The 8 Best Curses In Literature

Julia Fine, author of ‘What Should Be Wild,’ on magical, divine, and imaginary curses in fiction.

Cassandra by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys
“Cassandra” by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1829-1904

For as long as we’ve told stories, we’ve told stories about curses. Often they’re punishments, occasionally they’re strictly allegorical, and sometimes they’re just plain bad luck.

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But whatever their explanations, these enchantments provide exactly what we human beings long for both in literature and our daily lives — clear causes behind ruinous effects, explanations for the frightening and irrational.

Our misfortunes are much easier to bear when we attribute them to gods or evil spirits, and our guilt is much easier to stomach when we view events as operating outside of our own power. As Alexander Chee’s Lilliet Berne tells us, our true misfortune is “not that we cannot choose our Fates… [but] that we can.” Still there’s nothing like a good magical malady to get a plot moving, subtly moralize, or set up a scare.

Here are the eight best curses in literature:

Cassandra in The Iliad by Homer

You can’t beat Greek mythology for tragedy. Cassandra sees her future — which includes the downfall of her family and the destruction of her home — and is cursed to have no one believe her visions. In several versions of her story, the god Apollo first gifts her with the power of prophecy, then curses her to never be heeded when she refuses to sleep with him in thanks. Some things never change.

Lilliet Berne in The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

Chee’s novel is steeped in the melodrama of the operatic form, so naturally his heroine is plagued by a curse. Lilliet is a falcon soprano, doomed to one day lose the lovely voice that both launches her career and puts her in path of danger. Whether or not the curse is real, Lilliet operates under a veil of superstition and intrigue, making drastic decisions in the name of her supposedly inevitable fate.

Effia in Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

A fire rages in the woods on the night Effia is born, and because of this her village thinks of her as cursed. She’s told she’ll never become a woman and will be sterile. Though this curse “may have been rooted in a lie…it bore the fruit of truth:” Effia does have a son with a British slave trader, but her descendants struggle with colossal horrors throughout the next century.

Madeleine in Madeleine is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

The cause of Madeleine’s long, enchanted sleep is unclear — she falls into it after being horrifically punished for a sexual encounter with a man in her provincial French town. Throughout Bynum’s delicious novel, Madeleine is asleep and dreams about a gypsy circus and fantastic metamorphoses. Perhaps it’s waking life that is the actual curse.

Ursula Todd in Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Here’s another curse that might actually be a gift: each time Ursula Todd dies, her life begins again from infancy. This allows her to live out all sorts of alternate histories, each time with a faint sense of déjà vu that steers her away from her previous cause of death. Atkinson’s clever structure reminds readers of the curse we share with Ursula: the utter randomness of seminal events.

The Watson Family in The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

Simon and Enola Watson come from a family of breath-holding carnival mermaids, yet one Watson woman from each generation mysteriously drowns on the same day each year. Bizarre ecological events, a strange old book, and a collapsing house hold the clues to the curse of July 24th — if, that is, Simon the librarian can piece them together in time.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Most literary curses are cast towards the beginning of a novel, and the recipient spends the story dealing with its effects. Not so for Strange and Norrell, who come into their curse at the very end of Clarke’s fantastic book. Having helped prevent disaster, the two magicians are cursed to remain together in darkness. For the competitive, ill-tempered magicians the curse of eternal togetherness is just as damning as the storm cloud that follows wherever they go.

The Pyncheon Family in The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Gothic literature is rife with ancestral curses, but none is more notorious than the one cast by Matthew Maule on Colonel Pyncheon, the man who stole the land on which he built his family home. Fast-forward one hundred years or so and we see the Pyncheons continuing to suffer an array of misfortunes, which include unjust imprisonments and untimely deaths.

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