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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Toronto chapter.

This article discusses themes of mental illness.

The roman à clef is a celebrated type of genre. The conventions are as follows: novels that are about the real world — events, people, etc. — that are presented as fictitious. In some cases (but not all, as you’ll see), roman à clefs disguise their commentary on the real world through this genre. Lots of famous novels are actually roman à clefs, so you’ll definitely recognise these.

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)

Anyone who has heard of Sylvia Plath knows of The Bell Jar, even if they have not read it. It’s Plath’s only novel, following Esther Greenwood, who descends into deep mental illness over the course of the novel. Plath herself suffered from mental illness, and about a month after The Bell Jar’s initial publication, she committed suicide. The Bell Jar’s protagonist, then, mimics Plath’s real-life experiences. This makes the novel a roman à clef as well as a great, if depressing, read.

Animal Farm (George Orwell)

Animal Farm is extremely well known for being an allegorical novel that mimics the events leading up to the Russian Revolution within a farmyard setting, using animals as main characters. Though these animals do speak and interact with one another, there are human characters too who also play different roles within the narrative. The roman à clef is both short and satirical, critiquing Stalinism as well as being highly amusing.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises follows American and British expatriates who explore parts of Europe, packaged with a love story and other themes of war and a lost generation. Growing up, my family were British expatriates, so reading this one is very odd. Seeing people I can half-resonate with in this way on the page, though they can act differently to the actions I would take, is still new to me. Unlike the characters, though, I grew up primarily in different parts of South-East Asia, not visiting Pamplona, Paris and the Pyrenees. This roman à clef actually mimics Hemingway’s own life, when he travelled through Europe after the conclusion of World War Two. 

On The Road (Jack Kerouac) 

This roman à clef follows Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they travel, with three of the five parts being road trips which Sal and Dean take together. The novel is inspired by Kerouac’s own travels across America. Characters are inspired by Kerouac’s friends and people he met during his own ventures, but have different names.

Other Roman à Clefs

Some roman à clefs are not nearly as famous as the ones listed here, but are still worth checking out if the genre interests you. Valley of the Dolls was not my favourite read, but will definitely appeal to readers who enjoy themes of fame, glory, and the pursuit of money and power. One I love is Little Women, which is definitely worth reading. The Catcher in the Rye, which I hated, can also be considered a roman à clef.

Lily May Mengual is a writer at Her Campus in her first year at the University of Toronto pursuing an English major and, at present, minors in History and Creative Expression and Society. This is her first year in Toronto — and Canada! — as she grew up constantly moving to different places in South East Asia and, eventually, Hong Kong. Beyond Her Campus, Lily has links to numerous other clubs and societies on campus, but is most passionate about writing. Not only does she write full-length novels she hopes to publish one day, but she also writes terrible poetry, and her creative writing has been published at numerous different prints both on campus and off. In her free time, Lily writes (of course!), and is also an avid reader and reviewer. She also enjoys the occasional arts and crafts session, watching video essays, or taking general knowledge quizzes. Lily also enjoys travelling and exploring different places, looking at interesting exhibits in museums, and listening to angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion (she also loves rom coms).