“Antagonist” is one of the most frequently misunderstood words in the literary world. Many make the mistake of assuming a story’s antagonist is, by definition, evil, but an antagonist is merely a force, character, or group that opposes the protagonist (who, similarly, is not necessarily heroic). Good and evil need not come into it, only opposition. While in most books (fiction and non), the antagonist is a person, throughout history, writers have also pitted characters—or themselves—against nature. These five books aren’t the only examples of Mother Nature as antagonist, but they’re among the best.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
Perhaps the most famous memoir in American history, Walden tells the story of Thoreau’s great experiment in simple living: the two-plus years he spent living in a cabin, being self-sufficient and living apart from the modern world (of mid-19th-century Massachusetts). Thoreau’s goal was to inspire introspection, free of the bustle of the wider world, and to meet the challenge of living a simple life in a cabin he built himself, free from support or constraint. While the memoir is contemplative and philosophical instead of action-packed, nature is clearly the opposing force in Thoreau’s tale. If you only vaguely remember Walden from school, dust it off and read it again—it remains a powerful journey.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
The sad, unnecessary death of Christopher McCandless is a haunting story of hubris or stupidity, depending on your point of view—but in either scenario, the antagonist was certainly nature itself. McCandless gave away his college fund, left home, and ventured into the Alaskan wilderness with a bag of rice, a rifle, a camera, and some books. He planned to live off the land, and survived for about 100 days before dying of, essentially, starvation (though the exact cause of death remains a point of contention). Whatever actually happened, McCandless was a young man who sought to test himself against nature—and lost. Krakauer’s book is a beautiful study of a tragedy that can still teach us lessons today about understanding our limits.
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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
The recent film adaptation has brought Cheryl Strayed’s terrific memoir into the spotlight again, and it remains a powerful reading experience. At the age of 26, after the death of her mother and heroin use had destabilized her life in almost every way, Strayed embarked on a hike along the Pacific Coast Trail, eventually walking more than 1,100 miles on a journey of self-discovery no less powerful than Thoreau’s for being born out of dysfunction and tragedy. Strayed writes with a surprisingly assured and confident style, with an economy of words that allows the experiences she’s describing to stand on their own. If you’ve seen the movie, read the book for a more personal experience.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King
People might assume the dated baseball reference baked into this book means the story itself is dated, but the fact is, it remains as fresh as ever, and one of King’s more interesting novels. Trisha, nine years old and bored while on a hike with her brother and mother—and upset over her parents’ impending divorce—gets lost and must find a way to survive in the wilderness with few resources. As her physical state declines, she begins to hallucinate, experiencing visions of her baseball hero, former Boston reliever Tom Gordon, and imagines the God of the Lost (symbolized by a giant bear) hunting her. Trisha demonstrates believable but surprising common sense as she attempts to mitigate her circumstances and survive against the true “God of the Lost”—nature itself.
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Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer once again shows us how nature is always our antagonist, whether we realize it or not. While researching a magazine article about the commercialization of climbing Mount Everest and guide companies promising wealthy amateurs the opportunity to stand atop the summit in relative safety, Krakauer got more than he bargained for. A freak storm killed eight climbers, including some of the best-known in the world, and left dozens of others—including himself—in desperate straits. His tale of survival remains one of the most harrowing committed to paper. Above the mountain’s “Dead Zone,” nature is all there is, and it does not like human beings. The story continues to be adapted at regular intervals, but so far no one has quite captured its sadness, desperation, and heroism.