Six Philosophical Fiction Portraits
Greg Hickey (Guest Contributor)
Philosophical novels use fictional stories to explore questions about morality, the role of art, the meaning of life and other issues that fall under the general heading of philosophy. The six outstanding philosophical novels listed below range from classics to high school English staples, to an inspiration for a major motion picture. These books delve into the mystery of the human condition, both in solitude and community, through examinations of individuals, rivals and family units.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Napoleon Bonaparte carried this novel about a young man’s self-destructive love affair with him on his campaign to Egypt and considered it one of the great works of European literature. The novel also inspired “Werther Fever” throughout Europe, which led to young men imitating Werther’s clothing style and the production of Werther merchandise like prints, decorated Meissen porcelain and a perfume.
Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
A study in contrasts from the Nobel Prize-winning Hesse: Narcissus teaches at a Catholic monastery school and pursues the scholarly life of an abbot; his student Goldmund quits the school and wanders in search of artistic expression and the meaning of life.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Iconic prep school deserter Holden Caulfield stars in this novel of teenage rebellion, which ranked fifteenth on the 2003 BBC survey “The Big Read” and made Time’s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005 and both the editors’ and readers’ lists of Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century.
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
In contrast to the irony-tinged title, Dostoevsky wanted this novel to depict “the positively good and beautiful man” and ended up with the kind-hearted and simple Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin. The result, according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is “one of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest.”
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This novel about a teenage boy who finds himself stuck in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger after a shipwreck won the 2002 Man Booker Prize, the 2003 South African Boeke Prize and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Best Adult Fiction for 2001-2003. It was adapted into a 2012 Academy Award-nominated feature film directed by Ang Lee and written by David Magee.
A literary portrait about a literal portrait. Wilde’s only novel follows a young man whose criminal, amoral and libertine misdeeds are recorded by hideous changes in his painted portrait while his own visage remains youthful and innocent.
Greg Hickey is the author of the accessible, philosophical, grown-up choose-your-own-adventure novel The Friar’s Lantern and the curator of The 105 Best Philosophical Novels.