‘You think wrong!’: top 10 rants in literature

Some distrust kvetching in print, but writers from Shakespeare to Valerie Solanas show there’s nothing wrong with constructive – and even destructive – criticism

I probably started griping as soon as I could talk. I know I was a good sulker, and sulking usually solidifies into gripes. Many readers are oddly wary of rants in novels, but I’m all in favour of a good, free-wheeling tirade. What’s wrong with offering a little constructive criticism – or even destructive criticism, as long as it’s funny? You think the world needs no improvement?

Here are some admirable examples of the fine tradition of being an awkward customer.

1. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
I embarked on hardcore kvetching at the age of 13 when my family moved from Connecticut to Oxford, a city devoted to the status quo. Oxford was so flat, so sexless, so grim, and its inhabitants, I felt, were cold towards me. My self-esteem took a plunge from which it’s never recovered. Even our dog was despised. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut about my negative attitude to the place. But Oxford would not have welcomed me, a dopey girl with an American drawl, whatever I did. It’s a snide, pitiless town that generates its own miasma of male exclusivity. Hardy nailed it here, detailing the prudishness, philistinism, snobbery and sexual inequality of Oxford – all the stuff that drives misfits to drink a lot of dry vermouth within days of arrival. As Sue says to Jude, “Christminster cares nothing for you, poor dear!”

2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
A wonderfully peculiar novel, and a damning indictment of male silliness. Ishmael resignedly declares: “Here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.” I’m sure whales gripe about us too. Or they should.

3. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
In one of the most compassionate pieces of surrealism ever written, Swift asserts that a “well grown, fat yearling child” makes “a most delicious nourishing … fricassée, or a ragoust.” In this mock-eugenic solution to the burden of slums and beggars, Swift uses the same logic that recently led Boris Johnson to view Covid deaths among the over-80s as an economy measure. Swift adds that the lucrative farming of unwanted babies for the tables of the rich would also offer another unlooked-for advantage: “Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.”

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre with Orson Welles as Rochester in the 1944 film version.
‘You think wrong!’ … Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre with Orson Welles as Rochester in the 1944 film version. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Driven to distraction by Rochester’s cavorting with a gold-digger and dressing up in drag as a fortune teller, Jane finally erupts. “Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? … Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you – and full as much heart!” Like Sojourner Truth’s real-life speech a few years after the novel was written, Ain’t I a woman? Brontë’s fervid feminist statement refutes the Victorian gridlock imposed on womanhood. But after Jane and Rochester retreat triumphantly indoors, lightning blights the tree they were just sitting under: you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs.

5. Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences by Mark Twain
“Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” Twain says the author of The Last of the Mohicans “hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and I don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse.” For Twain, the dialogue stinks, the characters lack character, their actions are incongruous, and Cooper is overly dependent on broken twigs as a plot device: “Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.”

6. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
In a novel stuffed with virtuoso rants – on prep school roommates, sexual frustration, phonies of every description, the Lunts, and movies about amnesiacs (“don’t see it if you don’t want to puke all over yourself”) – the sorest guy has to be Horwitz, the cab driver who goes berserk when Holden asks him what happens to ducks in Central Park in the winter. Horwitz has nothing to say about ducks, but claims the fish freeze solid. “Their bodies take in nutrition and all, right through the goddam seaweed and crap … They got their pores open the whole time. That’s their nature, for Chrissake,” he screams. The guy’s heading for a coronary.

7. Cutting Timber: An Irritation by Thomas Bernhard
Self-hatred and disdain for the world merge in this relentless book-length rant: “the dinners at the Auersbergers’ have always been more or less repugnant … I reflected in the wing chair.” Their dinners leave behind “a frightful marital stench” that even famous actor guests from the Burgtheater can’t dispel. In Bernhard novels, the best people are already dead.

Virginia Woolf.
Pinpointing patriarchy … Virginia Woolf. Photograph: AP

8. A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
“That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library.” Woolf’s analyses of the gender divide are almost too civil in tone to qualify as gripes. But through her sardonic dissections of art and war, a set of mild but powerful demands (a room here, a guinea there), and some risible photos of men in ceremonial outfits, Woolf effortlessly pinpoints the desperate stances of patriarchy.

9. SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
The “groovy” Solanas takes a different tack: she wants to cut men up! To kill them. This seems a little harsh, even if it’s for a good cause. I want non-violent revolution. (She was a lousy shot anyway.) Otherwise, Solanas was pretty much on the ball. “Life in a ‘society’ made by and for creatures who, when they are not grim and depressing, are utter bores, can only be, when not grim and depressing, an utter bore.”

10. The Complete Works of Shakespeare
“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action” … “Out, damned spot”…“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”… “To be or not to be” … “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Shakespeare’s quite the little ray of sunshine. Hamlet is a real sourpuss, rightly so. And Shylock’s plea for tolerance is still surprisingly relevant: “Hath not a Jew eyes? … If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” That tickling is a nice touch – many a rant could do with a little levity. Maybe if Cordelia had joked around with her dad a bit more, everything would’ve worked out OK. Instead, Lear paces the heath issuing orders: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! … Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!” The guy’s like a wounded bear. Speak to him gently and make no sudden movements.

  • Lucy Ellmann’s own collection of gripes, Things Are Against Us, is published by Galley Beggar. To support the Guardian, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com.

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Lucy Ellmann

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