despair as a theme in imaginative literature

In the last three months, I have seen or read many works of fiction where despair is a huge theme. One is Stephen Donaldson’s books about Thomas Covenant, a man afflicted by leprosy and his struggles in a fantasy realm called “the Land.” Unsurprisingly, the series, now resumed after a twenty year hiatus, is thoroughly dominated by the idea that humans are defined by the choice to give in to despair when confronted with misfortune and cruelty. I also finished reading the manga version of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki. A truly great manga, it deals with a world decimated by environmental destruction and the desire to stand tough in the face of inevitable degradation.

As I finished the Nausicaa series, I realized that a lot of fantasy literature, in the broad sense of the word, addresses despair. Examples aren’t hard to find. The Lord of the Rings is a story about hobbitts who overcome despair during a conflict between people with hope and people who have given in to hate. An overarching theme of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that part of being an adult is maintaing purpose and dignity in a world where it is easy to give in to despair. Fans of gothic literature, fantasy and science fiction can easily find more cases.

Imaginative literature has no monopoly on despair as a theme, but it does have comparative advantage. In more realistic genres, the reader or viewer relies on the world that we all live in. That world has all kinds of things built into it that help us not fall into despair: our friends, family, religion, etc. Also, the kinds of events that can truly make one lose faith on a basic existential level, thankfully, are rare. As time passes, our society is wealthier and healthier. We don’t live the short brutal lives of our ancestors.

In contrast, the author of imaginary literature can strip away this safety net. What can your family do to help you if you are being chased by vampires? Don’t government and religion seem empty when the entire earth is poisoned? Without the comforting reassurances of the modern world, the reader can be drawn into an emotional state where total destruction might happen and giving up is an appealing choice. Why should we fight when evil will rear its ugly head again no matter what we do?

Imaginary literature can offer us an alternative view of ourselves based on amoral, or immoral, principles. A character can really give in to the dark side in a way that is often not credible in traditional fiction. It’s this comparison that often shakes characters out of their despair, a realization that gives fantasy literature a special impact.


Written by fabiorojas

October 11, 2009 at 4:44 am

4 Responses

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  1. One potential counterexample is Science Fiction, which has plenty of despair, but less than fantasy. I think a lot will depend on the conventions of the genre and characteristics of writers/readers.



    October 11, 2009 at 5:24 pm

  2. […] a comment » Like Fabio said, despair is a running theme of much fiction, but did you also know that it’s a central […]


  3. Despair is a thing that many people can understand–some more than others. I write mostly about despair, and I have perfected the description of a suicide in my writing. I’m currently working on a novel of my own, with despair as a theme. it’s interesting that you mention The Chronicals of Thomas Covenant.
    In Lord Foul’s Bane, my favorite book of all time, Thomas Covenant was fighting for survival–attempting to pospone suicide for as long as possible. The Land eventually became the thing that saved him, contrary to what he had origially believed about the world he found himself in.
    Let me clarify something: despair is not grief. Grief is when you are sad about a loss, and you feel hurt and broken by it. Despair is when you feel that there is no hope, no future. When Thomas Covenant looked forwards at his future, he only saw the inevitability of suicide, which is a prime deffinition of despair–to live every day with the knowledge that your heart is inevitably GOING to break. I would be inclined to say that in creative literature, there are only a handfull of works that use true despair as a theme. And they are incredible experiences for those who understand the helplessness that one goes through in the throngs of suicide.



    May 19, 2010 at 8:31 pm

  4. […] am done with Sara Micklem’s Wildfire, the sequel to Firethorn. Definitely an example of despair in fantasay literature. Strongly […]


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