63 pages 2 hours read

Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


A Little Life, published in 2015, is the second novel by American author Hanya Yanagihara. Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, it was both a critical success and a best seller. The novel explores the life of Jude St. Francis, a talented and successful lawyer in New York City, as he struggles to cope with his traumatic childhood. Though it explores many themes, it is first and foremost a meditation on the psychology of trauma, depicting the ways that trauma can derail a life beyond recovery. Yanagihara stated in an article for Vulture that one of her primary goals was to “create a protagonist who never gets better,” and Jude St. Francis meets that description despite the tortured attempts of his loved ones to help him over many decades. (Yanagihara, Hanya. “How I Wrote My Novel: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.” Vulture, 28 Apr. 2015, www.vulture.com/2015/04/how-hanya-yanagihara-wrote-a-little-life.html.)

Yanagihara has also stated that she wanted the novel to feel like a combination of two genres: naturalistic fiction and fairy tales. (Kavanagh, Adalena. “A Stubborn Lack of Redemption: An Interview with Hanya Yanagihara, Author of A Little Life.” Electric Literature, 21 May 2015, www.electricliterature.com/a-stubborn-lack-of-redemption-an-interview-with-hanya-yanagihara-author-of-a-little-life.) She accomplishes this impression by placing Jude and his friends in a wealthy New York backdrop, full of particular locations, workplaces, and customs, but also by including elements that seem disconnected from reality. For instance, although the novel is clearly set in the modern world, it contains no references or information that allow the reader to nail down particular dates, allowing for intense concentration on the characters’ lives rather than their historical context. Further, Jude’s childhood sometimes feels more like it belongs to a gothic 19th-century story than a contemporary one, such as during his early years, when he is raised by monks in a monastery. By uniting these two genres, Yanagihara creates a melodramatic tone that stands in distinction to the ironic detachment so popular in contemporary fiction.

Plot Summary

Part 1 introduces four friends who have recently graduated from college: Jude St. Francis, Willem Ragnarsson, JB Marion, and Malcolm Irvine. While the four are close, differences in background sometimes create distances between them. Jude and Willem are both from modest backgrounds—Willem’s parents moved to Wyoming from Eastern Europe and worked as ranch hands until their deaths—while JB and Malcolm both come from wealthier families. JB’s parents are both Haitian American, while Willem is white and Malcolm has a Black father and white mother. JB is gay, while Willem is straight and Malcolm is still trying to figure out his sexuality. None of them knows anything specific about Jude’s background—his family history, his sexuality, or even his race; he is an elusive and mysterious character in Part 1. The other three men work toward their professional goals: Willem is striving to be an actor, JB a visual artist, and Malcolm an architect. At the end of Part 1, Jude injures himself badly in what looks suspiciously like a suicide attempt despite his denials, creating the first glimpse into his troubled psyche.

Beginning in Part 2, the narrative shifts from focusing primarily on Jude’s three friends to focusing primarily on Jude. In this section, the reader not only learns that Jude habitually cuts himself, but also begins learning about his traumatic past. Abandoned by his parents outside a drugstore as a baby, he was taken in and raised by monks, who tolerated him at best and sexually abused him at worst. He also suffered a terrible injury that resulted in permanent spine damage that causes him leg pain and complications for the rest of his life. In the present day, Jude develops such a close relationship with one of his law professors, Harold, that Harold and his wife adopt Jude.

In Part 3, all four of the original friends’ careers are on the rise. Jude takes a job at a prestigious law firm, but his legs are getting worse, causing him so much pain that he often has to spend many consecutive days in his wheelchair. He purchases a loft apartment and hires Malcolm, now an architect with his own firm, to design and complete the renovations for it. JB, meanwhile, struggles with drug addiction despite his own successful career as a painter. His friends eventually stage an intervention, but JB insults Jude with a cruel impression of his limp, severing the friendship.

Part 4 is primarily devoted to a sexual relationship Jude enters into with a man named Caleb and that quickly becomes abusive. Caleb treats Jude’s disability with cruelty, accusing him of weakness, and eventually escalates to beating him. The worst, final beating leaves him unconscious and badly injured, needing hospitalization and bedrest for weeks afterward. Eventually, the trauma from this relationship becomes too much to bear, and Jude attempts suicide but is discovered before he dies. In flashbacks, the reader sees that one of the monks at the monastery, Brother Luke, convinced Jude to run away with him and eventually began regularly raping him while also using him as a sex slave for a series of male “clients” to fund the two as they moved from town to town across the country.

In Part 5, Jude and Willem transition from a friendship to a romantic relationship. As they attempt to work through Jude’s continued cutting and fear of physical intimacy, Jude’s physical health declines, and a bone infection in his legs leads to a necessary amputation of his lower legs. In flashbacks, the reader learns that after escaping Brother Luke, Jude was next sent to a home for parentless children, where counselors again sexually abused him. From there, he ran away and was forced to trade sexual favors in exchange for cross-country rides from truckers. During this sojourn, he was kidnapped by Dr. Traylor, who kept him imprisoned in his basement and raped him regularly. Jude only escaped after Traylor ran him over with his car, causing Jude’s lasting spinal issues. Part 5 ends with Willem picking up Malcolm and his wife ,Sophie, at a train station for a vacation weekend but getting struck by another vehicle.

Part 6 reveals that Willem, Malcolm, and Malcolm’s wife have all died. Jude finds himself unable to process or deal with his grief. Eventually, he decides to try to kill himself indirectly by starving himself to the point that his weakened and immunocompromised body can be killed by any passing infection. His friends intervene, however, and force him into hospitalization. He reacts in anger until one evening when he lashes out violently at his adoptive parents, Harold and Julia, and finds solace in the fact that they love him anyway; he cannot push them away despite his best attempts.

In Part 7, first-person narration from Harold reveals that Jude has killed himself. Despite reaching an equilibrium after Willem’s death at which he was able to resume his social life and interact with others healthily, he never recovered emotionally from the loss of Willem or from his childhood trauma. He left notes for his closest loved ones, including Harold and Julia, to whom he finally confessed the story of his past, apologizing for it as if they would think less of him upon learning it.