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Best Family Feuds in Literature

It’s always satisfying to read about some other family’s problems—especially during the holidays, when the blood and blood feuds run hot. Below are some of literature’s greatest knock-em-down, drag-em-out fights to make you feel better about your own family troubles.

Basically all Shakespeare. The Capulets and the Montagues, in Shakespeare’s timeless Romeo and Juliet, are perhaps the most famous fictional example of a typical family feud—that is, an insurmountable conflict between families. But Shakespeare was also a master of displaying the bitter feuds that go in within the confines of the family itself. In King Lear, the title character causes something of a rift between his daughters when he declares he’ll bestow the largest inheritance on the one who loves him the most (as in most tragedies, hilarity ensues). And in my personal favorite, Hamlet, the prince of Denmark is a little put out to discover that his uncle has killed his father in order to marry his mother (hilarity ensues).

Basically all Greek tragedies. But forget about the woes of Oedipus— let’s look at The Oresteia as a great example of unhappy Greek families. As told throughout history by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Eugene O’Neill, and others, poor Electra must watch her brother kill her mother out of revenge for their father’s murder (hacked to pieces in his bathtub by his loving wife), and even gets a complex named after her. Greek literature is also rife with traditional vendettas between families.

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. Before the epic film series, there was the gripping novel about the escalation of a deadly mob war between the Corleones and their rival mafia families.

Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow up, by J. M. Barrie. If you’ve never given the original novel (written a few years after the play), or the audiobook, read by the incomparable Jim Dale, a shot, you might be surprised at how entertaining and socio-psychologically spot on it is. It tells the story of the sworn enmity between two makeshift families (Peter Pan’s and Hook’s), but also explores the fascinating dynamics of family tension among the Darlings themselves.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. This dark romance combines a traditional blood feud with intra-family fighting when scorned stepson Heathcliff returns home to wreak vengeance on his adopted family and the love of his life.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. For something a little more contemporary, try this darkly humorous thriller about a vendetta that turns a marriage into a deadly game of blame and deceit.

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. When Victor Frankenstein realizes what havoc his pseudo-child has been wreaking, he must undertake a quest to destroy the very thing he worked so hard to bring to life. Its subsequent film adaptations hit the nail on the head when they summed up the central problem of family life: “I’ve created a monster!”

PS—If you need some more, shall we say, uplifting reading about dysfunctional families this holiday season, David Sedaris always delivers—and even does so in a seasonally appropriate manner in Holidays on Ice.

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