A Little Life is an American literary fiction novel written by Hanya Yanagihara and published in 2015. It is a whopping eight hundred pages and is further classified as a tragedy.
As a budding lawyer in New York City, Jude lives with his actor friend Willem in a ramshackle apartment to make ends meet. Their wealthier friends J.B. and Malcolm are always close by, and the four of them are bound in camaraderie by their years in college. They know each other like the back of their hand—except for Jude. Nobody knows where Jude came from, not even Jude himself, and the things he does know, he would rather die than admit to the only people in the world that love him.
Instead of being vulnerable, he punishes himself for the things that only he knows. He works dangerously long hours at his firm to avoid his past, he refuses to seek psychiatric help, and he cuts himself with razors every night so intensely that his doctor threatens to admit him to the hospital. But Jude manages to walk the line between health and illness, and despite his secrecy, he finds success. He makes friends with almost everyone he meets, he is praised for his cutthroat tactics in the courtroom, and he climbs the ladder to relative fame. He is even adopted by one of his professors, and for once, his life is stable and fulfilling. Finally, he decides to open up and begins to date for the first time in his life.
But things never get much better for poor Jude. The spinal injury he suffered in childhood flares up, forcing him to rely on his wheelchair, which disturbs his new boyfriend, Caleb. It disturbs him so violently, in fact, that Caleb goes into a rage and beats him bloody, and when Jude’s support system comes to his rescue, he struggles to explain how he became entangled with such a dangerous man without divulging his secrets. The abuse has such a negative impact on him that he attempts suicide, but he is taken to the hospital by a colleague and he survives.
Willem, whose face is now plastered on posters worldwide, moves in with Jude to help him through his recovery. Willem and Jude’s friendship grows ever deeper as Willem becomes the closest thing to a therapist that Jude has ever had, and eventually they begin a relationship. Although Willem is the kindest person Jude has been intimate with, their relationship struggles due to Jude’s trauma and his unwillingness to seek therapy. He relies heavily on Willem, and after several fights and lapses in health, they settle into a relatively happy life.
As it always does, Jude’s happiness comes to an end. Willem is in a fatal car crash, which also kills Malcolm and his wife. Jude’s world is upended, and his mental and physical health deteriorate. His loved ones stage multiple interventions, but nothing can save Jude from himself.
This book is so long and detailed that I have boiled my analysis down to what I believe are the most important aspects of the story: Jude, misery business, style, and impact.
Jude as a character is an extreme example of someone suffering from childhood trauma. When I say extreme, I mean it—the things he has been through take such a toll on the mind and body that, while I read, I constantly questioned how he was able to lead a successful life. As someone with childhood trauma myself, I know just how difficult it is to get up in the morning when your brain is convinced it’s in constant danger. The fact that Jude became a renowned lawyer and had a huge support system was a stretch at best.
However, I can see the ways in which Yanagihara wanted me to believe Jude achieved this impressive life. His success as a lawyer is written off by his workaholism, which is vaguely explained by his obsession with running from his past. Being so busy, he can’t possibly deal with his trauma, therefore he works himself to the bone. Literally. While I understand that some people, even traumatized people, have the capacity to function at a much higher level than I do, Jude’s level of functioning is completely fantastical. He wakes up in severe pain, swims for “miles”, works over twelve hours each day, comes home and tears his flesh to pieces, then sleeps for a few hours and does it all over again. Even the most overworked doctors have a more lax schedule than he does.
If realism weren’t at the forefront of this book, I wouldn’t harp on it—but it is. Every character, every page, every storyline is written in a way that dares you to watch its gritty reality unfold. It wants to show you the worst of the worst that life can be, but it takes care to keep things within the realm of possibility. For every scene on its own, this realism holds, but as the book unfolds and piles on the trauma and the horror, its realism muddies. The human body cannot function on a few hours of sleep for weeks at a time, let alone while healing severe self-inflicted wounds and running on little to no sustenance. A few times in the book, Jude’s masochism catches up with him, but I was baffled by how infrequently it happened. This took me out of the narrative constantly—how am I to have the utmost of empathy for a man who is simultaneously superhuman and barely hanging on to life?
This led me to an unfortunate question: Is Jude a Mary-Sue? Believe me, I feel terrible even writing those words, but the longer I watched him survive, the more the label seemed to fit. Everyone loves Jude, besides a handful of his abusers, even though he refuses to open up and make intimate connections. They think he is utterly mysterious—not to mention handsome. Anyone who is remotely interested in men wants to have sex with Jude, and because of Jude’s trauma, this is an absolute curse. He is such an attractive man, woe is him! He has almost no formal education before college, yet graduates with degrees in both math and law, and he goes on to lead a firm that pays him an extraordinary amount of money. And even though he thinks of himself as disgusting and unlovable, his best friend falls for him. His famous-actor best friend. Jude dates a literal movie star. Of course, he cannot truly be this shallow of a character archetype when he has such a complex history and personality, but regardless of labels, I was unimpressed by the lack of believability in his success story.
Jude’s tragic downfall is, of course, his trauma. More specifically, it is his unwavering refusal to seek help for his trauma because he is unwilling to talk about what he’s been through, for fear of people realizing how tainted he is. He believes that the sexual abuse he suffered as a child is something incredibly shameful, and much of his self-loathing is quite realistic and common in trauma victims. Even his refusal to go to therapy is reasonable for someone who has been through what he has, and for much of the book, I was impressed by the way his feelings translated to the page. The symptoms of trauma are plain and eloquently stated, and never does Jude seem like he is healthy, although for some reason his friends seem to think he’s just fine. Whatever mask he was showing them was not at all present to the reader.
Therapy is a point of contention throughout the story, which is unsurprising. What I found ridiculous, though, is the author’s explanation for why he wouldn’t go to therapy—as if he needed one at all. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but when Dr. Traylor’s flashback was finally revealed, I had already put the pieces together and was terribly disappointed that my guess was correct. It isn’t that Jude is scared to confront his past; rather, he is traumatized by a psychologist, and thus he cannot possibly go to therapy.
I can believe that someone who was abused by a doctor would be afraid of doctors. It is not the concept itself that irks me. My true frustration is pervasive throughout the book, wherein Jude is so wholly shaped by his trauma, he becomes not a person but rather an amalgamation of the things that have happened to him. He does not look at himself in the mirror and see the hands of men upon him and find himself disgusting—he remembers that his abusers have told him he is disgusting, and that he should be ashamed of himself. Thus, he feels as such. He is not scared of going to therapy—he has been traumatized by the idea of psychology itself. He does not even cut himself because he needs a way to express his overwhelming feelings—he cuts himself because Brother Luke taught him how to (and don’t get me started on why that makes no sense either). By the end of the book, Jude feels less like a person and more like a cardboard cutout that has been pissed on and ripped apart by a pack of wolves, and though some of us with trauma do feel that way, we are more than that. We are still human beings at the end of the day, and writing Jude this way gives him no agency as a character.
I believe that if A Little Life were classified as horror rather than literary fiction, very few people would call it “trauma porn.” But as it stands, I have to agree with the criticism. While the book gripped me intensely in the beginning during the revelation of Brother Luke’s abuse, I felt the impact of the narrative’s misery less and less as more of it was introduced. In fact, when I reached Caleb’s scene, I couldn’t believe my eyes—not because it was shocking, but because it was so lacking in nuance while the rest of the book felt drenched in it.
What continued after Caleb's plotline was equally as disappointing. I don’t find myself enthused by things with shock value like I once did when I was a teenager, and even though the monstrous qualities of Caleb, Brother Luke, and Dr. Traylor may have been exquisitely miserable as stories of their own, I felt numb to the horror rather quickly. My suspension of disbelief was broken by the incredulousness of Jude’s achievements, and I could only shake my head when, hundreds of pages into the novel, more of his backstory was revealed to me in some attempt to tug at my heartstrings.
Dr. Traylor’s story is the most obvious example of trauma porn out of all of them. There is first the realism of it all—how exactly did Jude manage to hitchhike across the country and not run into a single trucker who genuinely wanted to help him? The book chooses the worst possible outcome of any situation and runs with it, which becomes tiresome. There was little to Traylor’s story, as well. Jude was simply used, tortured, and destroyed. We don’t even learn how Jude was found (Why didn’t Traylor kill him?), and I wonder if this was overlooked simply because there was no logical reason why he would have survived. But he did, otherwise there would have been no book.
These flashbacks in particular hardly need so much detail, which is another reason why I find the criticism valid. The stories serve no purpose because Yanagihara takes great care to foreshadow them, and by the time the stories were revealed, I had already put them together save for a few minor details. Why, then, was I forced to watch the abuse? And why for so long? To me, that is horror. It is not the “tragic gay romance” that the book and its fans promised me. I wish I knew why Yanagihara wanted to torture her readers, because I truly believe the book would have been more intriguing and terrifying if a significant portion of the trauma had been left to the imagination. The reader can fill in the details with whatever horrifies them the most.
I was disappointed that the most difficult part of dealing with sexual trauma was glossed over: the act of sex itself as an adult. We get a little bit of insight into how Jude has sex, mostly in that he believes he must do it even though he hates it and he cannot talk about the fact that he hates it, but I expected more specificity. We are meant to believe that Jude is simply fabulous at having sex because Brother Luke taught him how to do it when he was young, but I wanted to dive into the act itself and feel what Jude was feeling. I wanted to know exactly how difficult it was for him and what was going through his brain. We were forced to watch in great detail how he was abused, so why is it too much to watch him have somewhat consensual sex as an adult? There are so many boundaries that this book tries to push, and I don’t understand why this one was too taboo to touch.
Lastly, I suspect that Willem’s death and its impact on Jude is the most tragic and miserable aspect of the book for many readers, but to me, it felt like the easy way out. I expected something far more wicked, and for that I blame the quotes I read in the first few pages of the book. I read that this was a story about “euthanasia,” and I spent the entire book trembling with dread, wondering when someone (Jude) would beg to be released from their existence. Instead, I found that euthanasia meant suicide, and the book ended in a boring and frustrating manner. I was convinced that when Jude was finally starting to get a bit better, Willem would begin to suffer from a disease (Why else was his family’s poor health discussed for so long?) and Jude would have to take care of him, turning him into the caretaker. Whether Jude or Willem or both of them would die didn’t matter to me, but watching one or both of them wither away in front of each other was, to me, the most tragic and heart-wrenching thing I could imagine. Instead, Willem was hit by a car. It was pathetic.
It is undeniable that Yanagihara is a talented writer. Her sentences flow like a spoken word, and her use of metaphor, simile, and rhythm are to die for. Any writer must at least try to read this book, for they will come away having learned an extraordinary amount about how to craft sentences that sing and beg the reader to turn page after page.
There is something about Yanagihara’s style that is, in a way, filthy. This type of filth is something that I am drawn to; she has the ability to dig into emotions in such a visceral way that the act of reading becomes a little bit gross, a little bit dirty, just like the characters feel. It is fitting for the subject matter, especially considering Jude’s disgust for himself, and at times the barrage of nauseating imagery made my hands tremble. It was incredible.
From a higher perspective, the novel does its best to serve the reader an enormous amount of information over the course of decades throughout the story, and as such, it jumps around in time quite often. This is something that I enjoy, but others might become frustrated by. Personally, there were a few chapters which I could have done without, especially the ones that focused on Harold and J.B. later in the story, which only bloated the narrative. But thirty pages out of eight hundred felt like a drop in the bucket, and I have a feeling the editors thought the same.
When I read a book, I often wonder what the author’s purpose was in writing it and whether or not it achieves their goals, but what’s really important is the impact that it has on its readers. A Little Life seems to be a book that wants to rub its reader’s face in the mud and kick them until they cry, and for some, I think that’s all it really does. As stated in misery business, the story is so dark and brutal, it’s easy to come away feeling hopeless about the world and the devastating effects of mental illness. I think that most people can find deeper meaning in it, though, if they manage to get through the book without developing anhedonia.
The clearest message I found is one about denial. All of the characters are in some state of denial throughout their entire lives. Many of them know something about Jude’s past and turn a blind eye to it, in denial that he isn’t as healthy as he seems on the outside. Jude himself is in denial about his own mental health, and he even plays tricks on himself to convince himself that he is alright. But Jude is also in denial about the people around him: he doesn’t truly believe that he is loved, or that he is beautiful, or that the things he’s done aren’t shameful. He tries, but something holds him back. Jude doesn’t heed the advice he is given as a teenager—he doesn’t seek to work through what traumatized him—and ultimately, he loses his life because of it. At its core, the book tells us that it is dangerous to let denial live for so long that it becomes buried in our bones, and the only way to combat it is to tackle it as early as possible.
To others, the book may be a lesson in futility. Personally, as much as I wanted to love Jude every step of the way, I became frustrated with him less than halfway through the book, when he wouldn’t take the steps to help himself despite having access to so many tools that would help him. I understood his situation, but I saw in him what I’ve seen in other people I’ve been close to, which is the extreme fear of change that leads to continued misery. I saw myself in both Jude and the characters around him, who tried to help (though most of them waited much too long to intervene) and were brushed off constantly. You can only watch someone hurt themselves for so long before it starts to hurt you. And so, this book is also about knowing when to give up. How much happier would Willem or Malcolm or J.B. or Harold have been if they had simply walked away and let Jude be Jude? You can try to change someone, but if they just won’t listen, sometimes you have to walk away. Sometimes you have to change yourself instead. Whose life are you living but your own?
And then there are the messages that arise from the book’s discussion of therapy, which still warp my view of the narrative even now. Both Willem and Jude eventually do go to therapy, but neither of them seem to gain much from it. Are we supposed to believe that they aren’t taking it seriously? Or can therapy not help someone who is in so much pain? Is therapy useless? Can people ever really help people, or can they only help themselves? Because Jude’s downfall is due to his unwillingness to seek proper help, I have to believe that the book doesn’t actually want its readers to think therapy is useless, but the way it is presented in the narrative is questionable. My hope is that most people who reach the last page of the book will fall into one or both of the two previous categories—anyone else will likely find this book to be a depressing waste of time.
When I finished A Little Life, I was so disappointed, I thought I could not possibly rate it higher than a two. But as I’ve let the narrative stew in my mind over the past month, I’ve come to believe that it is an impressive book in many ways, though it is not the nuanced novel about trauma that I wanted it to be. I recommend this book to any writer who explores mental illness in their stories, but the general reader need not wallow in its misery for eight hundred pages unless the book calls out to them specifically.
Here, you made art because it was the only thing you’d ever been good at, the only thing, really, you thought about between shorter bursts of thinking about the things everyone thought about: sex and food and sleep and friends and money and fame. — pg. 33
”What about you, Jude?” a few people had asked him, early in the term, and he knew enough by then—he was a fast learner—to simply shrug and say, with a smile, “It’s too boring to get into.” He was astonished but relieved by how easily they accepted that, and grateful too for their self-absorption. None of them really wanted to listen to someone else’s story anyway; they only wanted to tell their own. — pg. 107
He had liked the Douglasses, but when they told him to stay in touch, he knew he wouldn’t—he was so desperate to move away from the life he was in, the life he’d had; he wanted to be someone whom no one knew and who knew no one. — pg. 121
Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself. — pg. 131
But he felt so ceaselessly dirty, so soiled, as if inside he was a rotten building, like the condemned church he had been taken to see in one of his rare trips outside the monastery: the beams speckled with mold, the rafters splintered and holey with nests of termites, the triangles of white sky showing immodestly through the ruined rooftop. — pg. 171
It was impossible to explain to the healthy the logic of the sick, and he didn’t have the energy to try. — pg. 273
He often feels as if his apartment is a falsehood: it suggests that the person within it is someone open, and vital, and generous with his answer, and he of course is not that person. Lispenard Street, with its half-obscured alcoves and dark warrens and walls that had been painted over so many times that you could feel ridges and blisters where moths and bugs had been entombed in its layers, was a much more accurate reflection of who he is. — pg. 362
He had all sorts of rules he’d constructed for himself over the decades, based on lessons someone must have taught him—what he wasn’t entitled to; what he mustn’t hope or wish for; what he mustn’t covet—and it took some years to figure out what these rules were, and longer still to figure out how to try to convince him of their falsehood. But this was very difficult: they were rules by which he had survived his life, they were rules that made the world explicable to him. — pg. 398
He felt sometimes as if his months with Caleb were a pack of hyenas, and every day they chased him, and every day he spent all his energy running from them, trying to escape being devoured by their snapping, foaming jaws. — pg. 436
Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them. They all—Malcolm with his houses, Willem with his girlfriends, JB with his paints, he with his razors—sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days. — pg. 567
For years, he couldn’t understand why this was so important to him, why it mattered to him so much, why he was always trying to argue against his own memories, to spend so much time debating the details of what had happened. And then he realized that it was because he thought that if he could convince himself that it was less awful than he remembered, then he could also convince himself that he was less damaged, that he was closer to healthy, than he feared he was. — pg. 612
People got used to anything their bodies gave them; he was no exception. If your body was well, you expected it to perform for you, excellently, consistently. If your body was not, your expectations were different. Or this, at least, was what he was trying to accept. — pg. 662