Often considered one of the founders of the novel as we understand it, Daniel Defoe’s titles could have done with a little work. Robinson Crusoe might seem opaque enough to modern readers, but that’s only because we no longer use the title under which it was originally published,
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates
The Return of the King
J. R. R. Tolkien is said to have hated the title of The Return of the King, largely because he felt it spoiled the book. He preferred his original title, The War of the Ring, which only spoils the fact that there’s a war (and it’s unlikely you’ll have made it three books into The Lord of the Rings without guessing there might be a bit of war).
Reports that Tolkien had initially hoped to title the book How Sauron Got His Groove Back remain entirely unsubstantiated.
Le Le Morte d'Arthur
The history of books ruined by their own titles is long and illustrious, and goes back to at least the 15th century and Sir Thomas Malory. Malory chose to title his collected Arthurian legends, Le Morte d'Arthur. Of course, we all know how the Arthurian legend ends… and if you didn’t, then reading the title gives you as clear an indication as you’re likely to get.
That said, it’s a great adventure. You just have to close your mind to the possibility that Arthur will make it out alright.
Momo is the second book by Michael Ende, the ironically named author of The Neverending Story. Of course, Momo is only the book’s title in English. In the original German, it was known as, “Momo oder Die seltsame Geschichte von den Zeit-Dieben und von dem Kind, das den Menschen die gestohlene Zeit zurückbrachte.” For those of you who don’t read German, that title roughly translates to, “Momo, or the strange story of the time-thieves and the child who brought the stolen time back to the people.”
No prizes for giving a rough outline of the plot.
We return now to serial-offender Daniel Defoe, whose frankly spectacular work with Robinson Crusoe is succeeded only by the original title of Moll Flanders, which leaves little to the imagination. While it is often referred to using the longer title of, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, the original title is the slightly more specific,
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.
What is perhaps most surprising about Tolkien’s distaste for the spoiler-title of The Return of the King is that he had already been guilty of one of the most impressive spoiler titles the genre would ever see. It’s easy to forget amid the cavalcade of subtitles on its movies, but The Hobbit originally ran with the alternate title of There and Back Again, which really takes the sting out of the threatening situations that Bilbo gets himself into.
The Death Of Ivan Ilych
The Death of Ivan Ilych is only about a hundred pages long, so there’s not an awful lot of book to spoil. At its core, it is the story of a man who is so bad at interior design that it literally kills him. If you had somehow managed to escape the title (a well-meaning friend may have torn the cover from the book before giving it to you, for example), then the fact that the first page contains the announcement, “Ivan Ilych is dead,” leaves very little room for interpretation.
John Dies at the End
Despite this, it remains one of the best works of classic fiction whose plot hinges on decor.
Perhaps the most direct spoiler-in-the-title possible, John Dies at the End twists the spoiler-title on its head by killing the character of John at the beginning of the novel. What follows is an adventure in which John serves as a spectral companion the book’s narrator, Dave Wong. For those who remember it, the vibe is not a million miles off a paranormal-investigation team of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).
The Invisible Man
H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man takes great pains not to reveal the nature of its main character’s disfigurement. A lengthy portion of the book is spent with the then-anonymous protagonist, Griffin, bound in bandages. That Griffin has been rendered invisible is not revealed for quite some time. Chapter VII, “The Unveiling of the Stranger” is pretty clearly intended to surprise and horrify. The violence and shock with which the reveal is managed is bookended by the simple line,
“For the man who stood there shouting some incoherent explanation, was a solid gesticulating figure up to the coat-collar of him, and then—nothingness, no visible thing at all!”
All of which would be great, were you not holding a book called The Invisible Man.