Please recommend fiction that exemplifies "a life well lived"
November 24, 2014 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Which books explore the question "What does it mean to have lived well"?

I'm looking for examples of fiction--any genre, any century--that explore different metrics for living well.

I.e. maybe the good life is lived through material wealth? or spirituality?
Or maybe it is through serving others. Or having a family. Or...? You get the idea.

Especially examples that knocked your own socks off enough to materially affect how you chose to live your own life. But only fiction!!
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
Gone With the Wind is a story of what happens when your "quality of life" is degraded, and what happens when you place material comfort above emotional wealth.
posted by mynameisluka at 4:06 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

David Copperfield: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
posted by johngoren at 4:09 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
posted by un petit cadeau at 4:09 PM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Eternal on the Water
posted by hippychick at 4:11 PM on November 24, 2014

I thought Isak sure had a well lived life in Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil.
posted by steinwald at 4:12 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

A Soldier of the Great War
posted by Miko at 4:24 PM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

84, Charing Cross Road and The Fault in Our Stars are both warm and thoughtful books about modest lives lived well among books, friends, and family. [Oh, sorry, the first one is non-fiction but reads like an epistolary novel.]
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:28 PM on November 24, 2014

* Middlemarch
* Jane Eyre
* Anna Karenina (Tolstoy is really good on this issue)
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:29 PM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

seems to be a big theme in "East Of Eden"
posted by thelonius at 4:35 PM on November 24, 2014

Different people will have different interpretations of the book Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; personally to me, one possible interpretation is to figure out "life well lived."
posted by applesurf at 4:40 PM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Heinlein's Time Enough for Love and Stranger in a Strange Land both dwell on this issue and have been very influential on generations of young sf readers (many of whom later come to reject Heinlein's worldview, of course).

Olaf Stapledon's First and Last Men, for a cosmic take on the topic.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.

I would argue that much of Sue Townsend's "Adrian Mole" series is about this -- even when Adrian is very young and his own musings on the topic are merely bathetic, he is surrounded by adults of varying ages searching for happiness and fulfilment.
posted by No-sword at 4:42 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stoner (and +1 for the Death of Ivan Ilyich).
posted by caek at 4:48 PM on November 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

I read a ton of books. I have been reading since I was a wee thing.

One book that has stuck with me is Ivan Doig's, The Whistling Season.

In a similar vein, I am reading The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton.

Both have to do with settlers who have been in the Midwest or far west, around the turn of the century. Both have to do with education. And both have to do with what people go through in their daily lives, with love and work and pain. And both are very good stories.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:56 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is the major theme of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.
posted by telegraph at 5:02 PM on November 24, 2014

Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge both by W.Somerset Maugham.
posted by thischarmingirl at 5:06 PM on November 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

The Anne of Green Gables series is largely about this, especially the first three.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:18 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

How Should A Person Be?
posted by escabeche at 5:39 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Came here to recommend The Razor's Edge but was beaten to it. It's about a young man who is given a chance to improve his station in life through marriage and work, but instead chooses to explore, as you say, what it means to live well.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:39 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came in here to say Stoner, so +1 Stoner.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:47 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

One can argue that Sydney Carton (from A Tale of Two Cities) and R. P. McMurphy (from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) both lived their lives well, though certainly not in the conventional sense.
posted by alex1965 at 5:53 PM on November 24, 2014

Goodbye, Mr. Chips, James Hilton about a school teacher well-loved by his students.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:18 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

The different stories of Dunstan Ramsay, Paul Dempster and Percy Boyd Staunton in Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy. All three could in some sense be said to have lived well, but in very different ways.
posted by Logophiliac at 6:54 PM on November 24, 2014

The first one to come to mind was The Razor's Edge, so I'm not surprised to see that it's already been mentioned a couple of times. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Others that come to mind:
Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse
Les Miserables - a book about how people can change other people's lives for the better through their actions
posted by Redstart at 7:08 PM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
Arching across the 20th century, it tracks the long, long life of an Ontario woman from her rural beginnings, her city middles, and her rural endings.
posted by Jesse the K at 7:08 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to say How Should A Person Be? but, alas, escabeche has beat me to it and I cannot think of anything else.
posted by spindle at 7:55 PM on November 24, 2014

The Razor's Edge shows the idea of "living well" but also shows the opposite: people looking for an easier life of material luxuries.

Middlemarch is another good example. "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

And I've only just started Walden but so far it seems on point. :)
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:04 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thoreau's Walden. (((ffs I should really learn to read the question)))
posted by bricoleur at 8:35 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

....and that was not a dig at cranberrymonger, I just realized that the question asked for fiction only. So, how about My Side of the Mountain?
posted by bricoleur at 8:41 PM on November 24, 2014

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.
posted by expialidocious at 9:58 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom.

This is juvenile lit, and 19th century to boot, but it's great "life well lived" fodder. It meant a lot to me growing up, and I still reread it and find some relevant wisdom. All about an adolescent girl trying to navigate how to live according to values and find fellow-travelers.
posted by Miko at 10:13 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Time Enough for Love", by Heinlein. It's about Lazarus Long, a man who has lived more than 2000 years.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:53 PM on November 24, 2014

Oh! Also, Hesse's Siddharta.
posted by No-sword at 12:07 AM on November 25, 2014

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. The characters demonstrate quite vivid contrasts among the life of the passions, the intellect, the heart, spirituality, materialism, and more.
posted by philosophygeek at 4:46 AM on November 25, 2014

Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
posted by Asparagus at 8:25 AM on November 25, 2014

Paul Coelho, The Alchemist.
posted by Slap Factory at 10:28 AM on November 25, 2014

Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. (Just went to the Wikipedia page and found that a critic wrote that Mrs. Bridge answered the question "what kind of people we are producing, what kinds of lives we are leading.")
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:58 AM on November 25, 2014

Martin Eden kinda fits, in that it's a "you think you should do this, but no" tale (London has a few of those actually). Really digging a lot of the recs already mentioned by the way ([George] Eliot, Tolstoy, Stegner, Maugham, Cather, and Hesse were indeed quite into this subject).
posted by ifjuly at 11:20 AM on November 25, 2014

The Hobbit.
posted by pantufla_milagrosa at 1:48 AM on November 26, 2014

Life of Pi. Hear me out! It's a story of the magical adventure of a young man dealing with the worst trials one can imagine, and coming through the other side with no bitterness whatsoever. One can question his sanity, but his coping skills are truly an example of a life lived well.
posted by BeBoth at 7:45 AM on November 28, 2014

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is entirely focused on this question. I'm reading it for the first time right now, and despite having seen many film and live productions of the story over the years, I'm finding the book itself to be really quite wonderful.
posted by vytae at 9:28 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations!
I'm leaving this open in case there are any further additions.
Working my way through the list....
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 7:19 AM on January 24, 2015

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