Burning Books: The Hottest Scenes in Literature

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No, not like that. We’re talking about actual, blazing, burning heat, which shouldn’t be that surprising, because if you’ve been on the East coast for the past few days, you probably haven’t been able to talk — or think — about much else. This past Friday, the heat in New York City was measured at the highest its been since 1977 (and only two degrees lower than the all-time record), hitting 104 degrees at the hottest part of the day. This weekend hasn’t been much better, and Americans all over the country are suffering from absurd temperatures and growing addictions to air conditioning. So to celebrate the hottest part of the summer, or maybe just to find a little commiseration in prose, we’ve collected some of the hottest scenes in literature, from Dante exploring the fiery pits of hell to Gatsby and Tom sweating bullets in their white linen shirts. Click through to see our list, and let us know which of your favorite sweaty scenes we’ve missed in the comments!

Inferno , by Dante Alighieri

Obviously there’s some serious heat in this widely-read 14th century epic poem about hell. Wrongdoers are trapped in flamingtombs, plunged into rivers of boiling blood, immersed in individual flames, the soles of their feet burned. In the inner ring of the seventh circle, those violent against God or nature must lie on the burning sand while flames rain down upon them:

“Had there only been some shelter from the fire I would gladly have cast myself down in their midst, and I think my teacher would have indulged me. As it was, since I would have been seared and baked, fear overcame the good will that made me hunger and thirst to embrace those men.” (Canto XVI)

The English Patient , by Michael Ondaatje

There may not actually be anything hotter than almost burning to death in the desert.

“I fell burning into the desert. They found my body and made me a boat of sticks and dragged me across the desert. We were in the Sand Sea, now and then crossing dry riverbeds. Nomads, you see. Bedouin. I flew down and the sand itself caught fire. They saw me stand up naked out of it. The leather helmet on my head in flames. They strapped me onto a cradle, a carcass boat, and feet thudded along as they ran with me. I had broken the spareness of the desert.”

The Stranger , by Albert Camus

The heat is almost a character in this novel, the cause of Meurault’s difficulty, a physical, forceful presence. Meurault decides to take a walk with the pistol he had taken away from Raymond to keep him from seeking revenge on the Arab and Raymond’s girlfriend’s brother. But when he encounters the Arab and sees the man flash his knife, he is so disoriented by his heatstroke that he shoots him.

“It occurred to me that all I had to do was turn around and that would be the end of it. But the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on my back. I took a few steps towards the spring. The Arab didn’t move. Besides, he was still pretty far away. Maybe it was the shadows on his face, but it looked like he was laughing. I waited. The sun was starting to burn my cheeks, and I could feel drops of sweat gathering in my eyebrows. The sun was the same as it had been the day I’d buried Maman, and like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all the veins in it throbbing under the skin. It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward. And this time, without getting up, the Arab drew his knife and held it up to me in the sun. The light shot off the steel and it was like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead. At the same instant the sweat in my eyebrows dripped down over my eyelids all at once and covered them with a warm, thick film. My eyes were blinded behind the curtain of tears and salt. All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me. The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That’s when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire.”

A Passage to India , by E.M. Forster

Many books about India would fit the bill, it’s true. But Forster’s descriptions of the heat in the country as a force that precludes poetry prevail over all.

“Making sudden changes of gear, the heat accelerated its advance after Mrs Moore’s departure, until existence had to be endured and crime punished with the thermometer at a hundred and twelve. Electric fans hummed and spat, water splashed onto screen, ice clinked, and outside these defences, between a grayish sky and a yellowish earth, clouds of dust moved hesitatingly. In Europe life retreats out of the cold, and exquisite fireside myths have resulted – Balder, Persephone – but here the retreat is from the source of life, the treacherous sun, and no poetry adorns it, because disillusionment cannot be beautiful. Men yearn for poetry though they may not confess it; they desire that joy shall be graceful, and sorrow august, and infinity have a form, and India fails to accommodate them.”

Romeo and Juliet , by William Shakespeare

The fatal scene between Mercutio and Tybalt is also the hottest in the play: the perfect temperature for young men’s blood to boil.

“I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire: The day is hot, the Capulets abroad, And, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl; For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”

The Great Gatsby , by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It is in the unbearable heat of the hottest day of summer that Daisy invites Gatsby, Nick and Jordan to lunch, and Tom realizes that his wife is in love with someone else, leading to his explosive confrontation with Gatsby.

“The next day was broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest, of the summer. As my train emerged from the tunnel into sunlight, only the hot whistles of the National Biscuit Company broke the simmering hush at noon. The straw seats of the car hovered on the edge of combustion; the woman next to me perspired delicately for a while into her white shirtwaist, and then, as her newspaper dampened under her fingers, lapsed despairingly into deep heat with a desolate cry.”

A Way You’ll Never Be,” by Ernest Hemingway

As Nick rides his bicycle to the battalion, he notices the bodies warped from the heat around him, the metal of the guns changing the shape of the air.

“Our own dead, or what he thought of, still, as our own dead, were surprisingly few, Nick noticed… The hot weather had swollen them all alike regardless of nationality… Nick Adams had seen no one since he had left Fornaci, although, riding along the road through the over-foliaged country, he had seen guns hidden under screens of mulberry leaves to the left of the road, noticing them by the heat-waves in the air above the leaves where the sun hit the metal.”

The Grapes of Wrath , by John Steinbeck

This whole book is fairly sweltering, as is befitting summers in Oklahoma with no air conditioning. You know it’s really hot when it’s still unbearable at night.

“And the heat changed. While the sun was up, it was a beating, flailing heat, but now the heat came from below, from the earth itself, and the heat was thick and muffling.”

Fahrenheit 451 , by Ray Bradbury

In a novel about burning books, where fires rage across the city, there’s no real description of heat until the flamethrower is turned upon a man.

“And then he was a shrieking blaze, a jumping, sprawling gibbering mannikin, no longer human or known, all writhing flame on the lawn as Montag shot one continuous pulse of liquid fire on him. There was a hiss like a great mouthful of spittle banging a red-hot stove, a bubbling and frothing as if salt had been poured over a monstrous black snail to cause a terrible liquefaction and a boiling over of yellow foam. Montag shut his eyes, shouted, shouted, and fought to get his hands at his ears to clamp and to cut away the sound. Beatty flopped over and over and over, and at last twisted in on himself like a charred wax doll and lay silent.”

Robinson Crusoe , by Daniel Defoe

Like so many castaway novels and films, half the fun of Robinson Crusoe is watching Crusoe figure out how to live on the island, including his simpleminded breakdown of how he deals with the ungodly heat.

“… the Weather was so violent hot, that there was no need of Cloaths, yet I could not go quite naked; no, tho’ I had been inclined to it, which I was not, nor could not abide the Thoughts of it, tho’ I was all alone. The Reason why I could not go quite naked, was, I could not bear the Heat of the Sun so well when quite naked, as with some Cloaths on; nay, the very Heat frequently blister’d my Skin; whereas with a Shirt on, the Air itself made some Motion, and whistling under that Shirt, was twofold cooler than without it: No more could I ever bring my self to go out in the Heat of the Sun without a Cap ora Hat; the Heat of the Sun beating with such Violence as it does in that Place, would give me the Head-ach presently, by darting so directly on my Head, without a Cap or Hat on; so that I could not bear it; whereas, if I put on my Hat, it would presently go away. “