“The more you read, though, the more you’ll see that literature is actually about losers… It’s consolation. All literature is consolation,” says Dakin, played by Dominic Cooper inThe History Boys—an English play-turned-film that chronicles eight boys who obtained A-level scores and are on their way to either Cambridge or Oxford. Not coincidently, it is Dakin’s admirer, Posner, who studies Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge”—a poem about a suppressed “sad-ish man,” of which there is no greater euphemism for the colloquial term loser.
But that is what makes “Drummer Hodge” one of the greatest war poems of all time. Since when have we ever been interested in reading about successful men who always get what they want—gold, God, and glory…and sex? “The best moments in reading,” the boys’ general studies (whatever that means) instructor says, “are when you come across a thought or feeling which you thought particular to you.” With that insight, it is no wonder that we’re naturally attracted to stories about the underachiever, the misfit, the washout—because what are you, if not a loser?
So, is it true that books are written about losers and movies are made about the victorious (or, perhaps to extrapolate further, are authors just sad fucks and movie producers wealthy cads)? Is literature just a consolation prize for the tragic characters we create in our minds? Otherwise, how else can writers tell stories of the lives that need to be told and the characters they care about most?
Well, here are some of our favorite losers in literature—the ones who have made you feel, as a certain general studies teacher would say, “as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
Chances are, you knew Holden Caulfield’s name would be mentioned at least once by the title of this article alone. Caulfield is the quintessential modern loser. He gets expelled from school, picks a fight with a stud who’s dating his ex, pays for a bar tab that’s not...