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10 of the Greatest Underdogs in Literature

This weekend, we were saddened to hear of the death of Jean Merrill, one of our all-time favorite children’s book authors, whose 1964 novel The Pushcart War still informs our thinking today. The literary queen of the underdogs, Merrill’s books nearly all concern the disadvantaged, the weak, the outcasts rising up against their oppressors (be it Corporate Toothpaste or trucking companies) and, of course, winning the day. To celebrate her life and her body of work, we’ve put together a list of our all-time favorite underdogs in literature. Read through our selections below, and let us know which characters you’d add in the comments.

Morris the Florist (and company), The Pushcart War

In Merrill’s most well-known novel, a group of New York City pushcart peddlers led by Morris the Florist do battle with the tyrannical trucking companies, armed only with a pack of pea-shooters (good for flattening tires) and their wits. Literally a David and Goliath story expanded to a whole cast of characters, only with a satisfyingly populist bent, this is the classic underdog story writ large — and writ clever.

Lennie Small, Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck can’t seem to write anything but underdogs — his backlist is full of the poor, the failing, and the unlikely to succeed. Often, since he’s a realist, they don’t — but that doesn’t make them any less wonderful to read about. We could have chosen many of Steinbeck’s characters, but we love poor, simple Lennie, whose own sweetness is his undoing.

Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings

But of course. Who would have expected that a simple hobbit — whose main skills were, as all hobbits, eating and living peacefully — could save the world? Well, we all expected it, of course, because it’s a fantasy epic, but none of the rest of the characters in the books were particularly sure.

Lily Bart, The House of Mirth

Unlike many underdog characters in literature, who begin at their lowest point and crawl their way upwards (perhaps with a few stumbles along the way), Wharton’s tragic heroine is made all the more tragic because we know that she began as a woman in good-standing, and fell as a victim of bad luck and self-sabotage. We spend the rest of the novel rooting for her to get back on her feet, to look around and do what is best for herself — but alas, some underdogs never triumph.

Oliver Twist, Oliver Twist

Like Steinbeck, Dickens’ novels are chock full of underdogs — orphans and street rats are his bread and butter — but we had to choose Oliver, he the utterer of that refrain of underdogs everywhere: “Please, sir, I want some more.” And he gets it — from workhouse to country house is a pretty good improvement.

Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is no victim — we will forever love China Miéville’s observation that “she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day” — but her rise from mistreated orphan to happy mother and wife of the man she loves is more due to her personality than the fact that she had been given much chance in the world.

Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game

Poor Ender. Mocked at home for being a third child (scandalous, even icky in Orson Scott Card’s future society), then the smallest kid at Battle School — plus his “teachers” are actively making it as hard on him as they can manage. But no matter what the situation, Ender uses his wits, his instincts, and later, after a literary training montage, his physical skills to come out on top.

Harry Potter, The Harry Potter Series

Well, we just couldn’t leave him off. Kid grew up living under the stairs, kind of funny looking, ends up destroying the world’s most powerful evil wizard. He should have died so many times.

Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

As badass as Lisbeth is, she’s also a total underdog — introverted and asocial, unable to function in regular society, strange and troubled despite her gifts, not expected to triumph, oppressed by others until she manages to fight back. It is a treat to watch her kick ass time and time again.

Taran, The Chronicles of Prydain

Look, you don’t get any more disenfranchised than Assistant Pig Keeper. Not even Pig Keeper, just the assistant. And he’s not even that good at it. With no special skills, Taran tends the pigs in a land of magicians and princes and dreams of becoming a hero. Well, he gets pretty far in that account.

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