In literature, it’s easy to pinpoint forlorn characters, but it becomes much more difficult when you try to find jubilant, well-adjusted types. Why this is, we don’t know (dramatic conflict? misanthropic authors? schadenfreude-driven readers?), but we've put together a sliding scale of emotional literary characters, beginning with those on the lighter side of life and ending with those who teeter on the edge. We encourage you to reference it when describing how your day is going (e.g. "I was so Jeeves at work today, it was great!") and maybe talk to someone if you find yourself often floating around the bottom of the spectrum. No one wants to be a Holden every day.
Pangloss in Candide by Voltaire
The most contented on the ecstatic side of the scale, Pangloss, Candide’s hopelessly naïve tutor and personal philosopher, genuinely believes in his oft repeated mantra: "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."
Archie Jones in White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Archie's happiness stems purely from homeostasis. Even when events occur in his life that cause palpable change, he chooses to ignore them.
Marianne Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen
Unlike her older sister, Elinor (the novel’s protagonist), Marianne is a free-spirited sort, content to pursue her romantic whims as they come.
Reginald Jeeves in Every P. G. Wodehouse Novel
While Jeeves may technically be the servant in Wodehouse's series, he is very much more in control than his employer, Bertie Wooster, realizes. Jeeves’ happiness stems from knowing that he is indispensable to Bertie.
Alan Blair in Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
In keeping with the Jeeves homage, Ames’s main character, Alan, is dependent on a valet named (you guessed it) Jeeves. The loyal friend and servant helps Blair achieve a peaceful state of mind as he embarks on a journey to an artist’s colony to recapture his desire to write.
Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Daisy may have a philandering husband, but she’s also got access to a sizeable fortune to keep her warm at night and ease the pain quite nicely.
Paul Kemp in The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
Drink, write, repeat — it’s quite possible that no other literary character has had a better occupation.
Nora Helmer in A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen
Stifled and oppressed by marital norms of the 1800s, Nora takes a stand for herself (and women everywhere) by choosing to leave her husband and children to start anew and find out what it is that she really wants for herself.
Dolores Haze in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The girl has Humbert Humbert wrapped around her finger, and she’s the one who’s really in charge of her fate. She also gets the ultimate vengeance upon him by growing out of pre-pubescence.
Myra Breckinridge in Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
As long as Myra is in possession of Myron’s body, her plan for total male evisceration is intact, and, therefore, so is her happiness.
Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Holly is that common sort of New York happy where she’s so taken in by the illusion of her reinvention that she is able to distract herself from her crippling sadness for the majority of the time.
Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Largely miserable due to being a teenager, “Charlie,” as he calls himself in his epistolary correspondence, suffers from the traumatic aftermath of a recent string of deaths in his life, which only serves to make him shyer and, therefore, more unpopular at his high school.
Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
A self-described “anachronism,” it’s easy to understand why Ignatius loathes most of humanity — apart from his mother.
Patrick Bateman in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Killing on a mass scale just to feel something, Bateman is more disconsolate than bloodthirsty if you look just beneath the surface of his “herb-mint facial mask.”
Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays Joan Didion
Maria (pronounced like Mariah) grapples with the meaninglessness of living in Los Angeles and finds solace in driving aimlessly on freeways.
Henrietta Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
There’s nothing worse than being an extravagant woman married to a penny-pinching verbal and physical abuser.
Dick Diver in Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Originally the stronger character of the novel, Dick descends into an irreversible alcoholic melancholy as his wife, Nicole, transcends her mental illness.
Prince Hamlet in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet’s familial issues are the crux of his melancholia, and then there’s his slew of Oedipal issues to contend with him — leading him to the ultimate question: “To be or not to be?”
Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Seeing himself as practically the only non-phony in the world, it’s easy to understand why Holden is filled with so much contempt — and why he’s telling us his story from a mental institution.
Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Perhaps one of the most suicidally depressed characters ever rendered to paper, Esther is at the end of the scale in terms of irrevocable dysphoria.
So there you have it. But do you agree with our scale? Are there characters you would add, remove or rearrange? And most importantly: How are you feeling today? Let us know in the comments below.
Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled Culture, The Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.
(Image credits, from top: Flickr; Epistrophe; The Drum; Cheeky Chicago; Jayne Ferst; AIGA; Ann Written Notes; The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson; Dramatica; PentaGist; Polari Magazine; Santiago Casares; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Billevesees; Ovrelia’s Notes in the Margin; The Fringe Magazine; Macmillan; The Daily Sabbatical; Rebecca Howden; Reader, I Wrote This; Esecrever e Triste; A Celebration)
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