A flatlay of classic books about dysfunctional families

Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

‘All happy families are alike,’ begins Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; ‘each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ There is something fascinating and horrifying about the details of a domestic disaster, and literature is chock-full of secretive, scheming and utterly dysfunctional families.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (1886)

The Spanish Ulloa family is falling apart in the late nineteenth century. Father Julián Alvarez is sent to the remote country estate to order the affairs of Don Pedro, Marquis of Ulloa, but his comically ineffectual attempt to reform the household’s political corruption and moral decadence leads eventually to tragedy.

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (1800)

We follow the ailing fortunes of four generations of an Anglo-Irish family in the eighteenth century, as they mismanage their ruinous estate. This novel is narrated by the family’s canny and unreliable retainer, Thady Quirk. W. B. Yeats called Castle Rackrent "one of the most inspired chronicles written in English".

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)

The Compson brothers come from a disintegrating family of former Southern aristocrats. Each of them narrates a section of this novel, starting with Benjy, a 33-year-old with learning difficulties: his account jumps in time and makes unexplained connections that are only gradually and partially clarified by his brothers Quentin and Jason. The title is taken from Macbeth’s description of life as "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing".

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958)

A bickering family of mean-spirited eccentrics live in Halloran House, a Gothic mansion with "geometrically flawless" grounds except for one jarringly asymmetrical sundial. They believe they have been chosen to survive the imminent end of the world, so they begin stockpiling, scheming against each other and preparing for one final party.

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851)

The once wealthy Pyncheon family lives at the gloomy House of the Seven Gables, but their property was built on ground stolen by an ancestor and they are living under a dead wizard’s curse. Through madness and murder, old family secrets are gradually revealed. It is "a weird, wild book", wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The house is modelled on a real house that still stands in Salem, Massachusetts.

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

As a child, Petrushevskaya lived under a desk in her grandfather’s study. Her early writing was banned by the Soviet government and now she writes "for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence". This volume contains three novellas: Among Friends, her most controversial work, about a devoted mother who commits a terrible crime against her son out of love; The Time Is Night, her masterpiece, about an ageing poet who struggles for survival when her children return home; and Chocolates with Liqueur, the story of a young nurse terrified of her abusive husband.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Countess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina is beautiful, wealthy and popular, but she is married to an older government official and feels that her life is empty. When she meets the fiery young Count Vronsky, she embarks on a scandalous and self-destructive love affair that sends shockwaves rippling through Russian high society. Her story is contrasted with that of the landowner Konstantin Levin, a quasi-self-portrait of Tolstoy, who toils alongside his estate workers and pines for Anna’s sister-in-law Kitty.

The Flint Anchor by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1954)

John Barnard is a 19th-century Norfolk merchant with an abused and unhappy family: he is a tyrant, his wife drinks brandy, his son is a disappointment and his daughter refuses to marry. We follow their aggravating, selfish and often malevolent activities over several decades. It is ‘a novel created with solidity and subtlety of feeling’, wrote Atlantic Monthly, "a fusion of warmth, wit and quietly biting shrewdness that are reminiscent of Jane Austen".

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (1929)

Eugene Grant grows up in the small town of Altamont, the son of an alcoholic father and an entrepreneurial mother. This highly autobiographical novel is a wild chronicle of domestic upheavals, family tragedy and small-town American life told in gushing, poetic, impressionist prose. "Tom’s genius is gigantic, tremendous," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Henry Eliot is the author of The Penguin Modern Classics book and The Penguin Classics book, and hosts On the Road with Penguin Classics podcast.

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