Literary Schadenfreude

Episode 3 of Rarasaur’s Prompts for the Promptless challenges us to write about Schadenfreude, which basically means “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others”.

*Served him right...
*Served him right…
*Got what he deserved...
*Got what he deserved…

It’s a challenge because it’s an emotion that few us like to admit we feel; enjoying someone else’s bad luck or suffering just isn’t very nice. There are obvious exceptions – I can’t find a shred of sympathy for lonely old Robert Mugabe – and seeing a villain (real or fictional) get their comeuppance is very satisfying.

I’m also willing to admit that I’m always delighted when somebody else spills a drink or breaks a glass (even if it’s my drink or my glass). This is because I’m terribly clumsy so I’m always pleased that it wasn’t me!

On reflection, I realised that I experience Schadenfreude all the time, almost every day, through the act of reading. There’s what I’d describe as the ‘overt Schadenfreude’ when the baddie is killed / caught / punished but there’s also a more subtle form (‘covert Schadenfreude’?) that occurs as we enjoy reading about the protagonist’s trials and tribulations. The difference is best illustrated with an example, and my favourite novel illustrates both varieties perfectly.

*Not Mary Shelley's Frankenstein...
*Not Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein…

SPOILER WARNING: If you don’t know (and don’t want to know) what happens in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, skip the rest of this paragraph. As a result of creating his “hideous progeny”, Victor Frankenstein loses his little brother, father, wife, health and sanity. He whinges expresses his misery eloquently and at length, but all I can think is that it serves him right for playing God, neglecting those who love him and abandoning his creation. Many readers would disagree, and the author herself intended Victor as the hero of this novel, but I revel in the chapters where he suffers the consequences of his actions – overt Schadenfreude. However, my favourite part of the novel; the part I reread even though I cry every time (even in front of my Year 12 students); the part I see as the heart of the book, is the creature’s narrative. I sympathise with his plight and through Shelley’s carefully constructed first person narrative I even empathise with his anguish, but I still enjoy reading about it. I derive pleasure from his misfortune even as I cry for him – covert Schadenfreude.

As I’ve argued before, very few good novels have happy endings so I guess that makes us booklovers a bunch of sadistic voyeurs who “derive pleasure from the misfortune of others”. Fine in literature, but perhaps this is why I find the whole misery memoir genre so disconcerting – a little too much Schadenfreude for my taste…

(*Images from Wikipedia)


4 thoughts on “Literary Schadenfreude

  1. It took me awhile to reply because I had to get over the idea that someone in this universe hasn’t read Frankenstein, haha! 🙂 I love your distinction and naming of covert/overt Schadenfreude. In the wiki article, I was reading about secret/open Schadenfreude in the wiki article (the difference being whether the misery is private or public), but I feel like your definition is an important one too! You’re right that literary works are choc full of Schadenfreude, and it’s part of what makes books so addictive. Brilliant take on the prompt. 😀

    1. Thank you! It was a great prompt – I could have gone in a few different directions. Did you come across the “freudenschade” variation?

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