The Seven Deadly Sins in Literature


Today marks the release of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins , a portrait of a woman obsessed with food and the efforts (or non-efforts) of her family to get her eating under control. We can say pretty confidently that the book made us never want to overeat again, and we got to thinking about the other books that make us want to give up our vices. After all, any sin you can dream up has probably been written about, usually by someone French. After the jump, find examples of the seven deadly sins in literature (whether actually deadly or just unfortunate). Indulge in a little naughtiness-by-proxy, and then let us know which sinful characters we missed in the comments.


The Middlesteins

Jami Attenberg’s excellent new novel makes us never want to pig out again. In it, Edie, the matriarch of a Midwestern Jewish family, is obsessed with food, and is eating herself to death as her family swirls around her in various states of distress. Only in America.


In Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic, Baron Harkonnen is so fat that he requires anti-gravity generators to be sewn into his clothing in order to keep him upright. Not a good end in and of itself, if you ask us.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Oh, Augustus Gloop. When eating is your only hobby (and anyway, it’s better than being a “hooligan”), of course you’re going to end up with “fat bulging from every fold, with two greedy eyes peering out of [your] doughball of a face.” Though actually, getting sucked down into the chocolate river turns out to be a not too bad diet technique.


Les Liaisons dangereuses

The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are among the lustiest villains in literature — deviants who use sex as a weapon in their clotted, twisted schemes. Like many of these kinds of stories, it ends with true love snatched away, a mortal wound, and a face full of smallpox.

Romeo & Juliet

Ah, yes, the most tragic teenage love story in history. About four days after they meet, these two 14 year olds kill themselves rather than face the prospect of living without the other. Yes kiddies, we know it feels that way now, but wait until you see the new boy in your math class.


It’s slightly indelicate to call Humbert Humbert’s feelings for Lolita “lust,” but then, his feelings themselves are somewhat indelicate. In any event, Hum’s burning desire for sweet Lo ends in multiple deaths — indeed, if the fictional “Foreword” can be believed, the deaths of just about everybody in the story.


The Iliad

The very first word of Homer’s epic is mēnin : wrath. Or, translated, “Sing goddess, of the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes…” That’s what happens when you kill his friends. Better go run behind Athena’s skirts.


Trust us — the wrath of a mercilessly teased teenage girl is unlike any wrath you’ve ever experienced before. Especially if she’s telekinetic. Burn, mean girls, burn.


He who fights monsters…



Sure, Othello is a husband jealous to the point of murder, but the real devil here is Iago, whose envy of Cassio twists his mind and brings down the house. He fumes, “It must not be; if Cassio do remain, / He has a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.” Things do not go well for him (or for Othello) in the end.

Snow White

The classic story of one woman driving herself mad with jealousy over the beauty of another, harnessing all her dark power to destroy that which threatens her. In the Grimm version, the evil queen meets her end in a deliciously horrible way: she is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead.

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Any tragic love triangle fits the bill, but this one is sadder than most — Werther wants to kill the husband of his beloved, but can’t, and kills himself rather than bear his despair and jealousy. Sigh.


The Odyssey

The Greeks really looked down on hubris. We get it — if you best the cyclops in a game of wits, blinding and mocking him, don’t feel the need to let him know who you are afterwards. Especially if you’re on an epic sea voyage. His daddy is Poseidon, after all.


Mary Shelley’s message is clear: don’t try to play God. You might regret it.

Doctor Faustus

At the very beginning of Marlowe’s play, Faustus is linked to Icarus, who in his pride flew too close to the sun and fell to the earth. But like Frankenstein, this text connects hubris to the search for scientific knowledge — an outdated lesson perhaps (or perhaps not), but this we can take away: don’t make a deal with the devil. And hey, if you do, and then you get a chance to repent, you shouldn’t be too proud to take it. Just common sense, guys.


Dead Souls

Chichikov’s greed — for money, for social status — is what drives him in his macabre task, collecting the dead in a weird little scheme to get rich. As you might expect for someone who goes around buying dead bodies off people, it doesn’t work out quite the way he’d planned.

American Psycho

“I’m left with one comforting thought: I am rich — millions are not.” Patrick Bateman is the epitome of Wall Street elite, a young investment banker addicted to money, sex, and power, who indulges in every excess — including some very unsavory ones.

The Hobbit

Smaug is the epitome of the covetous evil dragon, hoarding treasure that he pillaged from the towns of Middle-Earth, sleeping on top of it for safety. Sadly for him, he meets the fate of all evil dragons who guard treasure other men want.



Oblomov is your prototypical rich kid who can’t make a decision (or an action) to save his life. Seriously, he doesn’t get out of bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. Things (if you can imagine it) devolve from there. His fatalistic slackerism has even spawned its own term: Oblomovism.

A Confederacy of Dunces

Ignatius J. Reilly is many things, but he is not a hard worker. Still living with his mother at 30, and resentful of any effort he has to make to do anything at all (“my valve!”), Walker Percy describes the hero as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.”

English, August

All Agastya Sen, a city kid trapped in a clerical job in the country, can think about is pot, masturbation, and Marcus Aurelius. Even the book’s sentences sound stoned. There is a lot of stickiness.