Evil in Literature: Hubert Selby Jr. and Ottessa Moshfegh

The existence of evil and the necessity of it or reasoning behind it have been a topic of discussion since the beginning of discussions. Regarding evil in literature, however, the why isn’t as interesting as to observe how things happen.

I’ve read two especially intriguing and deep-diving books this year regarding the topic of violence and fuckedupness happening to people who do not deserve it by any means but are confronted with and in some cases destroyed by it. Contextual matters of small town versus big town, the sex of the person or the aesthetics of the outside shell don’t really play a part, if you compare Hugh Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Ottessa Moshgefhs Eileen.


The books were published years apart, 1964 and 2015 respectively, and the stories take  place in lower class Brooklyn in the 1950s and lower middle class New England in the 1960s, respectively. The darker side of humanity, its reasons and non-reasons, but foremost its dire conscequences – on the one hand highly disturbing, on the other hand completely meaningless – are shown in a very bright light.

evil definition

Let’s contextualise this fun content with another gloomy literary genius. Franz Kafka stated the value of katharsis in a most comprehensible way in a letter to Oskar Pollak in 1904:

We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

So, in Kafkas words – a book has to punch us in the face to have actual value, because it moves something emotional inside us and induces actual pain. For sure, Moshfegh and Selby exceed expectations regarding both points. Eileen is still a more rational, and, let’s say, innocent version of events, but it depicts a female protagonist who has violence and unfulfilled urges inside her, leading to the distruction and death of things and people around her. Last Exit shows several stories from the same neighbourhood (they’re actually shown in each other’s background quite nicely in the movie, too), who are all facing a dreary failure or worse.eileen

There is a physical-psychological inner monologue microscope in both novels: all the main characters have a body they see as different from others. They are either born into the wrong body, are disgusted of their body or depend on their body. The methodology of showing those bodies, differs: Eileen shows the reader what she thinks is disgusting about her and although it opens her up psychologically and shows an unorthodox perspective of a female protagonist, it also lessens empathy.

Eileen wants to set things on fire and bash brains. Thus, her fate is self-inflicted. She argues she was fucked up by her familial background, her father being an alcoholic and her being unable to evolve towards anything besides violence and more violence.

„The idea that my brains could be untangled, straightened out, and thus refashioned into a state of peace and sanity was a comforting fantasy. I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain. […] I was dark, you might say. Moony. But I don’t think I was really so hardhearted by nature. Had I been born into a different family, I might have grown up to act and feel perfectly normal.“

Selby’s protagonists are less or not knowledgable of their condition – they are basically bulldozed into a corner like insects, who don’t know how to escape and can only keep further retreating into a corner. They have dreams, like Georgette, who wants to love and be loved, but falls into a trap of drugs and sex – not so different from Tralala, who seeks luxury and money, but ends up completely oblivious of her disastrous state. Both are raped by circumstance, both don’t know how to change their conditions and neither have any means to break out of their environment.


Had they been born into a different family, they might have grown up to act and feel perfectly normal. Would they, though?

On the outside, Eileen is a regular mousy white woman, which at least makes her look normal – giving her miles of advantages in comparison to Georgette. selby The inner otherness is at least invisible to the outside, and Eileen is able to blend in. Parallel to this, Harry is leading a Union strike and getting overwhelmed with being a leader, being the center of attention. The reader sees how people dislike him and use Harry for their own gain, his overexcited insides and his social inadequacy are visible to the outside.

This one thinks he could really be somebody if it weren’t for his wife and son dragging him down. Eileen thinks she could live a better life, if her parents hadn’t wired her brain wrong. In (my subjective) reality, both lack the necessary emotional intellect to overcome their condition, and are not able to achieve the necessary education because of their condition.

The difference between them thinking what makes them what they are and the actual reasoning is fairly similar, which is why those books are closely connected.


Lastly, let’s talk about the element of evil. It exists in both worlds, but the evil we see in Eileen is at least partially (yes, she is also lead to it by a vicious female) willingly performed. Last Exit shows how the protagonists are overcome by an evil from inside or outside that destroys them.

To (over-)simplify, all those characters are looking for love and a sense of self-worth, but sure as hell ain’t none of them reaching that goal because no one ever gave and will give them the necessary tools to get that far. So yes, they might find love and luck if circumstances were different – but really, if I would analyze two other novels with high class characters, I would find similarly large amounts of violence and destruction, because such is the literature that fascinates us.


That is a timeless evil and those able to stand above it are few and lucky, which increases the satisfaction given from those novels. They also satisfy the interest of intimate details, because we are explicitly and intensely fascinated with other people’s bodies (interesting how the google definition also mentions a physical aspect of the word) – and we will remain increasingly so, even more intensely after the photoshopped madness-fakery of the entity that is the instagram model.

Thus, Kafka is absolutely right and the need for the unfiltered, raw hurt and pain of real characters will remain an unmatchable experience. In conclusion, the need for evil in literature remains more than imperative.


(Photo from here, here and here)



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  1. Absolutely amazing post! I’ve always said that evil has a necessary function in our society – even right down to the ecosystems of nature; evilness is there to emphasize it’s antithesis and to help propogate/develop it’s antithesis. We are often drawn to darker aspects, (I for example am drawn to the darker aspects of literature – Hubert Selby Jr. just so happens to be my favourite author), for the sole purpose of better understanding our human condition/fallacies and our society at large. Both examples you give help to nail down the point at home about the integration of evil in literature in different forms, as well as it’s place in Kafka’s „katharsis“ as a method of helping us better understand ourselves; what disgusts and what provokes us.

    I absolutely love this post! Can’t wait to read more! 🙂

    – Robbie

    Gefällt 1 Person

    • Thank you! This means a lot; I love finding a mind that resonates with mine. Kafka has a very important place in my life, too. Darkness is something not to fear but to embrace, sadly few understand that. Sheep mentality is a serious problem 😉

      I wonder if you could recommend me anything else by Hubert Selby Jr.? I came across him by chance and loved the stories a lot, but i wonder if there’s something in a longer format.

      All the best, and I am looking forward to your content as well!

      Gefällt 1 Person

      • Thank you very much! 🙂 and as far as HSJr recommendations go there’s plenty to go by. You have the first half of his work which is more nihilistic and bleak in terms of narrative progress, so books like Requiem For a Dream, The Demon, The Room; however, you then have the second half of his work that he wrote towards the end of his life when he viewed the world with a little more optimism, so books like The Willow Tree, (his short story collection) Song of the Silent Snow, and his final book Waiting Period, one of his best in my opinion, but definitely his shortest. I hope you find this comprehensive list useful! 🙂

        – Robbie


      • Oh wow, that is comprehensive. Thank you! I know and love Requiem (how could I forget that’s by him, ungh), but the rest of those I’ll definititely need to get into 😁

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