If you’ve ever taken a course in creative writing, you’ll know that being on this list is a compliment!
A writer’s main goal is to manipulate his reader’s emotions. The writers on this list manipulated my emotions so effectively that they bypassed all secondary and tertiary emotions and tapped into one of my primary emotions, an emotion so visceral that it seeps out of the realm of psychology, into the realm of physiology. That emotion? Disgust.
These are the moments when a book made me cringe or grit my teeth or feel nauseous…they were, quite frankly, traumatic. That’s why I still remember them to this day.
WARNING: CLASSIC LITERATURE SPOILERS AHEAD!
#6 Daisy runs over Myrtle.
Towards the end of The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan runs over her husband’s mistress, while driving the car of her would-be lover, Jay Gatsby. The scene of this wreck is horrific, not merely because of Fitzgerald’s talent for imagery…
Michaelis and this man reached her first, but when they tore open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was hanging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as if she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored for so long.
but also because of the trajectory Daisy has followed to this point. She has been idle and pointlessly bitter for almost the entire novel; now, when the destructive nature of her habits finally catches up with her, she shows us just how spineless she truly is: she speeds away from the woman she has just brutally killed, without even slowing down.
What makes this moment so sickening? All of us have, at some point in the novel, wanted to love Daisy. She is beautiful, droll, romantic–and we are disgusted when she commits this heinous crime, forcing us to realize that, just like Jay Gatsby, we have staked all our hope on a version of Daisy that can never exist.
#5 The truth about Charles Bon.
In chapter four of Faulkner’s masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom! , we witness Henry Compson murdering Charles Bon, his sister’s fiance and, ostensibly, his own best friend. The murder comes as a shock to the readers, but it only grows more and more shocking as Faulkner slowly unravels Henry’s motive.
First, we believe that Henry killed Charles when he discovered they were half-brothers (aka. Charles was about to marry his half-sister). This theory is discarded when we learn that Henry is actually okay with incestuous relationships and fantasizes about having one with his sister. Next, we believe that Henry killed Charles when he discovered that Charles already had a wife in New Orleans. Again, this theory is discarded when we learn that Henry scoffed this wife’s rights because she was an “octoroon,” a woman with a trace of African American descent.
Finally, we learn the real reason why Henry killed his sister’s love/his brother/his best friend: Charles himself had a “drop” of African American blood.
What makes this moment so sickening? We are presented with so many reasons why Henry might have killed Charles, and in the end, the most petty reason of all turns out to be true.
#4 Esmeralda finds her mother.
As The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes to a close, Esmeralda–gosh, there has never been another character quite as radiant as Esmeralda–has been sentenced to the gallows by a vicious archdeacon who is determined to kill her because her beauty has “corrupted” him.
On her way to the gallows, she encounters an imprisoned madwoman who has always spat hideous insults at her for being a gypsy. When the madwoman begins her usual attacks, a world-weary Esmeralda (and it is tragic for Esmeralda, with all her hope and youth, to be reduced to world-weariness) replies, “What have I done to you?” The woman responds by telling Esmeralda that gypsies stole and ate her child, then show’s Esmeralda the child’s baby slipper. Esmeralda has the matching slipper. She has carried it with her for as long as she can remember, a talisman that will someday reunite her with her mother.
Mother and daughter recognize each other, and the madwoman “flung aside her long gray hair from her brow, and without uttering a word, began to shake the bars of her cage cell, with both hands, more furiously than a lioness.” She succeeds in ripping the bars out of her cell and welcoming Esmeralda into the shadows of her cell, where she can be hide. Inside the cell, the mother cannot contain her joy…
“My daughter! my daughter!” she said. “I have my daughter! here she is! The good God has given her back to me! Ha you! come all of you! Is there any one there to see that I have my daughter? Lord Jesus, how beautiful she is! You have made me wait fifteen years, my good God, but it was in order to give her back to me beautiful.—Then the gypsies did not eat her! Who said so? My little daughter! my little daughter! Kiss me. Those good gypsies! I love the gypsies!—It is really you! That was what made my heart leap every time that you passed by. And I took that for hatred! Forgive me, my Agnes, forgive me. You thought me very malicious, did you not? I love you. Have you still the little mark on your neck? Let us see. She still has it. Oh! you are beautiful! It was I who gave you those big eyes, mademoiselle. Kiss me. I love you. It is nothing to me that other mothers have children; I scorn them now. They have only to come and see. Here is mine. See her neck, her eyes, her hair, her hands. Find me anything as beautiful as that! Oh! I promise you she will have lovers, that she will! I have wept for fifteen years. All my beauty has departed and has fallen to her. Kiss me.”
But their happiness is cruelly short-lived. An army arrives in search of Esmeralda. They discover her in the cell, wrench her away from her mother, and hang her–despite her mother’s reassurance that “God does not permit such things.” Ironically, it is “god” (the church) which has pronounced Esmeralda’s doom.
What makes this moment so sickening? Tenderness is trampled by passion. True faith is destroyed by religious hypocrisy. A mother’s love (do we not all secretly believe that our mother’s love makes us indestructible?) proves powerless.
#3 Humbert and Lolita.
I think I could sooner understand how a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat than how Vladimir Nabokov managed to turn a man who embodied a triage of monstrous archetypes (kidnapper, child molester, murderer) into a sympathetic character, but he did it. Thus we have Lolita.
For me, the moment in Lolita that was hardest to stomach was this one…
I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her –after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred–I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever–for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation)–and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again–and ‘oh, no,’ Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure–all would be shattered.
when we see Humbert coming out of the flagrantly perverted, sing-song daze in which he narrates most of his story. Here, we see “at last, a mute moan of human tenderness,” a moan which aligns Humbert Humbert with our own feelings and, by doing so, yanks us deeper into his position–right before “ironically, horribly, lust would swell again.”
What makes this moment so sickening? We can’t help feeling what Humbert Humbert feels in this passage, and yet the idea that we are sharing the feelings of a child molester (right in the middle of one of his trysts) is appalling.
#2 Lennie goes to the farm.
In the final chapter of Of Mice and Men, George realizes that he can no longer take care of his mentally handicapped friend, Lennie, who is being hunted by a gang of men who want to kill him. George knows Lennie is going to die, so he decides to take matters into his own hands and give Lennie a peaceful death…
George took off his hat. He said shakily, “Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine.” Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer, and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.
Lennie said, “Tell how it’s gonna be.”
George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was businesslike. “Look acrost the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.”
Lennie turned his head and looked off across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans.
“We gonna get a little place,” George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson’s Luger; he snapped off the safety, and the hand and gun lay on the ground behind Lennie’s back. He looked at the back of Lennie’s head, at the place where the spine and skull were joined. A man’s voice called from up the river, and another man answered.
“Go on,” said Lennie. George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again. “Go on,” said Lennie. “How’s it gonna be. We gonna get a little place.”
“We’ll have a cow,” said George. “An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens… an’ down the flat we’ll have a… little piece alfalfa-“
“For the rabbits,” Lennie shouted.
“For the rabbits,” George repeated.
“And I get to tend the rabbits.”
“An’ you get to tend the rabbits.”
Lennie giggled with happiness. “An’ live on the fatta the lan’.”
“Yes.” Lennie turned his head.
“No, Lennie. Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place.” Lennie obeyed him. George looked down at the gun. There were crashing footsteps in the brush now. George turned and looked toward them.
“Go on, George. When we gonna do it?”
“Gonna do it soon.”
“Me an’ you.”
“You… an’ me. Ever’body gonna be nice to you. Ain’t gonna be no more trouble. Nobody gonna hurt nobody nor steal from ’em.”
Lennie said, “I thought you was mad at me, George.” “No,” said George.
“No, Lennie. I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ya to know.” The voices came close now. George raised the gun and listened to the voices.
Lennie begged, “Le’s do it now. Le’s get that place now.”
“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta.” And George raised the gun and steadied it, and hebrought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger.
What makes this moment so sickening? It’s the mixture of gentleness, simplicity, and impossibility in Lennie’s dream of rabbits. Why can’t Lennie just have his rabbits??? we are screaming in our head. Or why couldn’t he have had them before it came to this?
#1 The pigs sell Boxer.
Animal Farm. The whole book makes you sick to your stomach, but the terrible fate that meets the most hard-working, kind-hearted animal on the farm is, for me, on of the all-time worst moments in literature.
In chapter 9 of Animal Farm, “life was hard. The winter was as cold as the last one had been, and the food was even shorter.” Despite this…
Boxer worked harder than ever. […]Sometimes the long hours on insufficient food were hard to bear, but Boxer never faltered. In nothing that he said or did was there any sign that his strength was not what it had been. It was only his appearance that was a little altered; his hide was less shiny than it had used to be, and his great haunches seemed to have shrunken. […] Sometimes on the slope leading to the top of the quarry, when he braced his muscles against the weight of some vast boulder, it seemed that nothing kept him on his feet except the will to continue. At such times his lips were seen to form the words, ‘I will work harder’; he had no voice left.
Finally, Boxer’s work catches up with him. He collapses in a field, “unable even to raise his head.” After a long time, the animals manage to help Boxer hobble to a stall in the barn, where he lays in pain but “says he wasn’t sorry for what had happened.” He dreams about retirement with his friend, Benjamin, until a van arrives to “take him to a human hospital…”
The animals crowded round the van. ‘Good-bye, Boxer!’ they chorused, ‘good-bye!’
‘Fools! Fools!’ shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. ‘Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?’
That gave the animals pause, and there was a hush. Muriel began to spell out the words. But Benjamin pushed her aside and in the midst of a deadly silence he read: ‘Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon. Dealer in Hides and Bone-Meal. Kennels Supplied.’ Do you not understand what that means? They are taking Boxer to the knacker’s!’
A cry of horror burst from all the animals. At this moment the man on the box whipped up his horses and the van moved out of the yard at a smart trot. All the animals followed, crying out at the tops of their voices. Clover forced her way to the front. The van began to gather speed. Clover tried to stir her stout limbs to a gallop, and achieved a canter. ‘Boxer!’ she cried. ‘Boxer! Boxer! Boxer!’ And just at this moment, as though he had heard the uproar outside, Boxer’s face, with the white stripe down his nose, appeared at the small window at the back of the van. ‘Boxer!’ cried Clover in a terrible voice. ‘Boxer! Get out! Get out quickly! They’re taking you to your death!’
All the animals took up the cry of ‘Get out, Boxer, get out!’ But the van was already gathering speed and drawing away from them. It was uncertain whether Boxer had understood what Clover had said. But a moment later his face disappeared from the window and there was the sound of a tremendous drumming of hoofs inside the van. He was trying to kick his way out. The time had been when a few kicks from Boxer’s hoofs would have smashed the van to matchwood. But alas! his strength had left him; and in a few moments the sound of drumming hoofs grew fainter and died away
What makes this moment so sickening? First reason, an animal meets a grisly fate. I hate that. Second reason, a purely good heart and innocent mind meet a grisly fate. Third reason, betrayal. The pigs have betrayed A) their most loyal supporter B) all the other animals on the farm who loved Boxer and C) their own principles and promises.
Some honorable mentions: Pillars of the Earth: William Hamleigh begs for (and receives) religious absolution from a corrupt priest after he has completely ravaged an innocent town; Where the Red Fern Grows: beloved pet dog is mutilated by a mountain lion and his sister dog grieves to death; Tess of D’urbervilles: on their wedding night, Angel confesses to Tess that he is not a virgin; Tess forgives him wholeheartedly and feels relieved because she can now tell Angel that she isn’t a virgin either (because she was raped); Angel is disgusted and disowns her (truth be told, if I had remembered this one earlier, it would probably be on the list above); The Fault in Our Stars: after the premature death of her true love, Hazel says, “The only person I really wanted to talk to about Augustus Water’s death with was Augustus Waters.”And on that note, I’m going to go eat some chocolate ice cream…lots of chocolate ice cream.