Tom’s whitewashing hustle in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Oh, Tom Sawyer, you rascal. In Mark Twain’s classic, Tom is punished for playing hooky from school and getting his clothes dirty by being made to whitewash a fence — but of course, he manages to trick his friends into actually paying him for the privilege to do his work for him. It may be more of a swindle than a true practical joke, in truth, but given our definition of the term, we think it definitely counts.
Puck’s transformation of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Is there a more perfect practical joke than turning someone into an ass? After all, that’s really the metaphoric goal of every practical joke in the book, if we get right down to it. Puck just cut right to the chase, punking not only poor, simple Bottom, but the Fairy Queen as well, when he hoodwinks her into falling in love with his monstrous creation.
Matilda’s pranks in Matilda
Five-year-old genius Matilda’s household pranks, her way of getting back at her horrible parents, aren’t that spectacular (until you remember that a five-year-old thought of them), but they are incredibly satisfying. She puts superglue in her crude, dishonest father’s hat, convinces her family there’s a ghost in the house, and exchanges her father’s hair tonic for blonde hair dye. Her best practical joke, however, isn’t a joke at all — when Matilda computes complicated math problems in her head, she drives her father to distraction instead of proving her intelligence. Just his loss, we suppose.
Behemoth’s shenanigans in The Master and Margarita
An enormous talking cat with a soft spot for vodka, pistols, and chess, Bulgakov’s Behemoth is one of our favorite tricksters. Behemoth and his retinue (though Behemoth is strictly part of Woland’s retinue) play many a joke on the unsuspecting public, including lopping the head off a critic of their magic show and only screwing it back on again when the audience protests. Like all of the horrible devilish tricks in this book, Behemoth performs the act with a shrug and a smile.
The great furniture heist in To Kill a Mockingbird
We love this prank for the sheer absurdity of it — although she “deny[s] having taken part in such a thing,” Scout tells us how the previous Halloween some “wicked children” snuck into the house of the deaf Misses Tutti and Frutti Barber and moved all their furniture into the basement. Pointless, harmless, and hilarious, it’s all a good prank should be.
Caleb and Camille’s art in The Family Fang
The entire plot of this novel revolves around the fallout from the final prank pulled by two career pranksters — all done in the name of performance art. Annie and Buster grew up as pawns in their parents’ elaborate art projects — causing scenes in public, printing out fake coupons for restaurants and documenting the result — but when they disappear amidst quite a lot of what seems to be their actual blood, Annie and Buster have to decide whether to accept their last practical art joke or decide that the gig may finally be up.
Fred and George’s pyrotechnics in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
True, almost everything Fred and George pulled could have made this list — including their experiments with Ton-Tongue Toffee on a certain chubby Muggle — but we think we love their grand goodbye to Hogwarts best, when they protested Dolores Umbridge’s tyrannical reign by releasing Weasleys’ Wildfire Whiz-bangs and Portable Swamp on school grounds. Now that’s going out in style.
The deception of Malvolio in Twelfth Night
This is one of the crueler pranks on this list, but we have to admit it is exceedingly well played. Malvolio, Countess Olivia’s puritanical steward interferes with the drunken carousing of Sir Toby Belch and his friends, and in revenge, they play an elaborate practical joke on him — with a false letter (so Shakespearean, no?) they convince Malvolio that Olivia loves him, and that she wants him to wear a particularly hideous outfit at all times and smile constantly. Of course, the result is that everyone thinks he has gone mad. The prank, which begins as a relatively lighthearted affair, quickly turns sour, taking Malvolio’s life with it.
The bucket of blood in Carrie
Ah, the practical joke that launched a thousand deaths. We wouldn’t say this prank was “good” — it’s cruel and disgusting and, oh yes, lead to the death of pretty much everyone in the room — but it certainly is one of the most famous practical jokes in literature, and probably one of the most epic.
Gately’s toothbrush in Infinite Jest
Okay, this is an incredibly gross prank, but it’s still so satisfying that we had to include it. Gately gets back at the DA who sent him to jail without evidence by sneaking into his house and stealing a few items, making it look like the burglars were caught in the act and had to run off without anything too valuable. Then, a month later, he sends the DA a photograph of himself (masked) with the DA’s toothbrush placed somewhere very unsavory. We can only imagine the horror.