When Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby premiered earlier this year, it sparked anew the debate about it’s central female: Is Daisy the American Dream, a femme fatale, a silly little fool or a spoiled little rich girl in over her head? Although Luhrmann gave us all glam, the character is anything but — and one of the most widely hated in history.
In addition to Ms. Buchanan, who tops this list, here are 17 terrible and irritating characters from great books (so no Twilight, thanks). What makes them so annoying is that they’re so well-written that they get under your skin — and stay there.
1. Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby
Is there a more insufferable character in literature? Baz Luhrmann may have made Daisy into a fashion icon, but Fitzgerald readers know that the only thing she’s fit to be a symbol of is selfishness and greed. No one in The Great Gatsby is a treasure (even Jay sucks, when you think about it), but the coked-out Daisy is on another level of shittiness. Daisy represents the garish shallowness of the Roaring Twenties with ease, and every single one of her lines is like nails on a chalkboard. Personally I was rooting for the Great Depression to come sooner.
2. Pearl from The Scarlet Letter
Kids in classic literature are usually annoying, and it’s much more difficult to think of a likable child than a brat, but Pearl takes the cake. Hawthorne means Pearl to be an embodiment of Hester’s punishment – to get under our skin as readers. The narrator describes Pearl as an “imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants,” and even Hester can’t stand her. There’s a memorable scene where Ms. Prynne screams, “Child, what art thou?” and Pearl shoots the question right back at her. Pearl may be annoying, but for a three-year-old, she’s no dummy.
3. Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment
Dostoyevsky has a knack for writing deplorable men (and the narrator of Notes From Underground is equally irritating), but the reason Raskolnikov makes the list is that he’s actively unbearable to spend time with. From his constant neurotic frittering to his monologues about being a superman, Raskolnikov really puts the anti- in anti-hero. In a lot of ways, he’s reminiscent of TV’s Walter White, another character who meets his downfall because he believes himself to be extraordinary, and Dexter Morgan, who were not even going to talk about. It’s ruined now.
4. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye
I know that Holden has been branded as a hero for an entire generation of young hipsters who also think everything is “phony,” but as much as I found his angst to be relatable and real, I still wanted him to develop lockjaw. Holden constantly whines about everything like an eight-year-old locked in the car on a family vacation they don’t want to be on, and I was just glad I didn’t have to be trapped with the little fucker in real life. He might be one of the most compelling characters ever written, but you’d never want to hang out with him.
5. Edna Pontellier from The Awakening
Edna Pontellier is a feminist icon and a daring representation of women at a time when books were actually burned for having women that didn’t conform to society’s rules on motherhood and femininity. The book was incredibly controversial and widely censored when it came out, and it still divides us today. That’s because on top of being one of the most important characters in history, Edna is a dreadful human – which is kind of the point. She’s supposed to push our socio-cultural buttons. Many ding her for being a bad mother and an adulteress, but for me, it’s that she’s incredibly annoying about it. Throughout the book, I could practically see her breathing her insipid dialogue through her mouth, and when she drowns herself at the end, I frankly couldn’t be happier. Thank God for the undercurrent.
6. Patrick Bateman from American Psycho
Patrick Bateman is obviously the worst human being (after all, he kills people in his fantasies), but on top of being a self-involved psychopath, Bateman is surprisingly hollow. Bateman is a product of a system that allows the wealthy and powerful to cut up society, and he dispenses pop-culture-reference-laced privilege with a mixture of glee and apprehension, as if he would feel something if he could feel. You almost feel for him, but as he describes cutting up dead women with surgical precision, you feel like killing him even more.
7. Anna Karenina from Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina has the same problem that Edna Pontellier, Becky Sharp and Madame Bovary have: Their romantic travails are epically frustrating, and as much as you want them to be happy, you also can’t help but hate them. Anna pretty much takes the cake in this regard, one of the biggest hot messes in literature history. She’s a literal trainwreck, and you wish you could assign a Sassy Gay Friend to help her make better decisions. If only that were possible.
8. Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter
I know no other literary character that inspires utter revulsion from every single reader like Professor Umbridge. Stephen King once called her the greatest villain since Hannibal Lecter, and Umbridge is like Darth Vader with a 60’s haircut and the world’s most ruthless smile. Even saying her name gives me the chills. She’s somehow immensely insufferable and terrifying in equal measure, making condescension into a sport. Umbridge could also probably beat the shit out of you in a fist fight. She looks like she’s got a killer hook to go with that wand.
9. The Ewells from To Kill a Mockingbird
You could pick a least favorite Ewell — but Bob, Mayella and the whole clan are all equally horrible people. Harper Lee uses them to prove that people on the lowest rungs of society will always find others to pick on and demonize, and their class-constructed hate makes you cringe because of how positively banal it is. This is the way the world works, and as Mayella works to frame an innocent man, it reads like Lord of the Flies. This is what it means to survive in the South.
10. Dante from The Inferno
The Inferno is a great book, a terrifying (and literal) descent into hell, but part of the torture of the novel is the author himself, who wrote one of the bitchiest books in history. Dante used hell as an opportunity to condemn people he didn’t like, and his “damned souls” range from Attila the Hun to Tiresias, the blind prophet who appears in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Dante Alligheri never met a random ass person he couldn’t hold a bizarre grudge against.
11. Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises
Everyone in The Sun Also Rises sucks. Much like Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason, the book is a constant contest to see who can one-up each other in the category of “Most Unlikeable,” but Lady Brett Ashley wins, only because she seems to find herself really charming. It’s a misapprehension everyone in the book seems to share, as the men around Ashley routinely fawn over her. Like Daisy Buchanan, no one can see the hollowness beneath the gorgeous façade, but if literature is anything like its author’s life, they were all probably too drunk to notice what a dick she really is.
12. Henry Miller in Every Single Book He Ever Wrote
Henry Miller’s leads are thinly veiled versions of himself – or rather, the man that Henry Miller would like to be in his wettest of dreams. Every woman Miller ever meets seems to think that he’s the greatest lover they’ve ever had – God’s gift to women. This “gift” is also a misogynistic unemployed narcissist with lice and a misanthropic streak, hardly the Mr. Darcy figure Miller wants to be. He may be aloof as he bounces between beds, affairs and apartments, but there’s nothing charming about it. He’s like the James Frey of sex, and you deeply just want someone to call Henry Miller on his bull. Baby, you aren’t the greatest. You’re full of shit.
13. Abigail from The Crucible
I realize that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a play, but Abigail is so beyond-the-call-of-duty horrible that I had to bend the rules to include her. Umbridge notwithstanding, it’s difficult to think of a character that I hate more than Abigail, a manipulative witch who leads to the downfall of all of those around her. The character is a brilliant actress, and during her soaring monologues, I can’t help but want to burn her at the stake. If you haven’t seen Winona Ryder’s interpretation of the character (in the Daniel Day-Lewis film version), Ryder will somehow make you hate her even more. Yes, it’s possible.
14. Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Although I know a lot of people who feel this way about Tom Sawyer, I can’t fucking stand Huck Finn as a character. While thinking that Mark Twain is the greatest satirist who ever lived, his most brilliant comic creation is an Ignatius J. Reilly type, someone you both laugh at and want to slap. Huck Finn is magnetic enough, despite the annoyance, to where you don’t wish him death ala Dolores Umbridge, but if that were my kid, I would have punished him forever and washed his mouth out with a bar of soap. Even great characters need to be spanked every once in a while.
15. Dominique Francon from The Fountainhead
As much as I cannot stand Objectivism, I honestly think that The Fountainhead is a great work of literature — with a gripping story and writing as sleek as its main character’s architecture. Rand had a gift when it came to melding thematics and prose, but the novel’s biggest mistep is her female lead, a howlingly obvious stand-in for the author. Rand describes Dominique as a cold, high-femme version of herself and when she invites Howard Roark to dominate her, the whole thing smacks of repressed sexual fantasy. It’s beyond awkward.
16. and 17. Lydia and Kitty from Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen brilliantly writes a range of types of women in a way that few authors allow. Austen’s characters can be everything from buoyant to whimsical and willful, and you can’t help but identify with Elizabeth as she navigates the confines of gender and class in Victorian England. However, Austen also makes room for women who make you want to poison yourself, from the overbearing Mrs. Bennett (who at least wants the best for her children) to Kitty and Lydia, two of the most irritating narrative obstacles in history. You see that it’s not just class Elizabeth has to overcome. It’s her family, the most dreadful fate of all.
Readers, who are some literary characters you just can’t stand?