell dead?” She was. . . If this story doesn’t make it on any list of “saddest books”, I don’t know if I can bear to read those listed. Although I have read, “Message in a Bottle”, and it ripped my heart out.</p>

    <strong>jb says</strong>: It’s on the list, now, Grits.

  20. Zsuzsanna says:

    Although Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a sad book, his other novel, Never Let Me Go is heartbreaking. I couldn’t sleep properly after reading it. It’s so special.

  21. Dan says:


    I really love to just cry my eyes out at a really sad book. I havnt’ read many sad books so i googled it and saw this site! It’s awesome! I’m going to try and read as many as them as i can. A reaaally sad book is Paula by Isabelle Allende. And i also found Noughts and Crosses by Malorie (can’t remember) really sad!! It’s written really well as well..

    Anyway.. nice site!

  22. Laurie Boatfield says:

    I think that the suicide of Jude’s children in Jude the Obscure “done because we are too menny” is about as grim as life and literature gets.

    jb says: My favourite among the Hardy books.

  23. Dave says:

    Oh my gosh, Flowers for Algernon made me cry for hours. Also, even though they are kids books, The Giver by Lois Lowry and Bridge to Terebithia are sad enough to make you hurl yourself off a cliff. Honestly…

  24. L says:

    Hey, i just found this site, and its been raining/sleeting for several days here. These books are perfict, i read 1 and went strait 2 barns n nobel to get about 19 more. The book (series actualy) that i personaly belive is the sadest isnt on here. I was thinking any book out of the golden compass series passes the test with flying colors. i know that there is a huge amount of contravercy out there right now, but they are great books. The theme throughout (not the killing god part, thats only at the end) is innoscents going through all the horrors of a world gone wrong, and that go on in our world today. From depression and mental illness to lonelyness, suiside, fear, and the loss of love….. i could go on forever. im a starting football player on varsity, a linebacker as a freshman, and i still almost cry several times in the middle of it. so, read it, and maby add it to your list.

    …ps… pls pardon my spelling, it sux

  25. Allen says:

    Lord Jim was sad, too. Tess of the D’ubervilles is tragic as is any book by Thomas Hardy. I read a small book by an unknown author titled “Howard Be Thy Name.” I think it touched me more deeply as some respite from all the tragedy is woven in.

  26. christine says:

    What about Jude the Obscure?

    jb says: Yeah, that’s sad, Christine.

  27. Yousef says:

    Jane Eyre?

    the last 50 pages were certainly most saddening [apart from several parts in between ;)]

  28. emma says:

    has anyone read ‘damaged’ by cathy Glass?
    That is so sad.
    Also ‘daddy’s little girl’ by Julia latchem-smith I think.

    Both true stories about young girls suffering child abuse.

  29. Houston says:

    Among the saddest 5 books, I read one of the book. How should I say, it is only that once I will read that book because I feel that to be sad or happy, all depends on oneself, you yourself choose to be sad or happy, nobody can control it for you.

    Being sad or happy, is only separated by a thin line and it’s so easy to change it, if you want too, always remember that.

    jb says: I was never impressed by happiness. It always seems to me to be a spurious ambition. I don’t think people want to be happy, not really. They want miracles or they want excitement or meaning in their lives. Happiness is something invented by the movies. Always remember that.

  30. john baker says:

    This from Allen Mathews:
    The word “hap” means luck or fortune. Happy is tethered to fortune then, rather superficial, and the leash is quite tentative for most of us as life can be tempestuous, capricious, and fleeting. As Houston noted as well, feelings themselves blow across the surface of the psyche too and our reactions to them, as well as to circumstance depend upon our temperaments, anchoring in the moment, choosing. Yet, there is something universal about suffering, while those things that make us happy are rather peculiar to the individual, and one’s personal history and predicament. Literature is thinking with feeling about life. Both moods are necessary, but the sad seems so much more profound.

  31. Marianne says:

    Wow, I think I should go buy all these books now! My ALL TIME favourite book, and one of the saddest I’ve read is Les Miserables. Funnily enough, I don’t think the saddest ending is the end, but rather, the Revolutionary scenes. And also, Catch 22. Anna Karenina too (Though, not a favourite I’m afraid) and Wuthering Heights. However, my all time favourite is still, Les Miserables 🙂

    jb says: Hi Marianne. I also never entirely got on with Anna Kerenina. Don’t know why, because I loved some of the others, especially War and Peace.

  32. Marianne says:

    Ah, I also add Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure, both by hardy. Since you seem to have read Jude the Obscure, I find the saddest part when Jude is dying, with neither his love, Sue, or his “wife” Arabella, and he dies, alone, while his wife is courting the doctor. I also suggest Mayor of Casterbridge if you haven’t read it, because it’s ending is sad enough to rival even Jude the Obscure’s. It takes a pretty sad book to do that!

    jb says: Hi Marianne. I think I’ve read most of Thomas Hardy, way back, though, so I don’t remember the specifics any more, only the tone. Sad stuff indeed.

  33. Mara says:

    This list is fabulous. Thanks John. There isn’t much better than a sad book. I would like to add “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picault. It’s not the usual type of book I would read – a friend lent it to me while we were on a very, very long train ride after I had read all of the books I had brought with me – but it had me in tears, and thinking about it for days after. It raises some great questions and really makes you think, although the ending is a little disappointing. Don’t let the fact that it has been made into a movie with Cameron Diaz ruin it for you, it really is a good book!

    jb says: Hi Mara. Another one I didn’t know about. Keep them coming, folks.

  34. Joseph says:

    How about the Notebook or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. My personal favourite is Of Mice and Men. It is a beautiful book. Stunningly written. George is such a strong characterr

  35. Kelsey says:

    Oh god, so many books have made me cry like a little kid, even if they were hilarious all other times. I only have a couple, but BOY were they great!

    A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
    The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
    Phantom by Susan Kay
    Phantom of Manhattan (I forget the author)

    And probobly more that I’ve forgotten
    Now, if your talking movies, that’s a whooooole other list 😉

  36. Frank McDevitt says:

    Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is also an incredibly sad book. I cried the first time I read it.

  37. Reza Noorani says:

    The God Of Small Things – A wonderfully depressing book by Arundhati Roy, full of humor, summer, frogs, raindrops, smiles and the other small things that people live their lives by…

  38. Team Roster says:

    You should edit the webpage subject title The Saddest Books Ever Written | John Baker's Blog to something more suited for your subject you create. I enjoyed the blog post even so nonetheless.

  39. rakht says:

    Atonement by Ian McEwan
    Its unbelievably sad since its not only about the to people who deserved to happy together but died seperately, but also about the life-long remorse of that one person who so foolishly, so pointlessly caused it.
    I therefore reccomend Atonement to be ranked on top of the saddest of all novels.

    “O, no! the apprehension of the good
    Gives but the greater feeling to the worse” shakespeare.

  40. nikeshox says:

    excellent blog post, i clearly enjoy this site, keep on it.

  41. Paz ! says:

    Walk two moons ….. very touching as well

  42. Manas says:

    i would say ‘Disgrace’ and ‘Life and times of Michael K’, both by J.M. Coetzee are very sad novels, very poignant and emotionally draining… great a great writer

  43. Bryce says:

    Through a Glass, Darkly is wrenching but beautiful (Jostein Gaarder).