02/23/2012 01:52 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2012

A Look at Unhappy Literary Characters

I recently read Freedom, and one thing that struck me was how unhappy the Patty Berglund character was for much of that excellent novel.

She was mopey, self-pitying, dissatisfied, and passive-aggressive -- a tour de force of negativity courtesy of author Jonathan Franzen. And one couldn't always figure out why Patty was so glum. After all, she had brains, looks, money, a nice husband, and two smart children.

Of course, the marriage eventually got rocky and the son was a real jerk for a while, but Patty was unhappy even before that happened. I guess her parents -- who favored their other kids over Patty -- did a number on her as a girl. Also, Patty pined at times for bad-boy rocker Richard, her husband's roommate back in his college days. And some people are just wired to be depressed, whether due to brain chemistry or other factors. Still, Patty did possess good qualities, including some resilience and a capacity for change.

Anyway, after losing my Freedom (I returned it to the library), I thought about literature's many other characters who were unhappy for various reasons -- such as depression, bad marriages, unrequited hopes, ill health, personal tragedies, racism, and so on.

Edith Wharton created a whole bunch of dissatisfied characters, including denied-his-true-love Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, torn-between-shallowness-and-integrity Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, nasty social climber Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, and the unhappily married Fromes in Ethan Frome.

The title character in Herman Melville's Pierre became quite morose in the latter part of that novel. But, as with the aforementioned Wharton and Franzen books, I wasn't morose reading Pierre because a work of fiction can be great despite -- or often because of -- unhappy characters.

Claude Lantier, the starved-for-recognition painter in Emile Zola's The Masterpiece, was despondent much of the time. Part of that book's fascination involved wondering if, when, and how Claude would snap.

The title character in Jack London's gripping Martin Eden found writing fame after a long struggle, but his success and celebrity gave him little pleasure.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter featured guilt-ridden minister Arthur Dimmesdale, who didn't have the coping powers of Hester Prynne.

Most characters in Cormac McCarthy's novels are gloomy and dejected, but that's understandable given the violence, mayhem, and destruction they deal with -- or are responsible for.

The (literally) tortured Paul Sheldon and his nutcase captor Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery? Well, the title says it all. (Though readers of that novel know the title also has a second meaning.)

And impending war, actual war, or post-war stress certainly saddens characters -- as is the case in many of Erich Maria Remarque's superb books. The cynical, world-weary refugee surgeon Ravic in Remarque's Arch of Triumph is a prime example.

I realize I've only named a few characters. (Heck, I could write a whole post just about depressed people in dystopian novels!) So I'd love to see more examples. Who are some of the unhappy fictional characters you've found most memorable?