Misery keeps three 1946 bestsellers on top

My choices for the three bestselling novels of 1946 for today’s readers have little in common except that somebody in them is miserable. My top picks are Arch of Triumph, This Side of Innocence, and The Snake Pit.

Arch of Triumph

Quote: "To their native country [refugees]they are traitors. And abroad they are still citizens of their native country " against a background of a stone wall.

Arch of Triumph the third of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels to make the bestseller list in America. Each is about some aspect of the the German people’s experiences in World Wars I and II.

The most famous, of course is All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells about the disillusionment of schoolboys who believed Germany’s might would make a quick end to the Great War and that dying for one’s country was glorious.

Remarque’s second bestseller, The Road Back, examined what happened to such soldiers when, their innocence drowned in the blood of WWI, they returned home to a defeated, demoralized, bankrupt Germany.

Set on the cusp of the Second World War, The Arch of Triumph tells of a Jewish surgeon who, unable to practice medicine legally in Germany, has fled to Paris.

He’s not safe there, either.

Dr. Ravic is a dark character, keeping to physical and emotional shadows. There’s something heroic about his refusal to bend to tyranny, but his doom is so certain that it dims even heroism.

All three of Remarque’s novels remain important books. Read in sequence, they  provide insights about 20th century history.

Arch of Triumph will also help us understand aspects of our own day, such why Angela Merkle has been so determined that Germany welcome migrants.

This Side of Innocence

Photograph of bustle on woman's dress, symbolizing historical setting of This Side of Innocence

Taylor Caldwell’s novel This Side of Innocence exposes a family whose members are  as unpleasant a clutch of characters as readers would want to find in- or outside of  a book cover.

As fascinating as they are revolting, the characters make their own lives so miserable that they can make others miserable effortlessly.

Caldwell reveals, occasionally comments, but neither judges nor preaches.

She doesn’t need to: Their ends are predictable from their beginnings.

The Snake Pit

Barred window in stone wall of building suggests setting of The Snake Pit.

Mary Jane Ward’s novel The Snake Pit is a study of a different type of misery, the misery of mental illness.

Ward herself had a mental breakdown at age 34, which she drew on to create the fictional experiences of another young writer, Virginia Cunningham.

The treatment Virginia receives in the novel, was standard practice in the ’40s: medication, shock treatments, body-temperature baths.

Ward’s description, and the film version of her novel, created a movement for legislative reform of the institutional care of the mentally ill.

The fictional Virginia, who drifted into mental illness, is institutionalized and recovers.

The uncertainty in the novel about what caused Virginia’s breakdown and which—if any—of her treatments was responsible for her recovery suggests the same misery could happen to anyone, even to the novelist’s readers.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but I find that possibility more frightening than anything invented by Stephen King.

That’s the best of the best for 1946. If you haven’t read one of these, please give one of them a try.

Next week we’ll move on to the bestsellers of 1936.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Snake Pit still terrifies 70 years later

Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit is a powerful story about mental illness, as terrifying in a quiet way as anything by Stephen King.

The novel takes readers inside the mind of one mentally ill person, Virginia Cunningham.


The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward

Random House, 1946. 278 p. 1946 bestseller #10. My grade: A.


Virginia was living in New York and working on a novel when she began having trouble sleeping.

She recalls saying to her husband “Robert, I think here is something the matter with my head.”

As the novel opens, Virginia doesn’t even know where she is. She thinks she must be in prison doing research for a book, but she isn’t sure.

She wonders if blurred vision is causing her fuzzy thinking, so she asks a nurse for glasses.

“If I’m without them much longer I’ll go crazy,” she says.

When she says crazy out loud, she realizes she has been refusing to acknowledge she is in a mental hospital.

That realization is the beginning of her road back to mental health.

Virginia’s recovery isn’t smooth.

She is given medication, shock treatments, confined in body-temperature baths, moved from ward to ward.

Virginia never knows what caused her problems or why they recede.

She only rarely realizes she is seeing a doctor.

The Snake Pit is a classic. Don’t miss it.