Novels About Poverty

These novels show characters living in poverty, including their struggle to improve their lives and the effect their circumstances have on them.

They can be contrasted with the novels on Money & Materialism

See also American Dream

Poverty in Novels

The Octopus | Frank Norris

Wheat farmers in California, led by Magnus Derrick, are fighting to protect their land from a large railway. The corporation, influenced by some behind the scenes political dealings, is threatening to take the land they have been farming and improving for years.

Read “The Octopus”

The Old Man and the Sea | Ernest Hemingway

Santiago is an elderly Cuban fisherman who is on a streak of bad luck–he hasn’t caught a sellable fish in eighty-four days. His friend and assistant, Manolin, has left him for another boat at the behest of his parents, but he still visits to talk and eat. Santiago’s luck changes when he hooks a huge marlin, leading to the struggle of his life.

Read “The Old Man and the Sea”

Fathers and Sons | Ivan Turgenev

Arkady returns home after graduating, bringing with him a friend and mentor, Bazarov, a nihilist. Arkady’s father and uncle don’t like Bazarov, and there are arguments between the older and younger generations. The young men meet sisters, Anna and Katya, and they pursue them.

Read “Fathers and Sons”

The Grapes of Wrath | John Steinbeck

Tom Joad, just paroled for manslaughter, is hitchhiking across Oklahoma to his parents’ farm. He finds the farm abandoned; the bank has repossessed the family farm, forcing them out. Tom meets up with his extended family at his uncle John’s. The family prepares to go to California where they hope to find work.

Read “The Grapes of Wrath”

them | Joyce Carol Oates

This novel follows the lives of Loretta Wendall, her daughter, Maureen, and Jules, her son. It’s Detroit in 1937 with Loretta living in poverty. Her life is narrated from the Depression until thirty years later.

Sula | Toni Morrison

Sula and Nel are friends who grow up in “The Bottom”, the African-American part of a town in Ohio. Sula is wild and feels unloved and guilty over an accident in her childhood. Nel was raised in a strict household, and finds some excitement in Sula’s company. There is a lot of drama in the lives of Sula, her mother, and her grandmother.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets | Stephen Crane

Maggie grows up on a poor tenement street in New York. Her brother Jimmie fights in the streets and becomes a bully. Her mother is an abusive drunk while her father is selfish and defeated. Maggie grows into a pretty young woman, which gives her an opportunity to escape her dismal life.

Read “Maggie”

Tambourines to Glory | Langston Hughes

Essie and Laura are about forty-years-old and live in Harlem. Essie wants to have enough money to bring her daughter Marietta from Virginia. Laura is focused on drinking, gambling, and men. They decide to start a church. Essie has faith, and is a true believer; Laura is in it for the money.

A Tale of Two Cities | Charles Dickens

Dr. Manette gets reunited with his daughter Lucie who thought he had been dead for the past eighteen years. Years later, Lucie marries Charles Darnay, a man who is keeping a secret about his background. The peasant’s are feeling oppressed by the aristocracy in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

Read “A Tale of Two Cities”

Nectar in a Sieve | Kamala Markandaya

Rukmani’s marriage is arranged to a poor rice farmer. They are happy and have several children. They deal with changes and adversity, such as a tannery being built in their community, a monsoon that destroys their property, and the maturation of their children.

The Jungle | Upton Sinclair

Jurgis and Ona move to America, eager to make a good home for themselves. They buy a house, but the payments are higher than they expected. The whole family take hard, menial jobs connected to the meat industry. Their financial situation worsens, necessitating further indignities and inciting Jurgis to violence.

Read “The Jungle”

Bastard Out of Carolina | Dorothy Allison

Annie has her first child, Bone, at fifteen. Her second husband, Glen, abuses Bone sexually and physically. The family moves around a lot and is very poor because Glen can’t keep a job.

Read “Bastard Out of Carolina”

The Street | Ann Petry

Lutie Johnson lives with her son Bub in 1940s Harlem. While away working as a live-in maid, her husband starts seeing another woman. She leaves him and spends years working and studying, eventually getting work as a file clerk. She takes a suite in a run-down apartment with an unsettling superintendent. She encounters a lot of racism in her daily life. She is determined to keep herself and son out of the seedier side of their environment.

Make Lemonade | Virginia Euwer Wolff

LaVaughn, fourteen, starts babysitting for Jolly, a sixteen-year-old with two young kids. LaVaughn is saving for college. Dealing with two young children is hectic, and Jolly doesn’t always come home on time. She tries to teach the kids whatever she can. Jolly is afraid when she is fired and wants to borrow money from Lavaughn.

Pelle the Conquerer | Martin Andersen Nexo

Lasse Karlsson and his eight-year-old son Pelle go to a Danish island looking for work as laborers. Lasse gets hired on Stone Farm. It is an oppressive, harsh place with lots of rough people. When he gets older, Pelle is apprenticed to a shoemaker. He later gets involved in union activities and social equality.

Read “Pelle the Conquerer”

When Rain Clouds Gather | Bessie Head

Frustrated by his Zulu tradition and apartheid, Makhaya flees South Africa into Botswana. He ends up in a village called Golema Mmidi where his farming knowledge is put to use. Chief Matenge doesn’t like Makhaya or Gilbert, a British expatriate who farms in the village. Matenge is greedy and the people don’t respect him.

Nicholas Nickleby | Charles Dickens

Nicholas’s father dies penniless leaving his family at the mercy of his miserly brother Ralph. He sends Nicholas to work at the Dotheboys School for Boys, a place where unwanted boys are sent. Kate, Nicholas’s sister, gets work at a milliner’s with long hours and low pay. She lives in a dismal lodging. When a wretched pupil at the school named Smike is going to get a beating, Nicholas intervenes, prompting him to leave immediately after and set out for London.

Read “Nicholas Nickleby”

Le Pere Goriot (Father Goriot) | Honore de Balzac

In 1819 Rastignac, Vautrin, and Goriot live in a Paris boardinghouse, the Maison Vauquer. It is a dismal, grimy place. Rastignac is a young, smart social-climber. Vautrin is a bit mysterious and seems to be hiding something. Goriot has been living there several years, his fortunes gradually deteriorating as his daughters spend his money, but he is still devoted to them.

Read “Le Pere Goriot”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Betty Smith

The Nolan family lives in poverty in Brooklyn. The father, Johnny, works inconsistently as a singing waiter. He uses a lot of his earnings for alcohol. The mother, Katie, does janitorial work. The children, Francie and Neely, find metal scraps to sell to the junk dealer. Aunt Sissy is free-spirited and wants to be a mother, but all her babies have died. The narrative covers the life of Francie from childhood until she leaves home.

Read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”


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