A four-day weekend of eating and giving thanks usually turns out to be too good to be true. In fact, it doesn’t even take a burned bird for Thanksgiving to go hopelessly awry — the combination of close quarters, high expectations, and more than a few bottles of wine can easily lead to family feuding, awkward exchanges, open rivalries, and spilled secrets. But even if your family seems as crazy as they come, you can at least give thanks for the fact you won’t be spending Thanksgiving with any of these hopelessly dysfunctional families from classic literature.
The phrase “family roadtrip” is already associated with hellish sojourns (and equally hellish movies), but once you add destitution and desperation to the mix, it becomes a whole new category of nightmare. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck invites us along for a ride with the Joad family as they seek a better life in California amid the ravages of the Great Depression. Over the course of this journey, the family is shattered by death, abandonment, exploitation, and murder, casting a less than golden glow on the Golden State and the risks undertaken by those trying to make it there.
One Hundred Years of Solitude spans seven-generations of the Buendia family in a non-linear, labyrinthine narrative that metaphorically parallels that of Colombia’s history. From murder to rape, disease, betrayal, banishment, poverty, tyranny, and ultimate monstrosity, this epic family saga is enough to make you reconsider the supposed honor of sharing a name with any of your relations.
With enough death, madness, wife swapping, and self-mutilation to make even Sophocles proud, Hamlet’s deteriorating central family is dysfunctional even by royal standards. Sure, there are plenty of families in literature that could trump the members of Shakespeare’s fictional Danish court in both violence and emotional manipulation, but it’s the characters’ pained psychological unraveling (not to mention backstabbing and more than a few unsolved mysteries) that makes this such a winning family tragedy.
There’s something morbid about planning your own funeral, but William Faulkner took this bleak suggestion one step farther in As I Lay Dying. The book follows the days before and after the death of Addie Bundren, a wife and mother of five, as her remaining family members flounder in their already desperate circumstances. As the title suggests, Mama Bundren is partly witness to these goings-on (she can even hear her oldest son nailing the coffin that they plan to bury her in), but it’s the novel’s mosaic of multiple stream-of-consciousness narrators that paradoxically heightens the sense of isolation at the Bundren family’s core.
Leo Tolstoy probably summarized it best when he opened Anna Karenina with the declaration: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Although the novel itself takes an expansive view of several family cores, it effectively centers on the nuances of this opening statement. Adultery, of course, serves as one of the staples of such dysfunction, but it operates on both a literal and metaphorical level as the novel’s characters waver between loneliness, disappointment, and deception within each of their unhappy homes.