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The top 10 classic fears in literature

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[ted id=1637 width=560 height=315]By Marianna Torgovnick

It’s the story that inspired Moby Dick.

In 1819, the crewmembers of the whaleship Essex watched in horror as their boat was struck by a sperm whale and began to flood. Forced into small boats with little food or water, they had three options: they could head to the nearest land, the Marquesas Islands, believed to be populated by cannibals; they could make a run for Hawaii and pray to escape the massive storms of the season; or they could attempt to catch a current to take them 1,500 miles to the coast of South America and risk running out of supplies on the way.

As author Karen Thompson Walker shares in today’s talk, given at TEDGlobal 2012, the crew took option three because of the vivid, terrifying images that options one and two brought to life in their minds. After two months at sea, the men ran out of food. Less than half of the crewmembers survived.

“Fear is a kind of unintentional storytelling that we’re all born knowing how to do,” says Walker. “Our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: what will happen next … How we choose to read our fears can have a profound affect on our lives.”

So what do people fear most? The literary record comes through loud and clear, showing many almost universal fears echoed throughout time. The list below begins with the biggest, blockbuster fears and moves to ones that are more time specific and even quaint. Do writers and the characters they create fear the wrong things? Is fear a creative way to healthy outcomes? That, you will have to decide.

Fear #1:  Death, death, death—did I mention death?

An almost universal fear, death recurs in literature more than any other fear, all the way from canonical works through fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I list the fear of death three times since it occurs in many forms: fear of our own deaths, fear of family members or close friends dying, fear of children preceding parents, the death of an entire culture.

Some examples: Shakespeare’s Sonnets (“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore”; Hamlet  (“To be or not to be”); John Keats (“When I have fears”); Virginia Woolf, The Waves; Pat Barker, The Ghost Road. This list could go on and on, because the fear does.

Fear #2:  Avoiding death for the wrong reasons.

Literature loves paradox and so, paradoxically, the second greatest fear is avoiding death for the wrong reasons: when death will inevitably follow a noble or moral act or out of cowardice, especially in war. For understandable reasons, this fear is less common than more general fear of death, but it is out there and memorable nonetheless.

Some examples: Sophocles, Antigone (to bury her dead brother, Antigone famously courts death); Shakespeare several times — Hamlet again (“There is a providence in the fall of a sparrow”) and Antony and Cleopatra (to avoid capture by Octavius); Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done”); Harry Potter in his pursuit of Voldemort.

Fear #3:  Hunger or other severe physical deprivation.

Survival tends to trump the finer emotions when it comes to fear. Sometimes time specific, the fear of hunger nonetheless reminds us of basic things. In romantic novels or poems, it can be and often is a symbol for more abstract needs, like love. In Holocaust literature, it portrays humanity strained to the core.

Some examples: Dante, The Divine Comedy (Count Ugolino and his children); Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (“Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink”); Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; Elie Wiesel, Night; Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

Fear #4:  Killing or causing the death of someone you love.

Whether by murder, negligence or a set of circumstances beyond our control, the fear of causing the death of someone we love is a big one. It’s a stock feature of numerous spy and crime dramas, where we tend to brush it off since the hero (think James Bond) or (more rarely) heroine’s beloved is almost always a goner. Numerous operas by Verdi, including Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera use this theme, sometimes more than once; in fact, opera thrives on this fear, as in Bizet’s Carmen. It usually takes serious and even majestic forms in literature.

Some examples:  Patroclus dying for Achilles in Homer’s The Iliad; Othello killing Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello; Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (“Done because we are too menny”); D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (Gerald choosing to die rather than kill Gudrun); Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Fear #5: Being rejected and/or being loved by the wrong person.

At last we come to a fear that can have a lighter side and, sometimes — though not always — a happy ending. In literature, characters fear being rejected, being loved, and being loved by the wrong person in almost equal proportions. Once again, the examples span the ancient classics all the way up to the present.

Some examples:  Woman loves step-son madly in three versions of the same story, none with a happy ending (Euripides, Hippolytus; Racine, Phaedra; Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea); mixed up couples set right in Shakespeare’s As You Like It; love triumphs by the end in Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; two different kinds of love lead to tragedy in Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles; mixed results in Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot.

Fear #6:  Illness, disease and aging.

Closely allied to the fear of death — but not identical to it — the fear of illness is another constant though, as we’d expect, the disease most feared changes over time. The bubonic plague used to be the leading contender; TB enjoyed a long dominance until cures were found. Nowadays, cancer and, more often, dementia are far greater fears. There is at least one stunning example in this category of embracing the fear being absolutely the right thing to do: Flaubert’s St Julien, L’Hospitalier, in which the saint embraces a leper and achieves transcendence.

Some examples:  Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron; Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year; Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray; Albert Camus, La Peste (The Plague); Ian McEwan, Atonement; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections.  

Fear #7:  Lost reputation, divorce or scandal.

People used to fear this one more than they do today, when our motto seems to be that no publicity is really bad publicity and unseemly revelations are the order of the day. Still, this is a significant fear, and one that even recent books revisit in original ways.

Some examples: Sophocles, Oedipus Rex; Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina; D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Thomas Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities; Phillip Roth, The Human Stain.

Fear #8:  War, shipwrecks and other disasters.

The fear of shipwrecks can seem archaic — but they were the airplane crashes of yesteryear. Shipwrecks can be mere episodes or the core of the plot; in early literature, they are closely allied with war, a more global disaster. While other disasters arouse fear — earthquakes, volcanos — war and shipwrecks lead the field. Both change characters’ lives, with variable results.

Some examples:  Homer, The Odyssey; Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels; Tolstoy, War and Peace; Yann Martel, Life of Pi.

Fear #9:  The law and, more specifically, lawyers.

Fear of the law is a surprisingly classic fear, weighing in at number nine. But what’s meant by the law changes over time. While fear of God’s judgment remains plausible in literature, it is far less common today than fear of society’s laws — and specifically the rapacity of lawyers and the law’s ability, in Dickens’ words, “to make business for itself.” In some modern books, the law becomes a metaphor for the meaning of life.

Some examples:  The Bible; Aeschylus, The Oresteia; Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; Dickens, Bleak House; Franz Kafka, The Trial; Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Fear #10:  That real life won’t resemble literature.

While this might seem the most trivial of fears, in fact it drives a lot of great literature. Some characters want life to be elevated, inflated, like epic or romantic literature. Deprived of that illusion, they die or take their own lives—looping us back to fear #1. Other characters favor codes of renunciation that have been called by literary critics “the Great Tradition,” fearing that they will gain something by immoral or amoral actions; a variation on this fear is the fear, as George Eliot’s Dorothea puts it, “I try not to have desires merely for myself.” Not at all light for avid readers, this fear usefully reminds us that life is not really like a Henry James novel.

Some examples:  Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote; Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; George Eliot, Middlemarch; Henry James, The Ambassadors; Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending.



Marianna Torgovnick is a Professor of English at Duke University and the director of the Duke in New York Program. Author of the books The War Complex and Gone Primitive, you can read much more of her work at