Of all the deadly sins, envy is the one that always feels terrible. The rest of them can feel natural, fun, satisfying, even good. I find sloth to be a most enjoyable sin, which pairs nicely with gluttony. Wrath, greed, or even lust often go undetected as sins by the person committing them, and in certain circumstances pride can be an asset. But envy’s poison actively eats away at us, never giving us relief. Envy is what drives us to commit the other sins. Is it any surprise that it’s the premise of some of the best literature in history?
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
The characters in this book struggle in the moral vacuum left after WWI, and feel apathetic jealousy for each other. Jake Barnes envies every man whose manhood is still intact (he was robbed of his by the war); Robert Cohn is jealous of Jake for having the love of Lady Brett Ashley; and Brett’s fiancee, Mike Campbell, is jealous of Jake, Robert, and every other man who catches his fiancée’s wandering eye. All keep their envy for each other somewhat under wraps, but it breaks through every now and then under the weight of too much alcohol and profound unhappiness.
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene
Another novel that takes place during a war, this time Vietnam, that leaves people empty, lost, and envious of anyone who remembers their purpose. Thomas Fowler, a British journalist, meets Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent who is intellectual, quiet, and extremely idealistic. Pyle is well liked by everyone except Fowler, who, cynical and experienced, thinks Pyle’s ideas are naive, and his confidence misplaced. When Fowler’s lover leaves him for Pyle, his hatred is no longer unfounded. In the end, Fowler’s envy and mistrust uncovers something dangerous about Pyle that no one else was able to see.
You can’t help but feel jealousy for someone who is pretty even when she’s dressed in rags, whistles happily even though she’s poor and friendless, and catches the attention of the prince, even though you’ve hidden her away from the world so that exact thing wouldn’t happen.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
Emma Bovary cannot be happy. She constantly covets a life of fashion, romance, and money, living through her illusions instead of finding happiness in her reality. She envies the lifestyle she cannot have so much that she destroys her life and those around her in order to achieve it.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Ultimately Anna envies her lover, and all men, who are not scorned or shunned by society for doing no less than she: falling in love with someone who isn’t their spouse, and making a new life because of it. She’s no longer accepted by her peers after committing adultery and must isolate herself, never winning the freedom she sees others enjoy.
We sort of get it, Snow White can be a little annoying at times. She can be too cheerful and has a very high voice, but that’s no reason to have her heart cut out of her body. Being jealous of someone’s looks alone doesn’t seem like a good use of your time and magical skills, Your Highness.
Othello, by William Shakespeare
There’s a good chance that Iago, the play’s villain, is what we would today refer to as a psychopath or a sociopath. He goes around planting false envy in each character in the play, knowing it’s an all-consuming and destructive influence, but his motive is never clear. It’s as if he finds great joy in the sheer manipulation of those around him, gaining power from the discord, death, and envy he’s created. He’s an all-around terrible person.