The 7 Deadly Sins Reading List: Sloth

Aesop's The Ant and the Grasshopper

On the subject of sloth and sloths, I have three things to say:

1. Sloths, those furry two- and three-toed mammals, may be displacing cats as the animal the internet <3s the most—voila the meme evidence
2. The sloth crime scene in Seven is terrifying
3. Sloth is the least human and most destructive of all the deadly sins

Sloth is the worst. It’s the opposite of FOMO. And, in literature, things typically don’t work out very well for those guilty of laziness, inaction and improvidence. Behold the evidence:

The Ant and the Grasshopper,” Aesop’s Fables, by Aesop

The story of the ant and the grasshopper goes like this: the ant spends all summer collecting food for the winter, while the grasshopper sings and sits on his bum. The foolish grasshopper suffers when the cold season hits, while the industrious ant is happy and well-fed. This parable has been translated and retold a zillion times, but it’s attributed to Aesop and the Greeks—and although it’s a cautionary tale, the ancient Greeks did have a god of sloth and laziness, Aergia, whom I assume was honored by putzing around doing nothing.

Hamlet,” by William Shakespeare

Prince Hamlet’s profoundly over-thought and beautifully depicted sloth is perhaps the most famous case of indecisiveness and inaction in all of literature. Yes, he’s sad about his father’s death, and sure, murder is a big deal, but if the young Dane could’ve pushed himself to make up his mind, he might not’ve lost it, and could very well have lived happily ever after with Ophelia.

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

There’s evidence of what I like to call gentlemanly sloth in most of Austen’s novels (George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, Frank Churchill in Emma), but let’s start with her first. In Sense and Sensibility, handsome jerkface John Willoughby charms beautiful young ladies like Colonel Brandon’s ward (whom he deflowers and leaves pregnant and alone) and Marianne Dashwood (sensibility in the novel, as led by her heart as her sister Elinor is by good sense). He loves Marianne, but forsakes her for a dowry that’ll provide him a life of comfort. For a delightful reminder of Willoughby’s loathsomeness, watch Ang Lee’s 1995 film, adapted by and starring Emma Thompson as Elinor, and a 19-year-old Kate Winslet as Marianne.

Oblomov, by Ivan Goncharov

This guy. The titular character in Goncharov’s novel has an almost completely horizontal life (not in the Chelsea Handler way). Oblomov barely leaves his bed, and if he does, he’s usually headed for the couch. He doesn’t work or worry, and is pleased if his days pass quickly and without incident, foul or fair. Neither romance nor the deterioration of his finances rouses Oblomov from his slothful stupor. His sloth is like a sickness, and a clever, if slightly hyperbolic, metaphor for the ills of the privileged classes in nineteenth-century Russia.

Pygmalion,” by George Bernard Shaw

Alfred Doolittle is a moocher, philanderer, an extortionist, a drunk, and, for most of Shaw’s play (and its Broadway and Hollywood cousins), the merriest member of the “undeserving poor,” sublimely proud of his lack of ethics and ambition. When he learns that his daughter, Eliza, is being kept in a strange man’s home, all he wants is a small payoff from Higgins, enough to soak in gin for a day or two. Then, Higgins labels him “the most original moralist in all of England,” and shatters his shiftless nirvana.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Dragons are the laziest mythical creatures. Smaug, and other winded beasts like him, find a treasure, sit on it, sleep for tens or hundreds of years, and because they’re huge, scaly, fire-breathing, and prone to attacking from the sky, it’s tricky for men (or dwarves, elves, hobbits, wizards, etc.) to take the riches back. But we (men, dwarves, elves, hobbits, wizards, etc.) can! A life of sloth is rarely rewarded.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

The worst of slothful, cowardly, society-crushing looters in Atlas are those that knew better—like Dr. Robert Stadler and James Taggart. Stadler is a man of science, who uses his intellect to hamper progress and subvert the efforts of the gents in Galt’s Gulch, and Taggart, grew up with and worked beside (and against his sister) Dagny, and acquired none of her industriousness, courage and sense of responsibility. While others work hard and build great things, these characters scheme, snicker and sit on their hands.

Garfield, by Jim Davis

When cats aren’t driven by curiosity—often leading to engrossing, addicting internet weirdness—they’re motivated by sloth. Garfield is the king of the lazy felines. Work is anathema to him, his dislike for Mondays is well documented, and he spends his days eating lasagna (and pizza, and cake, and sandwiches), sleeping, and pranking John and Odie.

Who do you think is the laziest character in lit?

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