As an undergraduate English major and someone who just completed a Master's degree in Lit, it's fair to say I've spent A LOT of time reading classic literature. In my mind, "classic" pretty much sums up (most of) the texts I read for class for the last two years. So here are some of my favorites (in no particular order)!
1. Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje
Coming Through Slaughter was published in 1976 and is the fictionalized account of the troubled last few months of famous jazz musician, Buddy Bolden. CTS is part history, part mystery, part coming-of-age in a coming-to-reality sort of way. For those of you who aren't familiar with Bolden (much like I was), he was a "pioneering" musician in what later became known as Jazz music. Coming Through Slaughter takes place in the Storyville district of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. At only 156 pages in my edition, It's filled with gorgeous and heartbreaking writing, and the way Ondaatje uses time and disjunction really adds emotion to the novel. Even as he fictionalizes the true story, Ondaatje brings to life the pain and the truth of reality for Bolden and for many others, ending the short novel with one of my favorite lines.
As a white twenty-something year old woman, I identified with almost-30 year old Bolden, the Black Jazz pioneer from the early 1900s because of the way Ondaatje portrayed his life and his experiences as his pain. One of my favorite moments from the book is as follows:
❝What do you want to know about me Webb? I'm alone. I desire every woman I remember. Everything is clear here and still I feel my brain has walked away and is watching me. I feel I hover over the objects in this house, over every person in my memory - like those painted saints in my mother's church who seem to always have six or seven inches between them and the ground. Posing as humans. I give myself immaculate twenty minute shaves in the morning. Take some lotion on me and cook a fabulous breakfast. Only meal of the day. So I move from the morning's energy into the later hours of alcohol and hunger and thickness and tiredness. Trying to overcome this awful and stupid clarity❞ (Ondaatje 100).
I guess that just resonates with me. Especially that last line. The idea of trying to fill your days so you don't really see yourself. I find Bolden, this character of him, so human, and I mourn for what he feels.
2. The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Okay so technically this isn't a novel, but that's okay because I make the rules and the title just says "Classics" so it works. For those of you who aren't Shakespeare fans, you might be rolling your eyes right now or preparing to skip down the list, but HEY give me ONE second to change your mind.
My favorite Shakespeare fact: There is an entire thread of literary criticism where grown adults, who've spent their lives studying literature and Shakespeare, try to disprove that Shakespeare wrote any of his plays. Their reasoning? Shakespeare was lower middle-class thus wasn't smart enough or educated enough to produce the works he did. I just think it's ironic... and it makes me proud to also be an underestimated poor kid. Free Lunch for the win.
Anyway, The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play for a number of reasons! (All of which I've written lengthy academic papers about). But I'll keep it quick here! The first reason is that I love reading fantasy novels, and I grew up hearing that fantasy wasn't "real literature" so when I discovered the The Tempest in my senior year undergrad Shakespeare class... color me excited.
The Tempest is thought to be Shakespeare’s last individually-written play, and it’s about this sorcerer named Prospero. He used to be the Duke of Milan, until his brother had him exiled for caring too much about his library (and his magic). So Prospero moved with his daughter, Miranda, to this remote island so he could continue being a sorcerer, but he’s still very put off about the whole his-brother-usurped-him-and-took-his-dukedom thing. On the island live two of my favorite characters, maybe from any “classic” sort of literature I’ve ever read.
The first is Ariel, a (male) spirit/sprite/nymph-type-person with powers to control the weather. Ariel has been magically bound to Prospero because Prospero freed Ariel from the pine tree he was trapped in for twelve years by a witch named Sycorax. He made Ariel promise to serve him if he released him, and he vaguely promises that he’ll eventually give Ariel his freedom if Ariel serves him well. So Ariel is quiet and tries to do everything he can for Prospero.
The other island creature is Caliban, who I adore, despite him being described as a grotesque, misshapen monster with no honor. He’s Sycorax’s son and is enslaved by Prospero, who treats him badly and isolates him now even though he raised Caliban with his daughter. There’s some debate in literary criticism as to what Caliban really did to be scorned. The text implies that Caliban tried to take Miranda’s honor, by y’know, and Caliban doesn’t really dispute this outright, but he does go into this quick monologue (it’s one of my favorites), saying:
❝This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first, Thou strokedst me and madest much of me, wouldst give me Water with berries in't, and teach me how To name the bigger light, and how the less, That burn by day and night: and then I loved thee And show'd thee all the qualities o' the isle, The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile: Cursed be I that did so! All the charms Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! For I am all the subjects that you have, Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me The rest o' the island.❞
It harkens back to Native Americans and colonizers a little bit, but it’s not sure if that was on purpose, seeing as this was written in 1610-11. But basically that’s what Caliban is saying; When Prospero and Miranda came to his island, he showed them how to find food and survive, treated them well, and they loved him for it, and taught him to speak their language, until finally Prospero knew enough and took the island from Caliban, isolating him away as a slave.
For me, The Tempest is about Caliban and Ariel. Throughout the course, Prospero uses them to get what he wants (revenge for being ousted out of Milan and his position back). I love Ariel’s gentleness, and the moment when he (SPOILER) convinces Prospero to give up revenge and accept the usurpers’ apologies. It’s a moment where someone not human (and enslaved!) teaches their human enslaver to act with more humanity. And to offset that, we have Caliban’s loud rage and witty comebacks, such as “you taught me to swear and it has benefitted me because now I can swear at you” (paraphrased of course).
3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I will say, this is one that I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. With Robert Louis Stevenson hailing from Scotland (and me trying to move there), I’m really proud that this is honestly on my list. Hometown hero! Sort of.
Okay, so we’ve all heard the story and know tales of Jekyll and Hyde, but the novella was actually so gripping. This is technically a gothic novella, published in 1886. It takes place in Victorian London and basically focuses on the 1800s version of a lawyer, named Gabriel John Utterson, who begins to investigate the strange behavior of his friend Dr. Henry Jekyll and a suspicious man named Edward Hyde who keeps imposing himself on Dr. Jekyll.
Ultimately, Stevenson planned Jekyll and Hyde as a study in good and evil, and it does that, but in a surprising way. Clocking in at only fifty-eight pages in my edition, Stevenson uses Utterson to lead the way through this story. We see Jekyll and Hyde in glimpses, during moments of actions and through tales from other people in their communities, filtered through Utterson as he investigates and tries to help his friend Dr. Jekyll, who becomes increasingly frantic and reclusive before we get to the end and get the answers.
In my interpretation of the story, I found that Jekyll and Hyde, the characters themselves, represent not only the dual nature of man, but of society. Jekyll spends the whole time denying himself some “vice” that is never named. Critics guess that it refers to gambling, homosexuality, alcoholism, or latent violent desires. By trying to avoid whatever his vice is, Jekyll devolves. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know the story, but basically Jekyll causes his own downfall. Even as he loses himself, he still denies that he’s the one with the vice.
To understand Jekyll, it’s is vital to understand that in Victorian England “the social code ignored and even shunned natural and essential components of people’s personalities, even if they weren’t harmful or violent. Because of this, undesirable aspects of people’s personalities became suppressed and disreputable parts of the society they lived in were hidden.” In this, Jekyll became so stunted in his society that he falls apart.
The writing in this book is very Victorian England and showcases Victorian England, and I adore it. Stevenson, even in so few pages, creates the scene like another character. Without it, the story wouldn’t be the same. Here’s a quote (it’s hard to find one I love that doesn’t spoil everything. I love those self-reflective moments of Jekyll):
❝The door, indeed, stood open as before; but the windows were still shuttered, the chimneys breathed no stain into the bright air, there sounded abroad none of that low stir (perhaps audible rather to the ear of the spirit than to the ear of the flesh) by which a house announces and betrays its human lodgers.❞
4. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Okay, some of you might think this pick is a little pretentious. I mean, it’s told from the POC of a seventeen year old boarding school boy who hates people for being phonies and wanders around New York City in winter feeling isolated from his world and talking about how much he hates people. But… Holden came to me when I about sixteen. I was a sophomore in Honors English, feeling alone and certain that depression would always be part of me, hidden in me even when I felt fine. Holden was the first real time I identified in my school reading. I didn’t want to go out and save little children, but I understood Holden’s isolation, and when I got to the end, I understood why he felt the way he did.
Catcher in The Rye was published serially from 1945-46, then as a novel in 1951. The protagonist is Holden Caulfield, a rebellious teenage boy who is just kicked out of another boarding school for failing classes when the novel picks up. Holden then goes to Central Park and wanders around the city, getting in all sorts of very-adult trouble. He visits his little sister, talks about his older brother, and generally plans to run away and start life again somewhere else. But when he goes to tell his sister he’s leaving, he’s overcome with the reality that children aren’t able to be children for long, and he laments over the fact that they’ll grow up too quick and there’s nothing he can do to stop that. He lets his sister skip school, and they go to the Central Park Zoo carousel. Holden is happy for the first time watching Phoebe be a child on a carousel.
Holden an unreliable narrator, and his narration is disjoined and sometimes unclear. Everything is funnelled through what he’s feeling in the moment, and the smallest moments seem to mean a lot to him, or to set him off in one direction or another. He’s alienated, and the POV shows that.
I like Holden because even though he calls everyone fake and is cynical and problematic, he’s real too. I can’t relate to boarding school or living in New York, but I knew what I felt like to feel alienated to not be able to share that with anyone. It’s easier to be angry, especially as a teenager, when you feel like you have no control and you're never enough.
I also like that Holden doesn’t suddenly get happy at the end. That’s not real. He’s dealing with real issues (that I’ve not spoiled, yay), and he’s not just going to wake up and be over them. His pain manifests realistically, and I think that’s relatable.
❝Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.❞
5. The Iliad by Homer
I thought it would be difficult to pick number five, but when I really thought about it, The Iliad had to make the list. I'm always obsessing over it. (The runner up was The Awakening by Kate Chopin). The Iliad just sticks with me for some reason. It’s related to The Odyssey but so much better. It feels more human to me, more grounded in the lives and the trials and pain of those in it. Even though it’s full of Gods turning tides and picking favorites, really it’s a story about humanity and choice.
Fun-fact #1: these works are attributed to “Homer” but nobody really knows if Homer was a real person or just a name given to attribute oral stories to someone. It seems right now that critics believe Homer didn’t exist at all, which is a shame because I romanticize the heck out of him.
The Iliad is the story of the Ten-Year Trojan War, AKA the siege of Troy (Ilium) by the Greeks and was said to be written in the 8th century, making it one of the oldest works of Western Literature.
Fun-fact #2: There’s actually another epic poem called The Aeneid, which is basically a fanfiction of The Iliad. There’s a storyline/action in The Iliad that “Homer” never resolved, and Virgil, the author of The Aeneid, picked up on that and wrote The Aeneid from that, to answer that unresolved part of The Iliad. (I promise I’ll stop saying the names so much). That’s another reason I love them.
In The Iliad, The Greeks go to Troy to get back Helen, the wife of Menelaus who has been stolen by Paris, a Trojan, who sequesters her inside the city of Troy with his family. There’s some dispute about whether Helen was stolen or wanted to go, but despite that, the Greeks have come to Troy to take her back and restore Menelaus’s honor. (Also she was known to be the most beautiful woman and daughter of Zeus so that probably had something to do with their devotion and subsequent ten-year siege to get her back).
The story picks up after all that has happened, near the end of the ten years. It starts in with Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother and the commander of the Greek armies. He steals Chryseis, the daughter of a Trojan priest of Apollo, and Apollo doesn’t like that all. He sends a plague upon the Greeks, but Agamemnon is too proud to give up his spoil of war (having claimed Chryseis for himself… yuck).
Enter Achilles (AKA Achilleus). He’s the son of a water nymph and a human (who forced her), destined to be the greatest Greek and demi-god of all time. He goes around Agamemnon and calls a meeting of all the Greek leaders so they can all urge Agamemnon to return the priest’s daughter and stop the plague from killing them all on the shores of Troy where they’ve been holed up for ten years, making their siege a complete waste of time. Aggie agrees, but in revenge, he demands to take Achilleus's captured woman, Briseis. (Lots of male egos in this epic poem; actually, it really could be subtitled: The Iliad: How men’s egos cause lots of problems and get lots of people killed).
Then because his slave has been taken, Achilleus declares that he, the greatest of the Argives (the Greeks from Argos; Achilleus’s people) will not fight and is going home. Thus begins the central conflict of The Iliad. It’s really a rough ride for our swift-footed Achilleus.
It’s a tale of rage, ego, war, choice vs fate, desperation, love, and so much more. Even though there are problematic elements (like Trojan women captured and kept as a slaves and property), it’s not graphic in that regard, and I can overlook that because it was written in the 8th century. It really is beautiful in its story and its writing, and Achilleus is one of my favorite characters. Madeline Miller really does him justice in her retelling of The Iliad, called The Song of Achilles. I read it a few weeks ago for the first time, and I bawled through the whole thing. She writes in such a way that it’s such a good companion to how The Iliad is written. They both are beautiful.
I could pick a hundred quotes from The Iliad and there would still be more for me to love.
❝ And so their spirits soared as they took positions own the passageways of battle all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them. Hundreds strong, as stars in the night sky glittering round the moon's brilliance blaze in all their glory when the air falls to a sudden, windless calm... all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting cliffs and the steep ravines and down from the high heavens bursts the boundless bright air and all the stars shine clear and the shepherd's heart exults - so many fires burned between the ships and the Xanthus' whirling rapids set by the men of Troy, bright against their walls. A thousand fires were burning there on the plain and beside each fire sat fifty fighting men poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots, stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne.❞
What are the “classics” that you love that I missed?? Leave a comment to let me know, and maybe I’ll have to do an updated version of this list! I’m always on the lookout for a good one! I’m about to dive into the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde!
Thanks for reading! Let me know suggestions for reviews!