Anxiety, boredom, claustrophobic relationships… characters from Jane Eyre to Mrs Dalloway can provide vital insights into how to live in these anxious times, writes Josh Cohen
Should we be suspicious of the idea that fiction can help us to live meaningful lives? After all, as Plato observed (via a fictionalised Socrates), Homer’s stories were composed to stir and entertain rather than to instruct us. They may be a lot of fun, but they have nothing to tell us about living well. How could fictional characters, shadowy beings who exist only in words, offer any meaningful purchase on the all too solid problems of our daily lives?
If we try to enlist the help of novels by extracting rules and hacks and counsel from them, we will probably prove Plato right. Novels, or at least the ones worth reading, draw us in not by offering moral instruction or practical guidance, but by helping us to see ourselves in all our strangeness and complexity.
Rooney reads as an unlikely 21st-century companion to DH Lawrence, the literary high priest of emotional intensity
Beneath the familiar surface of marital bickering is a violent revolt against the pressures of intimacy
Odd, incredible: she had never been so happy. Nothing could be slow enough; nothing last too long. No pleasure could equal, she thought, straightening the chairs, pushing in one book on the shelf, this having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living, to find it, with a shock of delight, as the sun rose, as the day sank.