From Roald Dahl to Harper Lee, six books for shy readers

Mr Darcy, Joe Gargery and the second Mrs de Winter tiptoe on to our list of the best depictions of shyness in fiction

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“Confidence is a quality I prize, although it has come to me a little late in the day,” writes Rebecca’s narrator, Mrs de Winter. “I suppose it is his dependence upon me that has made me bold at last. At any rate I have lost my diffidence, my timidity, my shyness with strangers. I am very different from that self who drove to Manderley for the first time ... handicapped by a rather desperate gaucherie and filled with an intense desire to please.” Rather like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mrs de Winter wins her confidence when she tames a wild husband. Unlike Jane, she never gets a first name.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

It is not just women in fiction who are beaten into submission by life and their families. Pip’s sister’s husband, Joe Gargery, in Great Expectations, is “a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easygoing, foolish, dear fellow – a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness”. This put-upon, gentle man is reminiscent of Quoyle in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: “a great damp loaf of a body … As a child he developed stratagems to deflect stares; a smile, downcast gaze, the right hand darting up to cover the chin.”

Echoing common feelings of awkwardness … Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Echoing common feelings of awkwardness … Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Warner Bros

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Austen’s Mr Darcy embodies a particular sort of shy person: one so stricken by social anxiety that he ends up coming across as arrogant. He snubs Elizabeth at the Meryton ball, because dancing embarrasses him. His first marriage proposal is excruciating: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do …” A contemporary equivalent is Douglas Peterson in David Nicholls’ Us: a good man whose stuttering inability to say the right thing makes him slightly unbearable.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was a master of writing characters for children who echoed common feelings of shyness and awkwardness: Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Miss Honey in Matilda; even, sometimes, the BFG … Novels set in childhood are perfect arenas in which to explore shyness and, usually, how it can be overcome. For older teens and young adults, there is Lee Fiora, who contends bravely with boarding school in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep; and Little Women’s Beth March, whose shyness tends more towards being a moral trait that defines an entire life.

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert Duvall as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird Photograph: PR

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Shyness as a self-fulfilling prophecy is portrayed with great tenderness in the character of Boo Radley, “an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end”. His fear makes him hide, which makes the neighbourhood children fear him. A similar affliction befalls Christopher John Francis Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose shyness stems from a real fear of loud noises and crowded places. For him, conquering his fears is more than a matter of just putting on a front.

Maurice by EM Forster

Some characters are timid for a reason. Maurice, in Forster’s novel, written in 1913-14, hides himself because he has to, but the book is a brave one. “A happy ending was imperative,” wrote Forster. “I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows …” In The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Charlie knows that he’s a “freak”: “I’m the one who beat up Sean and couldn’t stop crying after he did it. I guess I’m pretty emotional.” Much later, the reader learns why.

Katy Guest

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pemberley, Manderley and Howards End: the real buildings behind fictional houses
From Charlotte Brontë’s Norton Conyers to Alan Hollinghurst’s Canford Court – the little known locations that inspired the most famous homes in literature

Phyllis Richardson

29, Jul, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Top writers choose their perfect crime
Crime fiction is now the UK’s bestselling genre. So which crime novels should everyone read? We asked the writers who know ...

28, Apr, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Novel Houses by Christina Hardyment review – famous fictional dwellings
From Howards End to Bag End, fictional houses can be as characterful as the people who live in them

Kathryn Hughes

31, Oct, 2019 @7:30 AM

Article image
Whatever next? How plot grips us, from Dickens to Line of Duty
How do the best stories work? John Mullan examines what today’s TV dramatists can learn from the masters of the trade

John Mullan

14, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Vick Hope: 'I didn’t just cry when reading A Little Life, I bawled'
The TV presenter, author and Women’s prize judge on reading To Kill a Mockingbird at nine, the influence of Malorie Blackman and her love for David Almond’s novels

Vick Hope

19, Feb, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
John Mullan's 10 of the best: trials

From Salem hysteria to racial prejudice in the Raj, here are some of the most memorable court scenes in literature

John Mullan

27, Apr, 2012 @9:55 PM

Ten of the best
Housekeepers in literature

John Mullan

09, Sep, 2011 @9:55 PM

Article image
From Jamaica Inn to Treasure Island: the best books about the sea
Author Emma Stonex shares her favourites, including psychological novels by John Fowles and Iris Murdoch, and an illuminating history of lighthouses

Emma Stonex

17, Apr, 2021 @11:30 AM

Article image
Show us the money! Why are novelists reluctant to write about hard cash?
EM Forster and Jane Austen told us exactly how much their characters were worth, but today’s writers are much more squeamish about specifying wealth

Amanda Craig

24, Nov, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Stamp duty: why does the UK commemorate so few writers?
The US Postal Servce launched its Maya Angelou stamp this week, but the Royal Mail tends to steer clear of authors

John Dugdale

10, Apr, 2015 @8:33 AM