Skip to content

Reflections of a working writer and reader



The Saddest Books

One of the colleges here is offering a course on the five saddest books ever written. If you believe it, they are:

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

Perhaps it’s supposed to be the five saddest books written in English. It seems a shame to leave out the Russians and the South Americans, who are probably better at sad than English speakers.

I’d want to leave the Ford and the Greene on the list but I’d need to make space for Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Probably The Masterpiece by Emile Zola.

But I’ll change my mind a hundred times before bedtime.


48 Responses to “The Saddest Books”

  1. Steve Clackson says:

    just a few that come to mind…
    Sophies Choice
    The Diary of Anne Frank
    The Gulag Archipelago
    The Biography of Mary Lincoln

  2. Joel says:

    Alessandro Baricco’s ‘Silk’ sticks in my mind as evoking sadness in a rather beautiful way.

    But probably one of the saddest books ever likely to be written is Jean-Dominique Bauby’s ‘The Diving Bell & the Butterfly’, which he dictated by signalling with his left eyelid, unable to move any other part of his body.

  3. Jennyta says:

    I would say Emile Zola’s ‘Le Reve'(sorry no circumflex – don’t know how to do that.)

    {You mean like this: Le Rêve (The Dream) – Smug JB.
    Good choice, as would be several other titles by the same author}

  4. […] John Baker has a post on the saddest books. I’ve read some devastatingly sad books, and I’d say that Ethan Frome is definitely on my list of saddest books. In retrospect, it may not have been the best book to read in 6th grade. _______ […]

  5. Jennyta says:

    Hmmm. Show off! 🙂

    (JB says: And for my next trick . . .)

  6. Catherine says:

    A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry: sad from beginning to end, with a touch of pathetic.

  7. Sian says:

    Cyrano de Bergerac is the book I’ve shed the most tears over I think (as a play does it still count?). A tale of two cities comes pretty close though.

  8. I agree with Catherine that A Fine Balance is a moving and very sad book. .

    Another very, very sad book is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. NO other story has ever made me spontaneously sob.

    Wicked Witch of Publishing

  9. Maxine says:

    Like Lynne, I loved the first half of Lovely Bones. I found it very moving. I thought the second half was weak, though– as if the author had got stuck.

  10. john baker says:

    OK, seems like I’ve got some more reading to do.
    For my part, the saddest book I’ve read in recent months is The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor. It is a short novel with a distinctive intonation. Reads like a dirge. Quite beautiful.

  11. Ashy says:

    Wharton’s Ethan is sad. Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion is sadder. Steinbeck’s Grapes is saddest.

  12. ruth says:

    Paula by Isabel Allende. I bawled my eyes out from the very first page, for quite a while.

    jb says: Thanks, Ruth, This is not a book I know, but maybe I’ll search it out now, or next time I need a cry.

  13. Bosco says:

    Blood of the Lamb, by Peter deVries….Devastatingly sad, and all the more so because he was a great comic writer. (I believe it is based on the true story of the death of his own child).
    I keep it on my bookshelf like a bottle of cyanide.

    jb says: I love the metaphor. Keep ’em coming, guys. I’m gonna have the best collection of sad books in the world.

  14. Richard Madelin says:

    Just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, his latest. I don’t know if sad is the word, but it’s overwhelming in its intensity of feeling and place.

    jb says: Hi Richard, Thanks for that. It would be nice to see another novel from Richard Madelin. Any hope there?

  15. Richard Madelin says:

    Yes, just finishing one now. Hope to put the final touches before 2007. Thank you for asking.

    jb says: Keep us posted.

  16. w says:

    Anything by W. G. Sebald. I was so depressed for weeks after reading The Rings of Saturn. With him, there is the sensation of both floating on his gorgeous prose and turning ever inward so that the soul is no longer housed inside the body but peering curiously at you from the outside.

    jb says: Thanks for this. I think I’ll have to put all these suggestions together and make up a new post.

  17. Sean says:

    To be honest, the saddest book I have ever read would most likely be Childhood’s End. Sure yes, it probably isn’t THE saddest book ever written; but it still is pretty depressing since, well you know, it’s about the end of the world.

    jb says: This is another one for me to catch up on. The novel was first published in 1953 by Arthur C. Clarke, fifteen years before he published 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  18. Andrew Kenneally says:

    Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

  19. Dave Quayle says:

    Andrei Makine’s ‘A life’s music’ had me shedding a tear or three through an often wan smile. No jokes in any of his books but this journey, both both literal and metaphorical through the tragedy of twentieth century Russia makes the saddest of music. There’s a kind of redemption in there too, of course. Shortish but movingly epic. His ‘The woman who waited’ can break a heart too.

    jb says: Hi Dave, good to see you here again, especially on this thread. I don’t know the books, but I shall soon.

  20. Brendan Frost says:

    I just read Ethan Frome, and it was a very sad story but somehow did not draw from me the kind of sadness I love from a book. It drew empathy, and I felt for Ethan, but mostly I felt quite set up to feel something and then the words never came to do so. Perhaps I breezed through it too quickly, though, as I was slightly crunched for time… or perhaps upon rereading it, I will let Wharton’s words wash over me better, take them more slowly.

    But, a book that had me sobbing was Native Son. It took a good 400 or however many pages, but oh boy was it worth it. In just those last three pages, as his family said their goodbyes and Bigger spoke with his lawyer, very suddenly his ignorance threw me into utter sadness. I felt terrible because he thought he knew his own tragedy, but he had no idea, and that was his tragedy. I cried all through finishing the last three or so pages, and the only book before that which caused such a reaction was Of Mice and Men, which I read much younger.

    I’m still looking to bawl my eyes out at the words of a book, since reading Native son. I’m worried that words perhaps have lost some of their ability to do that, with me? Any recommendations from this list which are truly just terribly sad?

    jb says: Thanks for this, Brendan. My own favourite would have to be The Story of Lucy Gault. But I’ll collate this list in the next couple of days and make a fresh post to include all the suggestions.

  21. […] in May of 2006, I posted about a college here which was offering a course on the five saddest books ever […]

  22. pluto says:

    What about The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion?
    I thought that was wonderful but devastating. It describes her grief over the death of her husband. It might be a comforting book to read if you’d recently lost someone, but it’s also extremely sad.

    jb says: OK, it’s on the list.

  23. Terrell says:

    How about Les Miserables? I was crying so hard at the last page that I had to go back and reread the last chapter to finish the cry.

    jb says: I’ve added it to the list.

  24. Dalma says:

    For me I’d have to pick “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough. I think it’s such a beautifully written book! There is one point in the book at the beginning where Frank and his sister Meggie are being described and he cries, and the way the author described it was incredible, I have to admit I had a few tears!

    jb says: OK, Dalma, it’s on the list.

  25. James Bedell says:

    Ethan Frome is a sad and beautiful story. Please come to and follow my company’s struggle to produce our stage version of the novella.

  26. Jason says:

    The ‘children’s’ book “Bridge to Terabithia”, heck even the movie brought back some seriously throat tightening memories. I was emotionally scarred by that book as a child and i’d say it was probably the first encounter i’d ever had with the concept of death. I cried on and off for hours after reading it as the loss seemed so incredibly personal and unacceptable. There’s just something fearfully sad about the concept of children having to deal with death. Definitely a book that will stay in my collection though and one that I will read again and again throughout the years.

  27. Laura says:

    I know it sounds childish, but “The Giving Tree” makes me cry more than any other book.

  28. Emma says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned “The White Hotel” by D M Thomas. That is so sad it should come with a health warning. Perhaps the most powerfully emotional book ever written.

    Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” is pretty bloody sad too.

  29. American Pastoral by Phillip Roth. 400 pages of regret, frustration, and despair.

  30. Cretacius Alexandrai says:

    I hope that someone will try “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.I lived despondencily for about 2 weeks since i read the book.

  31. Jen says:

    Summer – Edith Wharton (sadder than Ethan Frome but less famous)

    The Madness of a Seduced Woman – Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

    Villette – Charlotte Bronte

    Young adult “animal” novels – lots, including Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls

  32. Kat says:

    Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  33. Donald says:

    HISTORY: A NOVEL by the Italian writer Elsa Morante made me weep harder than any other book I’ve read. It makes you really feel the tragedy of history and you end up feeling like you’re crying for all of humanity.

    jb says: OK, Donald. I’ll go seek it out. Could use a good cry just now.

  34. ben says:

    “Jennie” by Douglas Preston. Yes, that guy who works with Lincoln Child. Trust me, Jennie will leave wrung out.

    jb says: Thanks, Ben. This is getting to be quite a list now.

  35. Chris says:

    Tender Is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce

    Everybody Was So Young – Amanda Vaill

    If This Is a Man – Primo Levi

    Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

    Peter Pan – J. M. Barrie

    The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James

  36. Mark Lee says:

    “I Am the Cheese” by Robert Comier. An engrossing mystery novel told from the first-person perspective of a boy riding on his bike to deliver a package to his father.
    It is a mystery for teens, but the ending just shocked me…while I’ve read “Of Mice and Men”, “Lord of the Flies”, “Night”, and “All Quiet on the Western Front”, I seriously don’t think I’ve ever read such a book with such a thoroughly hopeless ending before.

    It is a great practice in creative writing, though, so I used it to tutor an 8th-grader recently.

  37. Caelan Louizos says:

    I am seriously suprised that no one has said “The boy in the Striped Pyjamas” I felt like my heart had turned to dust when i read that book and saw that movie.Also it may not be very sad but “Twilight,New Moon,Eclipse,Breaking Dawn” are very emotional. It may be very classic………”The Diary of Anne Frank”

  38. André says:

    Here are a few more that I was surprised weren’t on the list…

    My Happy Life – Lydia Millet
    Dear Jack – Tammi Sauer
    Ride the Wind – Lucia St Clair Robson
    Dear John – Nicholas Sparks
    Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas – James Patterson
    Hit and Run – Lurlene McDaniel
    Always and Forever – Lurlene McDaniel

  39. Marku says:

    Some lovely choices but my vote has to be either ‘Never let me go’ by Kasuo Ishiguro. The saddest book ever.

    Or ‘The Dream Of the Red Chamber’ (Story of the Stone) By Cao Xuequin.

  40. nik says:

    it’s a comic, but it’s quite sad. It has 4 stories(4 in 1)
    1st and 3rd is the saddest… OH!! the title is The cat’s beautiful gift!(naomi akimoto)1st one is about a girl and her cat living together for sooo long, and the cat died…(The cat was her only source for happiness)
    And the 3rd is about a woman, who plans to kill herself, but stops because a stray cat came, she gave some food to it too(and she had a pet cat before). The cat ran away(Cuz the woman wanted to bring it with her to die) And got hit by a car.. The car ran away…the cat was took to a clinic, and its leg needs to be amputated… The woman paid, and she finally named it Life!(Read it… It’s(Very,very)sad in the comic..)Maybe in your country u dont have it, if u don’t, im sorry!

  41. nemes says:

    Martin Eden by Jack London will definitely surprise you, if your idea of Jack London is connected to White Fang or Call of the Wild. And of course, it is sad.

  42. Adzis says:

    My sister’s keeper by Jody Picoult!!!! My heart is still bleeding

  43. Chris Lewis says:

    Pretty sure the ending of 1984 makes it the saddest book of all-time.

  44. Kate says:

    The saddest book I ever read is Villette by Charlotte Bronte. I couldn’t even move after I finished–just had to lie down for an hour in a knot of pain. Second saddest is Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. Finished it at 2 on the morning and sobbed myself to sleep.

  45. Beth says:

    the book thief

  46. Sydney says:

    Any of Lerelene McDaniel’s books. I started tearing up sobbing while reading hers. So amazing.

  47. john baker says:

    Lurlene McDaniel?

  48. web directory quotes says:

    I have to express my appreciation to the writer just for rescuing me from this situation. Because of browsing throughout the the net and getting things which are not productive, I thought my life was over. Existing minus the answers to the difficulties you’ve solved through your good review is a critical case, and the ones which could have negatively affected my entire career if I had not noticed your site. Your primary training and kindness in controlling all the things was priceless. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if I had not encountered such a stuff like this. I am able to at this point relish my future. Thanks very much for the skilled and effective guide. I won’t hesitate to endorse the blog to anybody who should receive tips on this area.