Oedipus-RexThere’s No “Eye” in Team – Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (429 BCE)

Oedipus Rex is with little doubt the archetypal portrait of family dysfunction with tragic consequences. Cursed, wracked by the fulfillment of a murderously incestuous prophecy − with the well-known psychoanalytic complex named after it – this dramatic family intensifies victimization of one another through constant rages, distempers and short-sightedness. Sophocles’ play was first performed 2,500 years ago, but that doesn’t stop murdered King Laius’ family tree from being paraded around today as the literary prototype for the Family That Eats Its Own. And for good reason – besides the bad end his mother-wife meets, and the whole blinding himself thing, Oedipus’ headstrong offspring fare little better, and Sophocles feeds them all further through the wringer in the other Theban tragedies Antigone and Oedipus Coloneus. Rot in the tree follows the apples. – Joe Clinkenbeard

Paranormal Regality – Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1603)

Most dysfunctional literary families are content torturing each other. It takes a unique ballsiness to allow the toxicity to leach out and poison an entire kingdom into the rottenness that is Shakespeare’s Denmark. Even death can’t stop this family from fucking with one another, as the late King Hamlet pops up to stir some vindictive shit-storms. In case you don’t remember the family’s issues from high school lit, Hamlet’s father was murdered by his brother Claudius, who double-dosed on insult by instantly marrying the widowed Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is incensed after chatting up his father’s ghost. Unfortunately Hamlet isn’t great at revenge, at least the clean, contained kind. Instead of simply offing his Uncle Claudius, he starts brooding and dragging his feet, turning late-Harry Potter emo. As a result, people start asking questions and getting wise, he develops a stupid litmus test with a visiting theater troupe and lashes out at his girlfriend Ophelia. Ophelia snaps under Hamlet’s bullshit and kills herself, turning her brother Laertes against his once-BFF Hamlet. Now Claudius can manipulate Laertes’ desire for revenge to counteract Hamlet’s half-assed desire for revenge by facilitating a swordfight-to-the-death, but again, nobody in this family can forgive, forget or pull anything off right. Queen Gertrude accidentally drinks poison and Laertes nicks himself with his own poisoned sword before Hamlet finally kills the one person his vendetta demanded in the first place (and then, promptly, keels over). In the end, all of the royal family, their friends and poor hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead over one beef. So take note, ghosts. Try to keep your revenge requests to the ninja heirs. – Tabitha Blankenbiller

Flattery Will Get You Nowhere, My Lear – King Lear by William Shakespeare (1608)

After a lifetime of toil, we can only hope for the comfort of age and the kindness of family. Of course, it helps if you’re not the kind of old man King Lear becomes: vain, petty and unable to see past shallow compliments. In William Shakespeare’s most nihilistic play, King Lear is about the worst kind of father there can be, willing to coddle his spoiled daughters Goneril and Regan to the point of murder just because they suck up to him, and banishing his faithful daughter Cordelia because she calls him out on his shit. Of course, it ends up with a lot of death, madness and eyes being ripped out a dude’s skull while he’s still alive (it’s Shakespeare, so it’s not torture porn), but all that could have been avoided if the guy was just a bit better with his kids. – Nathan Kamal

asilaydyingMother Isn’t Quite Herself Today – As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)

Family roadtrips and funerals are two of the most dread-inducing concepts on their own. Put together, the result is despairing. With As I Lay Dying, the Bundren brood hits the road, bringing the funeral with them in the form of their matriarch rotting in her homespun casket. The family, composed largely of grotesques, hauls their wife and mother through the Deep South countryside as though the task is some mythical labor. Amplifying the damnable misery of the situation are the seething resentment, the selfish motivations and duplicitous nature rampant among father Anse Bundren and his five children (one of which, Jewel, doesn’t even carry his blood). Each character is suffering their individual plights — Jewel grappling with his illegitimacy, teenage Dewey Dell with her pregnancy, Darl’s burgeoning madness, Cash’s physical pain from a broken leg, Vardaman’s naïveté and devotion to his mother manifesting in him advertently boring coffin nails through her face — but compounded, they become the quintessential Southern Gothic dysfunctional family. Through Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness style and his rotating litany of narrators, the reader is taken along for the lugubrious haul, feeling a part of the family on their descent. – Cole Waterman

Worth More Dead Than Alive – Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

Some relentlessly pursue the ever-elusive American dream and come out winners, leading lives of infinite happiness and prosperity. Others, like the Lomans in Arthur Miller’s classic play Death of a Salesman, shoot for the stars, only to come crashing to the ground. The “salesman” referred to in the title is Willy, an overworked, mentally unstable 63-year-old. Years of rough life on the road, infidelity to his wife and a general denial of reality have given him deep, irreparable battle scars. His wife Linda is generally warm and supportive, yet proves to be a casualty of her husband’s many flaws. Adult sons Happy and Biff—the former a restless womanizer and the latter a former high school football star who is happiest when working with his hands—live in a state of perpetual discontent as well, victims of the high, narrow expectations those surrounding them have set. Death of a Salesman, as we might expect from a play that includes the word “death” in the title and ends with a section called “Requiem,” depicts one of the unhappiest families in all of literature. – Jacob Adams

frannyzoeyCitrus Makes The Heart Grow Phonier – Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)

“Did you know, God damn it, that Les was all for bringing a tangerine in to you last night before he went to bed? My God.” Zooey has more to say than this to Franny (pages and pages more), who has chosen the couch at the family home as the preferred cushion on which to pad the blows of an emotional collapse. Nevermind what’s got her silently mouthing the Jesus Prayer over and over as a remedy to melancholia (chiefly, as she describes it, intellectual phoniness – of her boyfriend, her professors, the whole of academia, herself − oh, and maybe also her older brother Seymour’s suicide). For Zooey, it’s the tangerine that’s put the whole mess over the limit. A father’s impotent gesture. The helpless helpfulness of it. That was more than could be borne.
J.D. Salinger’s Glass family – surely you remember Bessie and Les’s kids Buddy, Franny, Zooey, Boo Boo, the twins Walt and Waker and, of course, Seymour – exemplified with engulfing precision the feeling of the “too much”-ness of life, Seymour proving that even bodhisattvas succumb to their frailties. Yet as rightly unhappy as the Glasses may have been (and always were), we loved them for their tangerines. – Stacey Pavlick

Good Day, Sunshine – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

The Buendía family may represent the selfishness of the colonialists but on a line by line level, they just may be the unhappiest family in Latin American literature. We’re talking more miserable than the Truebas here. Fraught with incest, murder and dirt-eating, Gabriel García Márquez’s family repeats the same sins one generation after the next. Many of the misfortunes that befall the family are self-inflicted, piling up until the entire line is basically swept away by a hurricane. It even ends abstractly. When the last living Buendías decipher an ancient prophecy they realize all the pain, misery and unhappiness was preordained. Cruel is the creator. – David Harris

Oh, Danny Boy, The Poltergeists Are Calling – The Shining by Stephen King (1977)

The Shining is a snapshot of the cycle of abuse. Jack Torrance was a victim as a child and finds himself repeating the pattern. Alcoholic and short-tempered, he’s already broken his son’s arm during a binge. He sees his new caretaking job as his chance to reset and rebuild, but it doesn’t take long for his anger and self-loathing to blossom in the isolation. His codependent wife, Wendy, sways between hopeful denial and victimhood. What hope does their son Danny have? With the imminent collapse of his family and his father’s violence, the psychic torture of graphic visions and spirit-world threats are just another curse of the fates. Torrance descends into madness, to be consumed by bloodlust and guilt. His death saves his family, but still leaves them vulnerable and bruised. Although it did push Wendy into assertive action, it’s hard to imagine her fully recovering. Despite support from the avuncular Dick Halloran, Danny may well grow to repeat the cycle. – Jester Jay Goldman

Slaves To Carnie Desires – Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)

The Binewski kids never had a chance. As if being born to a family of carnies wasn’t ignominious enough, they were born to Al and Crystal Binewski, a pair of circus entrepreneurs desperate and daring enough to purposely mutate their children in utero to produce increasingly bizarre attractions for their failing business. But Arty, Elly, Iphy, Oly and Chick didn’t have to take it so far as building a cult, psychological torture, a little inbreeding (that perennial hallmark of a fucked up family) and eventually a giant firestorm of an explosion that razes their whole carnival world to the ground. That just seems like a really bad reaction to poor-quality family life. – Nathan Kamal

Heavy Is The Hand That Bangs The Crown – A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1991)

Where to even start with the Lannisters? One of the most powerful Great Houses of Westeros, they’re also one of the more fucked up noble families in the history of modern literature (and that’s saying something). Intra-familial murder? You got it. Sibling incest? Sure thing. A specialty parental-mandated gang rape? Lannisters all the way. Throughout the course of the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the Lannisters battle against each other for power, love and lust, and not a single bond is left unbroken or unbetrayed. In short, they’re not very good with other people, but they’re terrible amongst themselves. – Nathan Kamal

The Virgin Suicides bookOnly The Good-Looking Die Young – The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)

Dutch elm disease is killing the neighborhood trees. Fish flies (which only live for a 24-hour cycle) die in droves and their husks coat walls, sidewalks and entire cars. The pesticide-choked air prompts tuxedoed debutante ball revelers to cheekily wear gas masks as part of an asphyxia theme. Jeffrey Eugenides lays the suburban decay metaphors on pretty thick in his fearless debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, as he recounts the spectacular flameouts of five teenage sisters from the perspective of their adolescent admirers. The neighborhood boys are fascinated by the Lisbon girls (Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese), young beauties who are cloistered within their suburban home by their overprotective parents. Cecilia acts out first, gashing her wrists in a failed suicide attempt. This leads the fastidious and uptight Mrs. Lisbon to open her home to a co-ed party for the first time, a party at which Cecilia succeeds in suicide by jumping from the second story and impaling herself on a fence post. The neighborhood boys try to reach out to the girls as the Lisbon household becomes more isolated and oppressive until the girls all manage to take their own lives. There’s no overt abuse, negligence or malice on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, which makes the mystery of the girls’ suicidal tendencies so fascinating to both the neighborhood and reader. But one thing’s for sure: theirs is a joyless family life decaying from the inside out. – Josh Goller

Postal Child – American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)

One of his strongest works, American Pastoral finds Philip Roth stepping outside the immediate purview of familiar narrator Zuckerman (his own unhappy family chronicled in a cycle of novels) for some grass-is-always-greener analysis. Using a high school reunion as an impetus, Zuckerman tells the tale of Seymour “the Swede” Levov, a popular Jewish classmate famous for his athletic prowess and Aryan appearance. Delving into the realities of the Swede’s apparently perfect life, he finds that the man’s has actually been torn apart by tragedy in the intervening years, after his politically radicalized daughter set off a bomb at the local post office, killing a bystander, a crime which has sent her into hiding. The years following this event find the Swede desperately trying to figure out what he may have done to cause it, a process that identifies further cracks in his family’s perfect façade. – Jesse Cataldo

When the Bubble Breaks – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)

Jonathan Franzen had notably (and notoriously) lamented the state of the modern American novel in a Harper’s piece around five years before unleashing his own magnum opus, The Corrections. Surely he knew that the best way to put his word processor where his mouth was involved cracking open a desperately unhappy family. He arrived at the Lamberts, a Midwestern clan operating at a strong simmer of dysfunction and self-sabotaging behavior. Across hundreds of pages, Franzen painstakingly shows exactly how familial issues left unaddressed can corrode everyone within their sphere. With vivid curlicues of language, the novel burrows into the highly fraught emotions of the character. It’s misery for the modern age. – Dan Seeger

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