Most of the time, we read books as a way to escape our real lives for a few hours, and vanish into a magical world that's much more exciting than our own. But then there are the other kinds of books: the deeply depressing books that will leave you miserably staring out the window, and wishing you'd just gone to that party with your friends after all. (You know, the one you blew off to stay home with your book. Big mistake.)
And yet, we keep doing this to ourselves. We keep picking up those sad, sad books, and spending our evenings sobbing alone onto the page. And that's because, as bleak as these books may seem, they're all so worth reading. They're all teaching us something — about ourselves, about our planet, about each other. The reason they're so tough to read is because they're so true, so raw, and so honest. By the time you get to end of one of these books, you're emotionally drained — but you're also tougher, more informed, and more prepared to tackle life's challenges. And that is why we read them.
So here are 13 of the most deeply depressing books you'll ever read. They've all got pretty bleak endings, they all paint a pretty grim picture of humankind, but they've all got an important story to tell.
1'Road Ends' by Mary Lawson
Megan Cartwright is the sole daughter in her dysfunctional family of ten living in 1960s Ontario — and she's had to pretty much run the entire household due to a neglectful father, irresponsible older brothers, and a reclusive mother struggling with her mental health. After years of threatening to leave, Megan finally escapes to London to start anew — but as we see the family fall apart without her back home, we start to wonder if any of the Cartwrights will ever be able to escape their bleak lives.
2'Stoner' by John Williams
The first paragraph of this achingly sad novel tells us that when William Stoner died in 1956, he had taught at the same university for his entire career without ever rising above the ranks of assistant professor. We also hear that none of his students found his classes particularly memorable. His colleagues, we learn, speak of him rarely. In short, his name leaves no legacy to inspire young academics.
After this grim opening, we go back to the beginning of William's life — and there follows the most tragically optimistic tale. William has high hopes of becoming a great academic, of writing a bestselling book, of making a difference — all of which we know from page one will never come to fruition.
3'Never Let Me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are students at a mysterious boarding school in England, where teachers constantly remind them how special they are — and yet the students have to stick to a series of puzzling rules and are terrified of the woods that surround their school. Unbeknownst to them, they are organ donors; they have been cloned and raised with this express purpose. Despite this premise, Never Let Me Go isn't a science fiction novel; it's a human story about the slow loss of hope, and about how to live when you're running out of time.
4'Vile Bodies' by Evelyn Waugh
If you've seen Bright Young Things, the fun and colorful adaptation written and directed by Stephen Fry, you might never have realized quite how sad Evelyn Waugh's original novel, Vile Bodies, really is. The novel is a satire of the decadent London society between the two World Wars, and despite the troubled emotional states of its protagonists, it genuinely is pretty hilarious — but sadly, the book doesn't end anywhere near as charmingly as the movie.
5'Us' by David Nicholls
Us begins with Douglas's wife Connie, with whom he is still very much in love, waking him in the night to tell him she wants a divorce. They decide first to go ahead with the expensive trip of Europe they have booked with their teenage son — and that they'll announce their divorce on their return. The novel follows the family on their trip, and Douglas's failing efforts to convince his wife to stay.
6'Atonement' by Ian McEwan
Atonement is the novel that taught us all that our actions have consequences — and that sometimes, those consequences are irreversible. It's also got a totally devastating ending that will take away every last shred of joy that seemed to be lingering around this book.
7'Less Than Zero' by Bret Easton Ellis
Before American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis wrote Less than Zero, about a group of rich and shallow college students in L.A. As the novel goes on, they become increasingly desensitized to each other's suffering, and to a series of truly grotesque events.
8'Their Eyes Were Watching God' by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the novel that inspired Alice Walker to write The Color Purple — but without the uplifting ending.
9'Jude the Obscure' by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy's novels are never cheery, but Jude the Obscure might be one of the bleakest of them all. It's about poor stonemason Jude Fawley, who dreams of where his life might take him, but soon learns that the world is pretty indifferent to people like him.
10'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison's Beloved tackles the brutality of slavery, and the terrors that might drive a mother to do the unthinkable.
11'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath's sole novel, about a young woman who becomes depressed and attempts suicide, is even sadder when taken in context of Plath's own suicide a month after the novel was published. Luckily, the ending is completely grim.
12'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
Lord of the Flies has got to be the darkest book that we all had to read in high school. It's about a group of schoolboys stranded on a desert island after a plane crash, and how quickly they turn on each other. Its parallels with the realities of war make it even more depressing.