The Greatest American "Tragedy" Books of All Time

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This list represents a comprehensive and trusted collection of the greatest books. Developed through a specialized algorithm, it brings together 315 'best of' book lists to form a definitive guide to the world's most acclaimed books. For those interested in how these books are chosen, additional details can be found on the rankings page.

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Tragedy

Tragedy is a genre of literature that explores the darker aspects of human nature and the human experience. It typically involves a protagonist who is faced with a series of challenges and obstacles that ultimately lead to their downfall or demise. Tragic stories often deal with themes of loss, grief, and the struggle to find meaning in a world that can be cruel and unforgiving. Despite their often bleak subject matter, tragic stories can be deeply moving and thought-provoking, offering readers a powerful glimpse into the complexities of the human condition.

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  1. 1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Set in the summer of 1922, the novel follows the life of a young and mysterious millionaire, his extravagant lifestyle in Long Island, and his obsessive love for a beautiful former debutante. As the story unfolds, the millionaire's dark secrets and the corrupt reality of the American dream during the Jazz Age are revealed. The narrative is a critique of the hedonistic excess and moral decay of the era, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

    The Greatest Book of All Time
  2. 2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

    The book follows the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers displaced from their land during the Great Depression. The family, alongside thousands of other "Okies," travel to California in search of work and a better life. Throughout their journey, they face numerous hardships and injustices, yet maintain their humanity through unity and shared sacrifice. The narrative explores themes of man's inhumanity to man, the dignity of wrath, and the power of family and friendship, offering a stark and moving portrayal of the harsh realities of American migrant laborers during the 1930s.

    The 15th Greatest Book of All Time
  3. 3. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, this novel tells the story of a woman who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. She is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress as a sign of her adultery while her lover, a revered local minister, remains unnamed and unpunished. Throughout the book, themes of sin, legalism, and guilt are explored.

    The 55th Greatest Book of All Time
  4. 4. Rabbit, Run by John Updike

    The novel follows the life of a 26-year-old former high school basketball star, who is dissatisfied with his current life. He impulsively leaves his wife and son and embarks on a journey in the hopes of finding a more meaningful existence. His decisions, however, lead to a series of tragic events that impact the lives of those around him. This mid-20th-century novel explores themes of freedom, responsibility, and the tragic consequences of impulsive decisions.

    The 134th Greatest Book of All Time
  5. 5. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

    Set in the backdrop of New York's high society during the turn of the 20th century, the novel follows the life of Lily Bart, a beautiful but impoverished woman of social standing. As she navigates the pressures and expectations of her social circle, Lily grapples with the need to secure a wealthy husband to maintain her lifestyle. However, her romantic inclinations and her desire for personal freedom come into conflict with societal norms, leading to her tragic downfall.

    The 144th Greatest Book of All Time
  6. 6. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

    This classic novel explores the dark side of the American Dream through the story of a young man who, despite his humble beginnings, aspires to climb the social ladder. He becomes involved with two women, one wealthy and one from a working-class background. His ambition and desire for status lead him to commit a crime that ultimately results in his downfall. The novel is a stark examination of the destructive power of unchecked ambition and the moral compromises people are willing to make in pursuit of wealth and status.

    The 155th Greatest Book of All Time
  7. 7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

    The book is a tragic tale of two displaced ranch workers during the Great Depression in California. The two main characters, an intelligent but uneducated man and his mentally disabled companion, dream of owning their own piece of land. However, their dreams are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control, leading to a heart-wrenching conclusion. The book explores themes of friendship, dreams, loneliness, and the harsh realities of the American Dream.

    The 213th Greatest Book of All Time
  8. 8. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

    "The Day of the Locust" is a novel set in 1930s Hollywood, portraying the dark side of the American dream through the lives of its desperate characters. The protagonist, a young artist from the East Coast, finds himself disillusioned by the superficiality and decay of Hollywood society, which is filled with failed actors, charlatans, and lost souls. The narrative culminates in a violent riot, symbolizing the destructive power of frustrated dreams and the harsh reality of the American dream.

    The 323rd Greatest Book of All Time
  9. 9. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

    Set in a bleak New England landscape, the book tells the story of Ethan Frome, a poor, hardworking farmer who is married to a sickly, bitter woman named Zeena. When Zeena's young cousin Mattie comes to live with them, Ethan becomes infatuated with her, leading to a tragic love triangle. The narrative explores themes of passion, duty, and the oppressive nature of rural poverty.

    The 352nd Greatest Book of All Time
  10. 10. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

    "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a classic American play that explores themes of desire, desperation, and decay through the story of Blanche DuBois, a former schoolteacher from a once-wealthy Southern family who moves in with her sister Stella and her brutish husband Stanley in their cramped apartment in New Orleans. As Blanche grapples with her own past traumas and the harsh realities of her present situation, her mental state deteriorates, leading to a tragic end. The play presents a stark contrast between the genteel Old South and the gritty, working-class reality of post-WWII America.

    The 414th Greatest Book of All Time
  11. 11. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

    The book is a tale of two childhood friends, one of whom believes he is God's instrument. The story is set in a New England town during the 1950s and 1960s and follows the lives of the two boys, one small and with a strange voice, who has visions of his own death and believes he is an instrument of God, and the other, the narrator, who struggles with faith. The novel explores themes of faith, fate, and the power of friendship against a backdrop of historical and political events, including the Vietnam War.

    The 422nd Greatest Book of All Time
  12. 12. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

    This book is a raw and honest exploration of grief and mourning, written by a woman who lost her husband of 40 years to a heart attack while their only child lay comatose in the hospital. The narrative delves into the year following her husband's death, a year marked by grief, confusion, and a desperate hope for things to return to normal. The author's poignant reflections on death, love, and loss serve as a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

    The 457th Greatest Book of All Time
  13. 13. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

    The novel is a poignant tale of an African American girl named Pecola Breedlove who grows up during the years following the Great Depression. Living in a society that values beauty in terms of light skin and blue eyes, Pecola develops an inferiority complex and wishes for blue eyes, believing that it would make her beautiful and loved. The story explores themes of racial self-loathing, the standards of beauty, and the dynamics of power and oppression.

    The 470th Greatest Book of All Time
  14. 14. Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill

    "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is a semi-autobiographical play that explores the complex dynamics of a family tormented by addiction and regret. The narrative follows the Tyrone family, composed of two parents and their two adult sons, over the course of a single day. As the day progresses, the family members engage in soul-baring conversations that reveal their individual struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, their deep-seated resentments, and the love that binds them together despite their flaws. The play is a poignant examination of the human condition, familial bonds, and the destructive power of addiction.

    The 505th Greatest Book of All Time
  15. 15. Death Of A Salesman by Arthur Miller

    This classic play explores the life of a failing salesman who, in his quest for the American Dream, struggles with his relationships and his own sense of reality. The protagonist's life spirals into despair as he grapples with his unfulfilled ambitions, strained family dynamics, and ultimately, his own mortality. The narrative delves deep into the themes of identity, illusion, and the destructive nature of the American Dream.

    The 507th Greatest Book of All Time
  16. 16. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

    This novel revolves around Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s. Struggling with the banality of their lives, they plan to move to France where they believe they will be able to live more fulfilling and enlightened lives. However, their plans are derailed by a surprise pregnancy and the pressures of societal expectations, leading to a tragic end. The book explores themes of conformity, the search for self-fulfillment, and the disillusionment of the American Dream.

    The 567th Greatest Book of All Time
  17. 17. Sanctuary by William Faulkner

    "Sanctuary" is a gripping tale set in the American South during the Prohibition era. The story follows a young woman from a well-to-do family who is kidnapped by a gang of bootleggers, leading to her descent into debauchery and criminality. As she navigates the seedy underworld, the novel explores themes of social decay, moral ambiguity, and the inherent violence of humanity. The narrative is marked by the author's characteristic complex storytelling and vivid descriptions of the Southern landscape.

    The 634th Greatest Book of All Time
  18. 18. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

    "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is a novel that explores the nature of love and the meaning of life, set in 18th century Peru. The narrative revolves around a tragic incident where five people die when a rope bridge collapses. A Franciscan monk, who witnesses the accident, embarks on a quest to find out why these particular people had to die, hoping to prove that it was divine intervention. The book delves into the lives of the victims, revealing their personal stories, their hopes, dreams, and disappointments, as the monk attempts to decipher the cosmic significance of this tragedy.

    The 872nd Greatest Book of All Time
  19. 19. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

    The novel is a haunting and tragic tale of the five Lisbon sisters who live in suburban America in the 1970s. Their strict, overbearing parents keep them isolated from the world, leading to a sense of mystery and intrigue about the girls in their community. This fascination turns into morbid curiosity when one of the sisters commits suicide, and the remaining sisters become even more sheltered. The story is narrated by a group of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the girls, and their suicides, trying to piece together the reasons behind their tragic ends.

    The 887th Greatest Book of All Time
  20. 20. Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O'Neill

    "Mourning Becomes Electra" is a trilogy of plays that retells the Oresteia story of the House of Atreus in a modern American setting. The narrative explores the themes of revenge, obsession, and guilt within the Mannon family, who are haunted by a dark, cursed past. The plot follows the aftermath of the American Civil War, with the characters struggling to escape their tragic fate, ultimately leading to their downfall.

    The 1146th Greatest Book of All Time
  21. 21. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

    "Andersonville" is a historical novel set during the American Civil War, focusing on the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, Andersonville prison. The narrative vividly portrays the horrific conditions and experiences of the Union soldiers held captive there. It delves into the lives of the prisoners, their captors, and the surrounding civilian population, providing a comprehensive and brutal depiction of one of the most notorious chapters in American history.

    The 1156th Greatest Book of All Time
  22. 22. The Crucible by Arthur Miller

    Set during the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th century, this play explores the hysteria, deceit, and religious extremism that plague a small Puritan village in Massachusetts. The protagonist, a flawed but essentially good man, is caught in a web of accusations when young girls in the town start displaying strange behavior and accusing others of witchcraft. The ensuing trials reveal not only the dangers of mass hysteria and false accusations, but also the destructive power of societal pressures and the human capacity for both cruelty and heroism.

    The 1176th Greatest Book of All Time
  23. 23. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

    The novel is a deeply moving portrayal of four friends in New York City, spanning over several decades. It primarily focuses on Jude, a man with a mysterious and traumatic past, who struggles with physical disability and emotional trauma. The story explores themes of friendship, love, trauma, suffering, and the human will to endure in spite of life's hardships. It is an epic tale of heartbreak and despair but also of resilience and enduring love.

    The 1179th Greatest Book of All Time
  24. 24. The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill

    "The Iceman Cometh" is a play set in a New York City bar in 1912, featuring a group of down-and-out alcoholics who spend their days in a state of drunken stupor, telling tall tales and dreaming of better futures. The arrival of a former patron, now sober, disrupts their routine as he insists on forcing them to face the harsh realities of their lives and abandon their delusions. The play is a poignant exploration of despair, disillusionment, and the human capacity for self-deception.

    The 1289th Greatest Book of All Time
  25. 25. Quicksand by Nella Larsen

    "Quicksand" is a semi-autobiographical novel about a mixed-race woman named Helga Crane who, feeling out of place in both African-American and white societies, embarks on a journey of self-discovery. From the Southern United States to Denmark and back, she struggles with racial identity, sexual repression, and societal expectations, eventually marrying a reverend and becoming disillusioned with her life as a preacher's wife in the rural South. The novel explores themes of racial identity, class, and gender in the early 20th century.

    The 1338th Greatest Book of All Time

Reading Statistics

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If you're interested in downloading this list as a CSV file for use in a spreadsheet application, you can easily do so by clicking the button below. Please note that to ensure a manageable file size and faster download, the CSV will include details for only the first 500 books.

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