After reading Tara Isabella Burton’s American Reader essay, “The Geography of Melancholy,” it’s natural to find yourself thinking about the most depressing cities, towns, and municipalities in literature. Burton points out that, in the real world, “Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it — each variety linked to the scars the city bears.” She also connects writers and the cities that influenced them — “Baudelaire’s Paris, Zweig’s Vienna, Morris’s Trieste.” There are many more, of course — here are a selection of other depressing places and the writers they inspired.
Charles Dickens: London
It’s impossible to think of Dickens and not think of London, and to this day, after over a century’s worth of changes, it’s also still hard to think of London without thinking of the Victorian-era city he describes: one of the greatest, most depressing, dreary, darkest, and terrible places in the history of literature.
Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery: The Town
Without spoiling anything for those of you that haven’t had a chance to read Jackson’s classic short story, the residents of the small nameless American town have some issues they work out the wrong way at the start of the summer, and the ominous feeling of what’s going to happen lends itself to each sentence throughout The Lottery.
Orhan Pamuk: Turkey
There’s always some sort of struggle, strife, and change on the horizon when the Nobel Prize winner writes about Turkey, but here, in his second novel, set outside of Istanbul in 1980, you get the feeling that something really major is about to happen. It isn’t just the town that is about to go through something major; it’s all of Turkey. The waves are being felt in the town of Cennethisar, where the book is set, and an impending coup will only make matters more difficult.
Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights
As Mr. Lockwood describes this landmark of Gothic fiction:
“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling, ‘wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed. One may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house, and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.”
Franz Kafka’s The Castle: The Village
Kafka’s castle, and the town it looks down, don’t really seem like the sort of place anybody would want to visit on vacation, let alone settle for good.
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: Holcomb, Kansas
The once safe and quiet small Breadbasket town is virtually leveled twice in this story — first when the Clutter family is brutally murdered, and then again when the media starts showing up. How does a town, that as of 2010, still has under 3000 residents, pick up from all of that? The answer, it seems, is that they really don’t. You get the sense throughout the book that the people of Holcomb have been living through their worst nightmares.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise: The-College-on-the-Hill
It’s supposed to be the perfect American town, but you know that there’s no such thing. Instead, there’s lying and deceit, rampant consumerism, and, of course, death. The more you try and hide from these truths, the more depressing things get.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones: Bois Sauvage, Mississippi
The real natural disaster that we know Ward’s novel is leading up to is hard enough to imagine, but even sadder is the poverty in which the characters in Ward’s National Book Award winner live, because it represents the failures of an entire society.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666: Santa Teresa, Mexico
Once you get to about page 350 of Bolaño’s final masterpiece, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something evil and wrong with the Mexican town, and the unsolved murders of dozens of women over four years.
Dante’s Inferno: Hell
It’s difficult to try and imagine hell and not have it be terrifying and depressing, but somehow, after all of these centuries, Dante’s vision is still the one we tend to default to.