This is a list of all of the books, plays, or novellas that have appeared on the AP Literature exam for the third essay, followed by each title is a short summary. Enjoy!
Absalom Absalom, William Faulkner. According to Schmoop, “This story has it all – multiple narrators, mysterious characters, shifts in time – and that’s kind of the problem. William Faulkner‘s novel is so rich and complex that it can be tough to follow. But don’t let that scare you off: after all, it’s a pretty big deal. And critics of modernist literature cite the book alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the masterpieces of the period, in particular for its work with the then-popular stream-of-consciousness narrative style.When we read this story about a mysterious man named Sutpen and his messed-up nineteenth-century family, it’s hardly surprising to learn that its author spent the majority of his life within forty miles of his birthplace in Oxford, Mississippi. Our guy can barely distance himself from his own effort, as his character Shreve McCannon puts it, to “Tell about the South” (6.1). That makes this a really intimate book to read.
Adam Bede, George Eliot. According to Schmoop, “In 1859, she published her first novel, Adam Bede, a dramatic tale of thwarted love, betrayal, and murder. It was very successful, and readers began wondering who this George Eliot was.
The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow. According to Barnes and Noble, “As soon as it first appeared in 1953, this gem by the great Saul Bellow was hailed as an American classic. Bold, expansive, and keenly humorous, The Adventures of Augie March blends street language with literary elegance to tell the story of a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Great Depression. A “born recruit,” Augie makes himself available for hire by plungers, schemers, risk takers, and operators, compiling a record of choices that is-to say the least- eccentric.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain. According to Schmoop, “Aside from the novel’s new style of writing, Twain’s decision to use thirteen-year-old Huck as the narrator allowed him to include certain content that a more civilized narrator probably would have left out. At first, Twain’s novel was labeled crass by some readers. The book was even banned in schools for its use of the n-word which is ironic, given that the novel is up in arms over slavery. Even today, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes “Banned Books” lists.
Twain’s novel jumped head first into one of the biggest issues of its day: racism. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed over two decades before Huckleberry Finn’s original publication date, African-Americans everywhere were still victims of oppression and racism. They were technically “free,” but often by name only in Reconstruction-era America. Many southerners were bitter about the outcome of the Civil War.
By guiding his characters through several states of the Confederacy, Twain was able to reveal the hypocrisy of many pre-war southern communities. As a southerner himself, Twain had first-hand experiences to draw on, and he was able to walk the fine line between realistic depiction and ironic farce. Not to mention, Twain created the now-iconic character of Jim, a runaway slave who convinces Huck that African-Americans are deserving of freedom, and that equality is a goal for which we all should be fighting.
The Aeneid, Virgil. According to Schmoop, “Today, when we think of ancient epic poems (OK, maybe if we think of ancient epic poems – but we at Shmoop mean to change that), we tend to think of the big three: the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, and the Aeneid by Virgil. There are some obvious reasons why we group these three poems together. One reason is because Homer is Greek and Virgil is Roman, so this trio of poems represents the two major ancient civilizations from which modern European culture traces its origins. Another, more concrete, reason is that all three poems are centered on the famous Trojan War and its aftermath. If you want to get even more precise, you could say that the three epics are connected because the first half of Virgil’s poem (Books I-VI) is modeled on the Odyssey, because it deals with the hero’s travels, while the second half (Books VII-XII), which deals with warfare, is modeled on the Iliad. But wait, why did we say that the Aeneid is only an endorsement of Augustus “on the surface”? That’s because many scholars have come to believe that the Aeneid also contains many subtle (and some not-so-subtle) criticisms of Roman imperial power. Come on – if you were working on a poem for that long, you’re telling us you wouldn’t sneak some nasty remarks about your boss in here and there? Just as importantly, though, Virgil also used that time to craft some of the most meticulously beautiful poetry ever seen. Even if a translation can only capture a faint shadow of the original, it will still help you experience one of the most influential works of European literature.
Agnes of God, John Pielmeier. According to Barnes and Noble, “Summoned to a covent, Dr. Martha Livingstone, a court-appointed psychiatrist, is charged with assessing the sanity of a young novitiat accused of murdering her newborn. Miriam Ruth, the Mother Superior, determindly keeps young Agnes from the doctor, arousing Livingstone’s suspicions further. Who killed the infant and who fathered the tiny victim? Livingstone’s questions force all three women to re-examine the meaning of faith and the power of love leading to a dramatic, compelling climax. A hit on Broadway and later on film.
“Riveting, powerful, electrifying drama…the dialogue crackles.”-New York Daily News
“Outstanding play [that]…deals intelligently with questions of religion and psychology.”-The New York Times
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton. According to Barnes and Noble, “With her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton recreated the Old New York of her own childhood, in a moving tale of passion and desire. “Edith Wharton is a writer who brings glory to the name of America, and this is her best book. It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century … a permanent addition to literature” (The New York Times).”
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood. According to Barnes Noble, “In Alias Grace, bestselling author Margaret Atwood has written her most captivating, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying work since The Handmaid’s Tale. She takes us back in time and into the life of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century.
Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.
Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?
All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren. According to Schmoop, “All the King’s Men was published by American author Robert Penn Warren in 1946 to enormous critical acclaim. Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1947 for the novel. It’s also on Time’s “100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” What’s more, it’s on the American Library Association’s list of top banned and/or challenged books in the 20th century. This means it must be good.
The novel stars Willie Stark, one of the most fascinating fictional politicians you’ll ever meet. Like the real life politician Huey Long on whom Willie is partially based, Willie is an often-misunderstood character. Huey Long is so famous because there were many powerful sides to him. He wanted every American to have access to adequate food, shelter, medical care, education, transportation, and employment. While the governor of Louisiana from 1928-1930, he effected changes that made his desire a reality for many in his state.
He’s also a controversial figure: lots of people violently disagreed with his goals and his methods for achieving them. Like Warren’s fictional character, Huey Long used blackmail and extortion to achieve his political power and his reforms, he was vilified by many, and considered a “dictator” and a corrupt politician.”
All My Sons, Arthur Miller. According to Schmoop, “Arthur Miller started writing All My Sons in 1945, inspired by World War II and the true-life story (told to him by his stepmom) of a woman who alerted authorities to her father’s wartime wrong-doing (source: Christopher Bigsby, “Introduction to All My Sons.” Penguin Classics, 2000). The play focuses on the story of a businessman who once narrowly avoided financial ruin by shipping cracked machine parts to the military. He blames his business partner and builds an empire, but eventually his crime comes back to haunt him. The play was produced after the war, won the 1947 Tony, and beat out Eugene O’Neill‘s The Iceman Cometh for the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award that same year.”
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy. According to Barnes and Noble, “The national bestseller and the first volume in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses is the tale of John Grady Cole, who at sixteen finds himself at the end of a long line of Texas ranchers, cut off from the only life he has ever imagined for himself. With two companions, he sets off for Mexico on a sometimes idyllic, sometimes comic journey to a place where dreams are paid for in blood. Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.”
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque. According to Barnes and Noble, “Paul Baumer enlisted with his classmates in the German army of World War I. Youthful, enthusiastic, they become soldiers. But despite what they have learned, they break into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches. And as horrible war plods on year after year, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the principles of hate that meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against each other–if only he can come out of the war alive.”
America is in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan. According to Barnes and Noble, “First published in 1946, this autobiography of the well-known Filipino poet describes his boyhood in the Philippines, his voyage to America, and his years of hardship and despair as an itinerant laborer following the harvest trail in the rural West.”
“America came to him in a public ward in the Los Angeles County Hospital while around him men died gasping for their last bit of air, and he learned that while America could be cruel it could also be immeasurably kind. . . . For Carlos Bulosan no lifetime could be long enough in which to explain to America that no man could destroy his faith in it again. He wanted to contribute something toward the final fulfillment of America. So he wrote this book that holds the bitterness of his own blood.” – Carlos P. Romulo, New York Times
An American Tragedy, Theodore Dresier. According to Barnes and Noble, “Clyde Griffiths finds his social-climbing aspirations and love for a rich and beautiful debutante threatened when his lower-class pregnant girlfriend gives him an ultimatum.”
American Pastoral, Philip Roth. According to Barnes and Noble, “As the American century draws to an uneasy close, Philip Roth gives us a novel of unqualified greatness that is an elegy for all our century’s promises of prosperity, civic order, and domestic bliss. Roth’s protagonist is Swede Levov, a legendary athlete at his Newark high school, who grows up in the booming postwar years to marry a former Miss New Jersey, inherit his father’s glove factory, and move into a stone house in the idyllic hamlet of Old Rimrock. And then one day in 1968, Swede’s beautiful American luck deserts him.
For Swede’s adored daughter, Merry, has grown from a loving, quick-witted girl into a sullen, fanatical teenager—a teenager capable of an outlandishly savage act of political terrorism. And overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longer-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk. Compulsively readable, propelled by sorrow, rage, and a deep compassion for its characters, this is Roth’s masterpiece.
Symbolic of turbulent times of the 1960s, the explosion of a bomb in his own bucolic backyard sweeps away the innocence of Swede Levov, along with everything industriously created by his family over three generations in America.”
The American, Henry James. According to Barnes and Noble, “THE AMERICAN is the story of Christopher Newman, a somewhat boorish American businessman on his first tour of Europe in the late 19th century. The novel follows James’ pattern of contrasting the Old and New worlds, with his New World characters usually being outdone by the older, wiser Europeans. A significant part of the story is Newman’s courtship of a young Parisian girl from an old and respected family.”
Angels in America, Tony Kushner. According to Barnes and Noble, “The most anticipated new American play of the decade, this brilliant work is an emotional, poetic, political epic in two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Spanning the years of the Reagan administration, it weaves the lives of fictional and historical characters into a feverish web of social, political, and sexual revelations.”
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner. According to Schmoop, “Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions – to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward’s investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.
Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel–the magnificent story of four generations in the life of an American family. A wheelchair-bound retired historian embarks on a monumental quest: to come to know his grandparents, now long dead. The unfolding drama of the story of the American West sets the tone for Stegner’s masterpiece.”
Animal Farm, George Orwell. According to Schmoop, “Animal Farm, published in 1945, was the first hit in the famous one-two punch that closed Orwell’s career. The second, as you might already know, was 1984 (1949). Orwell’s scathing satire of the Russian Revolution, and his dark dystopian vision of a populace under complete surveillance and control, have informed generations of readers of the threat posed by tyrannical governments.
Yet there’s a catch: the thing about politically timed satires is that it’s much easier to accept them after the political moment has passed. Today, Animal Farm is a classic. Yet at the time it was written (1943-44), Orwell could hardly get it published. The Soviet Union was an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II. Though criticism of Stalin was not explicitly censored in the wartime British press, the general feeling, as Orwell himself puts it in his Preface, was that such criticism “ought not to have been published.” Orwell was seen as a bad sport. Stalin may have been bad but Hitler was worse, and as Faber & Faber (one of the publishing houses that rejected Orwell) pointed out, it was simply distasteful to depict Stalin as “a pig.”
With the onset of the Cold War, Orwell’s novel became a classic. It was the perfect criticism of communism. Yet Orwell himself was no knee-jerk anticommunist. A life-long socialist, Orwell could be just as critical of the West as he was of Soviet Russia. In the novel, Western leaders are depicted by human characters that treat the animals horribly. The major fear on Animal Farm is that things will go back to the way they were when the humans were in control. In short, Orwell’s satire is broader than just the Russian Revolution; he aims his rhetorical barbs at all forms of political tyranny, wherever it may be found. As Orwell said, “if liberty means anything at all, it means telling people what they do not want to hear.”
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. According to Schmoop, “Is Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina a great book or the greatest book? Even if you’ve never read a word of any Russian novel, chances are that you’ve heard of this one. Published in installments over two years, from 1875 to 1877, in a periodical called the Russian Messenger, Anna Karenina didn’t start out as the massive doorstop of a book we’ve come to know and admire today. It came to its readers doled out like an HBO hourly miniseries waiting to be collected into a DVD box set: in small chunks until the day that the complete volume could be collected and printed for its fans.
And subscribers to the Russian Messenger must have waited for each monthly edition with the same bated breath with which we currently expect new episodes of The Tudors or Gossip Girl. After all, Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling novel doesn’t just confine itself to title character Anna Karenina and her story. There are also heated arguments of the major philosophical and political arguments of the day. And in 1870s Russian society, politics weren’t just a matter of abstract speculation. Four decades later, Russia plunged into the world’s first communist revolution. In Tolstoy’s day, writers all over the country were promoting communal living and the emancipation of women. At this time, Russia was experiencing a complete shift from a farm-based economy to a futuristic dream of an industrialized state. And Tolstoy didn’t think much of these plans for change, so he had to get in his two cents.
And when Tolstoy gets serious about the role of private versus public life, the position of women in society, and even Slavic nationalism, he’s not just dabbling with the controversial topics of his day. He’s laying out a sustained series of arguments about what he thinks is right and moral. Anna Karenina is kind of what we would imagine would happen if Twilight included characters spouting President Obama‘s policy positions while trying to find true love: here we’ve got romance, melodrama, and politics all packaged into one amazing novel.”
Another Country, James Baldwin. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, among other locales, Another Country is a novel of passions–sexual, racial, political, artistic–that is stunning for its emotional intensity and haunting sensuality, depicting men and women, blacks and whites, stripped of their masks of gender and race by love and hatred at the most elemental and sublime. In a small set of friends, Baldwin imbues the best and worst intentions of liberal America in the early 1970s.”
Antigone, Sophocles. According to Schmoop, “Sophocles is considered one of the great ancient Greek tragedians. Among Sophocles’ most famous plays are Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. These plays follow the fall of the great king, Oedipus, and later the tragedies that his children suffer. The Oedipus plays have had a wide-reaching influence and are particularly notable for inspiring Sigmund Freud’s theory of the “Oedipus Complex,” which describes a stage of psychological development in which a child sees their father as an adversarial competitor for his or her mother’s attention (or in non-psychology speak, it’s the kill-the-father-sleep-with-the-mother complex).
The three plays are often called a trilogy, but this is technically incorrect. They weren’t written to be performed together. In fact they weren’t even written in order. Antigone, which comes last chronologically, was the play Sophocles wrote first, around 440 B.C. It wasn’t until about 430 B.C that Sophocles produced his masterpiece Oedipus the King. He finally wrote Oedipus at Colonus in 401 B.C., near the end of his life. Also note that the plays were rarely if ever revived during the playwright’s life time, so it’s not like it would have been easy for Sophocles’ audiences to compare them.
These facts probably explain some of discrepancies found in the plays. For example, while Creon is the undisputed King at the end of Oedipus the King, in Oedipus at Colonus it’s Polyneices and Eteocles who are battling for the throne. In Antigone, Creon assumes the throne with no mention of the fact that he’s ever sat on it before. It’s pretty unlikely that Sophocles forgot this key fact. But it could very well be that it just didn’t matter very much. Each play is a separate interpretation of the myth, not a part of a trilogy. Sophocles would’ve been under no obligation to make the plays coherent in every detail.
Of course, while the plays aren’t technically a trilogy and do have discrepancies, they do share many similarities. Several of the key characters put in repeat appearances, including Oedipus, Creon, Teiresias, Ismene, and Antigone. Also, the plays have a lot of the same themes. The plays all deal in some way with the will of man vs. the will of the gods. Self-injury and suicide also plague the family until the end. It seems that Oedipus’s family is never quite capable of escaping the pollution of his terrible mistakes.”
Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Antony and Cleopatra is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare around 1608. The story centers on one of Rome’s three leaders, Mark Antony, and the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. These two lovers are first featured at Cleopatra’s palace in Alexandria, Egypt. As the play continues, however, Antony’s political and social duties take the action to Rome, Syria, Actium, Parthia (modern day Iraq), Athens, and to various military camps in Egypt. In short, the lovers are put in locations and situations where they question each other’s loyalty and love. The play’s ending is yet another example of how passion, mingled with power, treachery, and misunderstanding, can lead to a tragic end. We see this time and again in Shakespeare’s great works.
Antony and Cleopatra constitutes Shakespeare’s return to Roman history after an eight year break. It also gives him a chance to explore the theme of Empire, which was a hot topic in England then because it was a good time to run around sticking a flag in any land you could find. In other words, English colonial holdings were expanding. A big part of that colonial endeavor was making sure other cultures accepted yours as superior. Shakespeare calls this practice into question by pointing out that different cultures had been living successfully before the British arrived. Interestingly, Rome was successful as a conquering nation because it was more likely to let people keep their way of life, and pay a tax to Rome – instead of giving up their own culture entirely. How the empire tax would be enforced in other nations was still in question, and it almost seems like Shakespeare was giving the people of his time a history lesson, asking them to consider a different way of handling the whole empire issue.
Finally, there’s a reference to the future of Christianity in the play. The end of the Roman Empire is the beginning of the spread of Christianity throughout the world. When Caesar talks about the coming of universal peace, he means his reign, but it’s a nod to Shakespeare’s Christian audience that Christ brought real universal peace, and saved us modern-day folks from the ills of those ancient cultures. If it hadn’t been for Christ, he seems to be saying, we might still be in the constant wars that characterized folks like the Romans or Egyptians.”
Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Mordecai Richler. According to Barnes and Noble, “From Mordecai Richler, one of our greatest satirists, comes one of literature’s most delightful characters, Duddy Kravitz — in a novel that belongs in the pantheon of seminal twentieth century books.
Duddy — the third generation of a Jewish immigrant family in Montreal — is combative, amoral, scheming, a liar, and totally hilarious. From his street days tormenting teachers at the Jewish academy to his time hustling four jobs at once in a grand plan to “be somebody,” Duddy learns about living — and the lesson is an outrageous roller-coaster ride through the human comedy. As Richler turns his blistering commentary on love, money, and politics, The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz becomes a lesson for us all…in laughter and in life.”
Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer. According to Barnes and Noble, “One of the first examples of “new journalism” daringly combines reportage with a novelistic style and garnered Mailer his first Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1968.
Following his arrest during the October 1967 anti-Vietnam march at the Pentagon, Mailer wrote of the anger, hippies, bewildered MPs and draft-card burners.”
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner. According to Schmoop, “William Faulkner wrote his fifth novel, As I Lay Dying, in only six weeks in 1929. It was published after very little editing in 1930. The novel tells the story of the Bundren family traveling to bury their dead mother. The novel is famous for its experimental narrative technique, which Faulkner began in his earlier novel Sound and the Fury: fifteen characters take turns narrating the story in streams of consciousness over the course of fifty-nine, sometimes overlapping sections. At the time, Faulkner’s novel contributed substantially to the growing Modernist movement. He was no doubt influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, whose theories about the subconscious were made increasingly popular in the 1920s. Faulkner’s novel regards subconscious thought as more important than conscious action or speech; long passages of italicized text within the novel would seem to reflect these inner workings of the mind. Faulkner’s prolific career in writing is marked by his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature and twoPulitzer Prizes, one in 1955 and the other in 1962.”
As You Like It, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “As You Like It is a comedy by William Shakespeare. By the time Shakespeare wrote it in 1599, he already had seven other comedies under his belt, including A Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595).
1599, though, was a particularly awesome year for our favorite dramatist. Aside from penning As You Like It, he also whipped up a few other plays –Julius Caesar, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry V. (Did we mention that Shakespeare’s theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s men, also built theGlobe Theater that year?) In other words, by the time As You Like It hit the Elizabethan stage, Shakespeare was at the height of his productivity and was a true master of his craft. (It was also around that time that he wrote what many consider to be his greatest achievement, Hamlet.) Impressive, don’t you think?
As You Like It features one of the most famous passages in Shakespeare (and all of Western literature): “All the world’s a stage,/ and all the men and women merely players.” Although the idea was already a cliché by the time Shakespeare wrote these lines, the passage pretty much sums up As You Like It, a drama in which play-acting and fantasy are the names of the game.
In the play, a girl runs away from her wicked uncle and winds up in the Forest of Arden, where she traipses around disguised as a saucy young boy. When she bumps into her crush in the middle of the forest, she convinces him to participate in an imaginary courtship that ends in marriage. Because it features a cross-dressing heroine whose gutsy disguise challenges traditional ideas about gender, literary critics and theater buffs often refer to As You Like It as a “transvestite” comedy.
Over the years, As You Like It has been a consistent crowd pleaser. In fact, literature scholar Harold Bloom ranks As You Like It (along with Twelfth Night) as his favorite Shakespeare play for “sheer pleasure.”
Atonement, Ian McEwan. According to Schmoop, “Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose.
On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives–together with her precocious literary gifts–brings about a crime that will change all their lives. As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece.”
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. According to Barnes and Noble, “First published anonymously in 1912, this resolutely unsentimental novel gave many white readers their first glimpse of the double standard — and double consciousness — that ruled the lives of black people in modern America. Republished in 1927, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, with an introduction by Carl Van Vechten, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man became a groundbreaking document of Afro-American culture; the first first-person novel ever written by a black, it became an eloquent model for later novelists ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.
Narrated by a man whose light skin enables him to “pass” for white, the novel describes a journey through the strata of black society at the turn of the century — from a cigar factory in Jacksonville to an elite gambling club in New York, from genteel aristocrats to the musicians who hammered out the rhythms of ragtime. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a complex and moving examination of the question of race and an unsparing look at what it meant to forge an identity as a man in a culture that recognized nothing but color.
A ground-breaking document of Afro-American culture.”
The Awakening, Kate Chopin. According to Schmoop, “The Awakening is a novel by American novelist Kate Chopin about a woman’s transformation from an obedient, traditional wife and mother into a self-realized, sexually liberated and independent woman. Despite the book’s place in the current literary canon (it’s now a classic), when The Awakening was published in 1899 it received awful reviews. While reviewers acknowledged Chopin’s masterful literary technique, they were absolutely shocked with the protagonist’s independence and sexual liberation. This makes sense when you consider that women were not fully considered people at this time: Louisiana law still held that wives were the property of their husbands. Not surprisingly, The Awakening was “re-discovered” in the early 1970’s (right around Second Wave feminism) and is now celebrated as a masterful insight into the mores of late nineteenth century society.”
Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis. According to Barnes and Noble, “Sinclair Lewis wrote a series of satires that exposed the hypocrisy of early 20th century America. “Babbitt” is a snapshot of the life of George F. Babbitt, a somewhat prosperous middle class businessman who lives in Zenith, Ohio. Zenith has a population of 300,000+, and has an active business community. This community has its own rituals and ironclad rules. These rules consist of being one of the gang, being a member of all the right clubs and organizations, and never deviating from the ideals of business and money. These rules cause enormous difficulties for Babbitt when he goes through a midlife crisis at the end of the book and begins spouting liberal ideas and associating with the “wrong” crowd.
This is my first encounter with Sinclair Lewis. I really don’t know why I chose to read “Babbitt” first, as I also have copies of “Main Street” and “Arrowsmith”. I think it was the unusual cover of the Penguin edition, which is a picture of a painting called “Booster” by Grant Wood. To me, that picture IS Babbitt, and I’ll always be able to see Babbitt in my head whenever I’m reminded of this book.There really isn’t a lot of symbolism here (and the symbolism that is here is pretty easy to decipher) and the prose is much closer to our present day writing and speech. This is brilliant satire, and you’ll laugh out loud at many of the situations Babbitt gets himself into. An especially hilarious incident occurs when one of the local millionaire businessmen finally accepts an invitation to dine with Babbitt. The evening goes badly because Babbitt is in a lower social class. Lewis then shows Babbitt going to a dinner at an old friends house who is in a lower class then him. It’s hilarious to see the similarities between the two events, and it brings home how class is strictly enforced in Zenith, and by extension, America.”
Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1853, “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of American writer Herman Melville‘s most often-read and studied works (which is really saying a lot, considering that the guy also penned numerous classics, including Moby-Dick andBilly Budd). “Bartleby” is a departure from the sea-faring adventures that Melville often presented to readers; in fact, this is a story in which the most exciting thing that happens is actually the fact that nothing really happens.
The true meaning of “Bartleby” has been discussed and dissected by critics everywhere, ever since its first publication. Is it simply a comment on the oddities of human nature? Is it sufficient to look at the story as a scathing mockery of the writings of Melville’s contemporaries, Henry David Thoreau andRalph Waldo Emerson, whose specific brand of self-reliance and independence might be seen in Bartleby’s stubbornness? Or can we perhaps even see Melville himself in the infuriatingly fascinating character of Bartleby? The critics all seem to have different opinions on this question – how about you?”
“The Bear,” William Faulkner. According to Barnes and Noble, “The Bear, perhaps his best known shorter work, is the story of a boy’s coming to terms wit the adult world. By learning how to hunt, the boy is taught the real meaning of pride, humility, and courage.”
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath. According to Schmoop, “In a 1962 interview, Sylvia Plath remarked that personal experience was interesting only if it wasn’t “a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience.” She stressed that personal experience should be made “relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on” (source). In other words, personal experience is only interesting if some connection is made to big-picture issues like atomic warfare or the Holocaust.
The fact that this sentiment comes from the author of The Bell Jar may surprise a lot of people. It’s true that The Bell Jar was and still is hailed as a major work of feminist fiction, taking on the sexism, materialism, and complacency of American society. But The Bell Jar made such a splash because it was such a personal look at one young woman’s struggle with suicidal depression.
It certainly helped that the central character, Esther Greenwood, was a thinly veiled version of Plath herself. Like Esther, Plath was born and raised in suburban Massachusetts, lost her father at a young age, enjoyed a glittering academic career at Smith College and a glamorous college internship at a women’s magazine in New York, and also suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. By the time the novel was published in 1962, Plath was well on her way to becoming an established poet. After recovering from her suicide attempt, Plath went on to a brilliant academic career, published a book of poetry, married fellow poet Ted Hughes, and had two children.
But Plath had also reached a critical period in her personal life. As she worked on The Bell Jar, Plath underwent a difficult time in her marriage, finally separating from her husband. When The Bell Jar was published in January of 1963, Plath was living in a chilly little flat in London with her two children, frantically working on the collection of poems that would be published after her death as Ariel. While many who knew her remarked that she seemed heartened by the quality of her poems, Plath was in frail emotional and physical health. Just one month after The Bell Jar was published, Plath took her own life. Tragically, Plath would never know how widely acclaimed her poetry would be; her Collected Poems, edited by her husband Hughes, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
But back to The Bell Jar. Why all this bio? Well, we feel obliged to share all these biographical details with you because, in a twist that Plath would surely not appreciate, it’s precisely the sensational details of her personal life – or more specifically, her death – that Bell Jar readers can’t help but find fascinating. Perhaps the primary reason for the fascination is that Plath’s biography provides a clear conclusion to the ambiguous ending of The Bell Jar. The novel never gives us a happily ever after; it never tells us whether the main character goes off to live a full and happy life to die of natural causes at some ripe old age. So, naturally, we’re tempted to look at the author’s biography for some clues.
But to do so would be to indulge the same kind of “shut box, mirror looking, narcissistic” navel-gazing that Plath wanted to avoid. If The Bell Jar continues to endure as one of the classics of twentieth-century American fiction, there has to be more to the story. The Bell Jar continues to speak to us because it shows how the big-picture issues, the social and political problems that are out there plaguing the world at large, affect the individual at the deepest and most personal level.”
Beloved, Toni Morrison. According to Barnes and Noble, “Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.
Set in rural Ohio several years after the Civil War, this profoundly affecting chronicle of slavery and its aftermath is Toni Morrison’s greatest novel, a dazzling achievement, and the most spellbinding reading experience of the decade. “A brutally powerful, mesmerizing story . . . read it and tremble.”
A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul. According to Barnes and Noble, “In the “brilliant novel” (The New York Times) V.S. Naipaul takes us deeply into the life of one man — an Indian who, uprooted by the bloody tides of Third World history, has come to live in an isolated town at the bend of a great river in a newly independent African nation. Naipaul gives us the most convincing and disturbing vision yet of what happens in a place caught between the dangerously alluring modern world and its own tenacious past and traditions.
Explores an isolated African town caught between the modern worlds, as seen through the eyes of an uprooted Indian who comes to live there.”
Benito Cereno, Herman Melville. According to Barnes and Noble, “This harrowing account of a slave revolt is one of Melville’s finest tales. When a New England sea captain goes to aid a mysterious ship, it slowly unfolds, in almost surreal clarity, that it is a slave ship whose cargo has revolted, its captain is a prisoner and most of the crew has been murdered.”
Billy Budd, Herman Melville. According to Schmoop, “Alright, let’s play a word-association game. I say, Herman Melville, and you say… Moby-Dick!
Now, let’s imagine that we play this game in the year 1891, the year of Melville’s death. I say, Herman Melville, and you say…
Wait, you didn’t say anything. That’s because Melville’s books went out of print in the year 1876, largely due to the critical backlash to his 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Melville’s first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were both popular and successful books. They were fairly simple adventure stories based upon his experiences as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, and for a few years it would have been very chic to invite Herman Melville to your New York salon to spin a good old sea-yarn.
But as Melville continued to publish, it gradually became clear that he wasn’t just setting out to write adventure stories. His work dealt with historical, religious, and philosophical themes in great detail. Melville’s reputation rapidly declined, and he was so discouraged that after the year 1866 he more or less stopped writing. When the plates for his books were burned in a fire, no one even bothered to replace them.
Melville worked on Billy Budd at the very end of his life, from the years 1888 to 1891. The book was not discovered until 1921, when Melville’s granddaughter gave the manuscript to Raymond Weaver, a man who had decided to go against all the dictates of common sense and good business practices and write a biography of an author that was but a footnote in American literature, Herman Melville.
Except that Weaver’s biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic, began a Melville revival that only accelerated when he released the unknown novel Billy Budd in 1924. Billy Budd is a taut little morality tale that takes place on board a ship of the English Royal Navy. It focuses on John Claggart’s false accusation of Budd as a mutinous man, and the difficult moral and legal decision that falls on the Captain’s shoulders as a result. The story is philosophically rich and remarkably nuanced, and the historical situation only adds to the suspense because it takes place in the year 1797, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars and in the wake of several massive mutinies in the English fleet.
After Weaver’s brave biography, people began to worship Melville. In particular, Moby-Dick became recognized as one of the greatest novels, both in America and abroad, ever to have been published. Billy Budd is a classic in its own right. It has since been converted to film a number of times, most notably by John Huston, and an opera has been made of the book written in part by E.M. Forster (of A Room with a View and A Passage to India fame). Next to Moby-Dick, though, Billy Budd may seem like small fry.
But next time you hear Herman Melville, allow yourself a mental hiccup before you spit out Moby-Dick. Remember that you might not ever have heard of Moby-Dick (or Herman Melville for that matter) if it weren’t for Billy Budd.”
The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter. According to Barnes and Noble, “In a small house at a coastal resort live a man, his mentally wayward wife and their boarder who has been with them for a year. He is a strange chap, unkempt and in flight from we know not what. Enter an even stranger sleek Jewish man and his muscle bound Irish henchman. The mentally immature wife accommodates them with a room and then decides that it is time for the boarder to have a birthday. At the party she arranges, the new guests play cruel games with the boarder break his glasses, make a buffoon of him, and push him over the psychotic precipice. The next morning he is reduced to a gibbering idiot and meekly leaves with them.”
Black Boy, Richard Wright. According to Schmoop, “Just like today, the United States of 1945 was a diverse land. But if you opened the newspaper, you’d see a different story. Politicians, journalists, models, even small business owners: they’re all a whiter shade of pale. A black president? Fat chance. There isn’t even a black Disney Princess (although it’s worth pointing out that the US got a black president before it got a black princess).
So imagine how the public felt when Black Boy was released in 1945. Richard Wright’s story about a young boy from the South struggling to grow up and become a writer in a world that constantly tries to crush his dreams hit the literary world like the eighth, undiscovered Harry Potter. It spent four months at the top of the best seller’s list, and was the fourth best selling novel at the end of 1945. With a bump from the Oprah-like Book-of-the-Month Club, everyone was reading Wright’s words.
Before the Book-of-the-Month Club agreed to give it that boost, though, Wright had to make some changes. The entire second section was nixed, along with some “obscene” parts from the first section. Mentions of the Communist Party, in which Wright was an active member? All gone. Suggestions that the North was not the Promised Land for black people? Also axed. The 1945 version of Black Boy was a much more cheerful book than Wright originally meant it to be.
Even in its bowdlerized form, Black Boy was a favorite of both fancy literary critics and regular folk like us Shmoopers. Wright’s literary skills, as well as his honest portrayal of the life of black Americans, won him plenty of admirers—and plenty of money.
When the complete manuscript was published in 1991 (thirty-one years after Wright died in 1960), readers were in for a nice surprise. Turns out that Wright had mad philosophy skills in addition to impressive literary credentials. With its second half intact, the book is about much more than the personal experiences of one boy growing up in the racist South. It’s also about every individual’s struggle to find a meaningful life.”
Bleak House, Charles Dickens. According to Schmoop, “Just before writing Bleak House in 1852, Charles Dickens took a break from being a novelist. He was in the middle of his career, had already written some extremely popular books (including Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol), and was already a super-famous guy (and well on his way to being the most famous person in the world!). Still, he took a couple of years off. Not to relax or anything, but to work on some other stuff: finding funding for cleaning up London slums, being a public health and anti-pollution activist, thinking about getting into Parliament, and reading about the ridiculousness of the Court of Chancery. When he did finally get back to writing novels, he put out a series of very long, very complex works. Each has zillions of characters living at every level of society. Each focuses on a specific institution or bureaucracy, which is usually strongly criticized and mercilessly mocked. And each is a masterpiece. (Oh yes, Shmoop went there.)
Bleak House was the first of these later novels (the others are Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations), and remained Dickens’s second-favorite thing he ever wrote. (His favorite was David Copperfield.) This is saying a lot, because not only did he write novel after novel after novel, but he also – in his “spare” time – wrote plays, short stories, and magazine articles; toured the country doing live readings from his works; and was a political activist with many causes. Somehow in there he also found the time to get married, have ten kids, then leave his wife for an 18-year-old actress. Now that’s energy. Meanwhile Shmoop needs two cups of coffee just to open our eyes in the morning.
Anyway. On the one hand, Bleak House is the story of a girl named Esther Summerson uncovering the truth about her parents, and in the process setting off a chain of events that includes murder, suicide, betrayal, love, and fear – and also pretty much every other emotion you can imagine. On the other hand, the novel is a pretty profound discussion about the philosophy of charity and philanthropy. How much should we take care of the less fortunate? Are some more deserving of charity than others? Should the poor be dependent on the good will of private individuals, or does the state have some kind of responsibility for helping them? During Dickens’s day in Victorian England, most laws criminalized the poor rather than trying to help them get a leg up.
How on earth does this novel do these two totally different-sounding things? Well, in a neat trick, part of the novel is told through the eyes and voice of Esther, and part through an all-knowing third-person narrator. And never the twain shall meet. (Well, they actually do very, very briefly at the end of the novel.) This lets Dickens do two things at once: he gets to snarl and sneer and generally be a mean-spirited observer of idiocy, incompetence, hypocrisy, and callousness (think of this voice as those two old guys in the balcony of The Muppet Show), and also he gets to be all emotional and sensitive and caring and sweet (imagine the nicest, most humble and modest person you can, then multiply that by four). So, London life from all sides, from all points of view, from every perspective – and all simultaneously.”
Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya. According to Barnes and Noble, “Exquisite prose and wondrous storytelling have helped make Rudolfo Anaya the father of Chicano literature in English. Indeed, Anaya’s tales fairly shimmer with the haunting beauty and richness of his culture. The winner of the Pen Center West Award for Fiction for his unforgettable novel Alburquerque, Anaya is perhaps best loved for his classic bestseller, Bless Me, Ultima… Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family in New Mexico. She is a curandera, one who cures with herbs and magic. Under her wise wing, Tony will probe the family ties that bind and rend him, and he will discover himself in the magical secrets of the pagan past-a mythic legacy as palpable as the Catholicism of Latin America. And at each life turn there is Ultima, who delivered Tony into the world…and will nurture the birth of his soul.”
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood. According to Barnes and Noble, “The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura?s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.”
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison. According to Schmoop, “The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison‘s first novel, published in 1970. It tells the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl growing up in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, after the Great Depression. Due to its unflinching portrayal of incest, prostitution, domestic violence, child molestation, and racism, there have been numerous attempts to ban the book from libraries and schools across the United States, some of them successful.
In the Afterword to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes that the novel came out of a childhood conversation she could never forget. She remembers a young black girl she knew who wanted blue eyes, and how, like Claudia MacTeer in the novel, this confession made her really angry. Surrounded by the Black Is Beautiful movement of late 1960s African-American culture, Morrison decided to write a novel about how internalized racism affects young black girls in a range of ways – some petty and minute, some tragic and overwhelming.
Bone : A Novel: by Fae M. Ng. According to Barnes and Noble, “We were a family of three girls. By Chinese standards, that wasn’t lucky. In Chinatown, everyone knew our story. Outsiders jerked their chins, looked at us, shook their heads. We heard things.” In this profoundly moving novel, Fae Myenne Ng takes readers into the hidden heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, to the world of one family’s honor, their secrets, and the lost bones of a “paper father.” Two generations of the Leong family live in an uneasy tension as they try to fathom the source of a brave young girl’s sorrow.
Oldest daughter Leila tells the story: of her sister Ona, who has ended her young, conflicted life by jumping from the roof of a Chinatown housing project; of her mother Mah, a seamstress in a garment shop run by a “Chinese Elvis”; of Leon, her father, a merchant seaman who ships out frequently; and the family’s youngest, Nina, who has escaped to New York by working as a flight attendant. With Ona and Nina gone, it is up to Leila to lay the bones of the family’s collective guilt to rest, and find some way to hope again.
Fae Myenne Ng’s luminous debut explores what it means to be a stranger in one’s own family, a foreigner in one’s own neighborhood–and whether it’s possible to love a place that may never feel quite like home.
From the recent outpouring of Asian-American literary talent, which has yielded bestselling novels by such writers as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, comes the remarkable debut of a storyteller whose work has appeared in Harper’s. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Bone chronicles the haunted lives of the Leong family as it explores the myth and mystery that pervade Chinese-American culture.”
The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Amy Tan. According to Barnes and Noble, “In memories that rise like wisps of ghosts, LuLing Young searches for the name of her mother, the daughter of the Famous Bonesetter from the Mouth of the Mountain. Trying to hold on to the evaporating past, she begins to write all that she can remember of her life as a girl in China. Meanwhile, her daughter Ruth, a ghostwriter for authors of self-help books, is losing the ability to speak up for herself in front of the man she lives with and his two teenage daughters. None of her professional sound bites and pat homilies works for her personal life: she knows only how to translate what others want to say.” “Ruth starts suspecting that something is terribly wrong with her mother. As a child, Ruth had been constantly subjected to her mother’s disturbing notions about curses and ghosts, and to her repeated threats that she would kill herself, and was even forced by her to try to communicate with ghosts. But now LuLing seems less argumentative, even happy, far from her usual disagreeable and dissatisfied self.” “While tending to her ailing mother, Ruth discovers the pages LuLing wrote in Chinese, the story of her tumultuous and star-crossed life, and is transported to a backwoods village known as Immortal Heart. There she learns of secrets passed along by a mute nursemaid, Precious Auntie; of a cave where “dragon bones” are mined, some of which may prove to be the teeth of Peking Man; of the crumbling ravine known as the End of the World, where Precious Auntie’s scattered bones lie, and of the curse that LuLing believes she released through betrayal. Like layers of sediment being removed, each page reveals secrets of a larger mystery: What became of Peking Man? What was the name of the Bonesetter’s Daughter? And who was Precious Auntie, whose suicide changed the path of LuLing’s life? Within LuLing’s calligraphed pages awaits the truth about a mother’s heart, what she cannot tell her daughter yet hopes she will never forget.” “Set in contemporary San Francisco.”
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1932 by Aldous Huxley, Brave New World portrays a futuristic society in which the individual is sacrificed for the state, science is used to control and subjugate, and all forms of art and history are outlawed. In short, the book fits into the classic mold of “dystopian” literature. (“Dystopia” is the opposite of utopia. In a dystopian society, everything is bad, and it’s generally the fault of government.)
While the novel has certainly been a success, it has also been criticized from many quarters. As a work of ideas and philosophy, it’s fascinating. As a work of imaginative fiction trying to be a novel…it actually fails, at least according to the tough critics. You’ll find that parts of the novel veer off into philosophical treatise land (Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen, in particular), the plot has some holes, and the characters have some major inconsistencies.
But if you step outside of the realm of the stuffiest of literary critics, you can appreciate the impact that Brave New World has made on 20th century literature with its dire warnings about the future. The novel is frequently compared to a much later novel, Orwell’s 1984, because the novels treat the same subject matter but in different light. In 1958, Huxley published an essay called Brave New World Revisited, in which he basically says, “I was right” and predicts that his horrifying vision of the future will come to fruition sooner rather than later.”
Brighton Rock, Graham Greene. According to Barnes and Noble, “Graham Greene’s chilling exposé of violence and gang warfare in the pre-war underworld is a classic of its kind.
Pinkie, the teenage gangster, is devoid of compassion or human feeling, despising weakness of the spirit or of the flesh. Responsible for the razor slashes that killed Kite and also for the death of Hale, he is the embodiment of calculated evil. As a Catholic, however, he is convinced that his retribution does not lie in human hands.
He is therefore not prepared for Ida Arnold, Hale’s avenging angel. Ida, whose allegiance is with life, the here and now, has her own ideas about the circumstances surrounding Hale’s death. For the sheer joy of it she takes up the challenge of bringing the infernal Pinkie to an earthly kind of justice.”
Broken For You, Stephanie Kallos. According to Barnes and Noble, “When we meet septuagenarian Margaret Hughes, she is living alone in a mansion in Seattle with only a massive collection of valuable antiques for company. Enter Wanda Schultz, a young woman with a broken heart who has come west to search for her wayward boyfriend. Both women are guarding dark secrets and have spent many years building up protective armor against the outside world. But as the two begin their tentative dance of friendship, the armor begins to fall away and Margaret opens her house to the younger woman. This launches a series of remarkable and unanticipated events, leading Margaret to discover a way to redeem her cursed past, and Wanda to learn the true purpose of her cross-country journey. Along the way, a famous mosaic artist is born, an old woman is reunited with her long-lost tea set, and a sad-eyed drifter finds his long-lost daughter.” Broken for You is a testament to the saving graces of surrogate families, and shows how far the tiniest repair jobs can go in righting the world’s wrongs.”
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevski. According to Schmoop, “The Brothers Karamazov was the last novel the great Russian novelistFyodor Dostoevsky ever wrote, and it has all the energy and passion of a man’s last words. First appearing in serial form in 1879-80, it’s generally considered one of the best novels ever written in any language.
The plot of the novel revolves around the murder of perhaps one of the most despicable characters ever created, Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the Karamazov brothers. This plot serves as the basic architecture for Dostoevsky’s philosophy, touching on all the Really Big Questions. Do we have free will? Does God exist? Why do human beings have to suffer? What is the nature of human nature? Are there limits to human reason? Are we bound by moral laws? How do we achieve happiness?”
The Call of the Wild, Jack London. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is Jack London’s famous novel. Set during theAlaskan (Klondike) Gold Rush, the novel’s protagonist is a dog named Buck who is taken from a life of comfort and thrown into the wilds of Alaska and northern Canada. Since the novel deals with Buck as though he were a person with thoughts and emotions, it is known for its interesting and different point-of-view. The Call of the Wild focuses on the idea of primitivity – what is wild about you as a person…or an animal – that harkens back to the time before cell phones, cars, judges and houses.”
Call It Sleep, Henry Roth. According to Barnes and Noble, “When Henry Roth published his debut novel Call It Sleep in 1934, it was greeted with considerable critical acclaim, though, in those troubled times, lackluster sales. Only with its paperback publication thirty years later did this novel receive the recognition it deserves – and still enjoys. Having sold to date millions of copies worldwide, Call It Sleep is the story of David Schearl, the “dangerously imaginative” child coming of age in the slums of New York.
First published in 1934, and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, this is a novel of Jewish life full of the pain and honesty of family relationships. It holds the distinction of being the first paperback ever to receive a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review, and it became a nationwide bestseller. Now, for the first time, it is available in both cloth and paper.”
Candida, George Bernard Shaw. According to Barnes and Noble, “”Candida” is the story of its title character, a woman who is married to the Reverend Morell. Candida is a woman of many talents and her husband has his wife to thank for much of his success. When a young man by the name of Marchbanks professes his love for Candida, Morell must reexamine his relationship with his wife and ultimately discovers a side to her that he never knew existed. “Candida” is a play written during a time of great empowerment of women and Shaw brilliantly offers up Candida as an example of a strong and intelligent woman.”
Candide, Voltaire. According to Schmoop, “Candide is Voltaire’s humorous criticism of power, wealth, love, philosophy, religion, education, and, most significantly, optimism. Published in 1759, Candide makes fun of the typical coming-of-age story and, more broadly, literature itself. The story follows the adventures of Candide, a young man in love with a woman of a much higher social class. When their love is thwarted, Candide lives through a series of absurdly bad events in order to be reunited with his sweetheart. François-Marie Arouet, whose pen name was Voltaire, was an Enlightenment thinker, which is reflected in his concern with the power of reason, rejection of the tyranny of church and state, and interest in equality among men. As you might have guessed, outspoken Voltaire was very unpopular with both government and church authorities in his time and was periodically imprisoned and exiled for his views. Candide was banned within a month of its release, as many interesting books are.”
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. According to Schmoop, “The Canterbury Tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury who engage in a tale-telling contest to pass the time. Besides watching the interactions between the characters, we get to read 24 of the tales the pilgrims tell.
Since The Canterbury Tales is a story about a storytelling competition, many of the questions it asks are about stories: what makes for a good story? why do we tell stories? why should we tell stories? As the pilgrims tell their stories, though, they turn out to be talking not just about fairytale people in far-off lands, but also about themselves and their society. This leads to a lot of conflict in a group of pilgrims formed by members of that same society, who often take offense at the versions of themselves they see portrayed in the tales. The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, and the interactions between the pilgrims that occur in between the tales, then, form a story of their own – dare we say, a Canterbury tale?”
The Caretaker, Harold Pinter. According to Barnes and Noble, “The New York Times comments: “An old bum receives shelter in a cluttered room of an abandoned house. His samaritan is a gentle young man whose kindness is so casual that he seems almost indifferent. Dirty, tattered, unkempt, itching and scratching, the tramp is by turns wheedling, truculent and full of bravado…He speaks the proud lingo of those who have untold resources awaiting them at near-by havens. He pronounces his meager phrases with the exaggerated precision of one unaccustomed to being heeded. He flails a fist into a palm or into the air with the belligerence of a fighter no one will ever corner. He associates himself with fastidious practices like soap as if they were his daily habit. He is very funny—at first. But the laughter shades increasingly into pity. Like a cornered animal, he cannot believe that anyone means to be kind to him…He hates foreigners. He trusts no one, and fears everyone. He alienates the two brothers who separately have offered him a job as caretaker of the premises. Their offers and the job itself become themes with subtle overtones. Aston, the samaritan, lives in personal and emotional isolation, tinkering with gadgets and dreaming of building a shed out in the yard. And Mick, who carries on like a man of affairs, inhabits a dream world that resembles an extrovert’s nightmares. Mr. Pinter has been vehement in his assertions that his play is no more than the story it tells. But he cannot prevent his audiences from finding in it a modern parable to derisive scorn and bitter sorrow.”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller. According to Schmoop, “Catch-22 tells the story of one Captain John Yossarian, a man whose job it is to fly bombing missions for the Air Force in WWII. For his service to his country, most Americans would look at him as a hero. From Yossarian’s standpoint, though, he sees past all the pomp and patriotism and understands war as something else entirely: sheer madness.
The book condemns war, and the powers that carry out this systematic carnage, from all perspectives, and it does so with a satirical tone, a fractured narrative, and linguistic flourishes that all reflect the nonsensical nature of the military enterprise that Yossarian finds himself hopelessly stuck in. And that phrase—hopelessly stuck—pretty much sums up the whole novel. These boys, as the title suggests, are in a classic catch-22.
If this sounds a bit hard to follow, it’s because, well, war is the ultimate destruction of logic. This book has won countless accolades for its ability to drive that point home. But don’t take our word for it. Given its cultural importance, leaving this book off your reading list would just be… insane.”
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. According to Schmoop, “The Catcher in the Rye, a novel narrated by main character and hero Holden Caulfield, is the story of Holden’s life in the few days after being expelled from his Pennsylvania prep school. Published in 1951 by J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye has been banned more times than you want to count by zealous parents and educators. Not that anybody’s surprised by this (because of the profanity, sex, alcohol abuse, prostitution – need we go on?), but interestingly, it’s also frequently used as part of high school English classes. With more than 60 million copies sold to date, it’s one of the world’s top sellers (accordingly, it’s been translated into many languages, including Russian, Spanish, German, and Japanese). The Catcher in the Rye is close to J.D. Salinger’s heart; he has never allowed it to be produced as a film.
A lot of mystery and controversy surrounds J.D. Salinger. It seems he stopped publishing his work just when he was peaking as an author, and since then has been essentially a social recluse, granting no interviews and making no public appearances whatsoever. Some people think he’s sort of a Holden Caulfield himself. The Catcher in the Rye ended up as an emblem of counterculture in the 1950s and 60s – a symbol of alienation and isolation for the disillusioned and restless post-war generation. Salinger’s own isolation from society only amplifies the mystery and allure of this important book.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams. According to Schmoop, “Written in 1955, in the midst of the Leave It To Beaver era in America, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof garnered Tennessee Williams his second Pulitzer Prize. The play is about a Mississippi family and was written during a time that was in love with good ole family values and the shock-value of blue jeans. Following the destruction and chaos of the two world wars, much of America trended toward the concept of the stable nuclear family. Think June Cleaver’s hair and Pleasantville black-and-whiteness.
In addition to sexuality, Williams also addresses the decaying American South and America’s dark history of slavery, the horrors of which continued to eat away at the country through acts of intolerance, injustice, and racism in the 1950s. Cat takes place on a cotton plantation in the post-WWII era. In this time, the South saw a marked shift in its economy: formerly completely dependent upon agriculture, it now became smitten with industrialization and cities. The Old South’s agricultural history became more of a scary ghost than a memory. The play was written in the same year that the American Civil Rights movement began, a movement invigorated by the major Supreme Court decision of the previous year, Brown v. Board of Education, which ensured the desegregation of American schools.
Tennessee Williams is considered by some to be one of the most influential architects of 20th century American drama…he created bedrooms, lots of bedrooms with tin roofs. Like us, Tennessee had a cool name. Like us, Tennessee had a crazy family, he was kind of obsessed with just how loco families can be when they get together, and he saw family as a kind of ant farm that could be studied and that could reveal truths about the bigger ant farm that is American society.”
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. According to Barnes and Noble, “Cat’s Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman—but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories. Disturbing, hilarious, and compassionate, Cat’s Eye is a breathtaking novel of a woman grappling with the tangled knot of her life.”
The Centaur, John Updike. According to Barnes and Noble, “The Centaur is a modern retelling of the legend of Chiron, the noblest and wisest of the centaurs, who, painfully wounded yet unable to die, gave up his immortality on behalf of Prometheus. In the retelling, Olympus becomes small-town Olinger High School; Chiron is George Caldwell, a science teacher there; and Prometheus is Caldwell’s fifteen-year-old son, Peter. Brilliantly conflating the author’s remembered past with tales from Greek mythology, John Updike translates Chiron’s agonized search for relief into the incidents and accidents of three winter days spent in rural Pennsylvania in 1947. The result, said the judges of the National Book Award, is “a courageous and brilliant account of a conflict in gifts between an inarticulate American father and his highly articulate son.”
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko. According to Barnes and Noble, “Thirty years since its original publication, Ceremony remains one of the most profound and moving works of Native American literature, a novel that is itself a ceremony of healing. Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry, returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. He is deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese and further wounded by the rejection he encounters from his people. Only by immersing himself in the Indian past can he begin to regain the peace that was taken from him. Masterfully written, filled with the somber majesty of Pueblo myth, Ceremony is a work of enduring power.”
The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov. According to Schmoop, “Anton Chekhov was a Russian writer famous for his short stories and plays. The Cherry Orchard was his last play, produced by the famous Moscow Art Theatre shortly before his death in 1904.
You may have heard that Chekhov was a doctor. He started writing to support himself during medical school, and you can see the bedside manner in his writing. He’s a man who has seen a lot, and thinks of people with a mixture of affection and ridicule. You can certainly see this side of him in The Cherry Orchard, which depicts an aristocratic Russian family that loses their ancestral estate because they can’t pay the mortgage.
Many consider The Cherry Orchard Chekhov’s greatest play. It is a beautiful example of Chekhovian style: the mixture of comedy and tragedy, a form that avoids melodrama by setting the most exciting events offstage, and the detailed characterization that makes Chekhov an actor’s dream.”
The Chosen, Chaim Potok. According to Schmoop, “The Chosen, Chaim Potok‘s first novel, was published in 1967. It’s the story of two Jewish teenage boys coming of age in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York between 1944 and 1949. The novel is loaded with Jewish history, and contains a variety of perspectives on Judaism. Author Chaim Potok, like the two teens in his novel, grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Both his mother and father were strictly observant Orthodox Jews and his family didn’t support his interest in writing – they didn’t want any of their sons involved in secular activities. This conflict definitely shows up in interesting ways in The Chosen. In his own life, Potok began practicing Conservative Judaism, which had fewer restrictions and allowed him to be both an artist and a Jew.”
“Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau. According to Schmoop, “Thoreau had some serious problems with the way the United States was run. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and bitterly opposed the Mexican-American War, which he viewed as an act of American aggression. In protest, Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes. He spent a night in jail for this offense in 1848, and was released the next morning when a friend (against his wishes) paid the tax for him. The following year his essay on the topic, “Civil Disobedience,” was published.
Thoreau was not an anarchist; he did not believe that there should be no government, only a more just one than currently existed. If the government would not improve itself, he argued, it was a just man’s duty to refuse to support it. “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong,” Thoreau wrote, “but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”12 Thoreau continued to oppose slavery, and unjust laws. He hid escaping slaves in his Concord home in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it a crime to help slaves fleeing from slavery.
“Civil Disobedience” has become a manifesto of non-violent protest, read and used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Not all of Thoreau’s books had as lasting an impact. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was also published in 1849. It was so unsuccessful that Thoreau was forced to buy back more than 700 unsold copies, out of 1,000 the publisher had printed. I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes,” Thoreau quipped in his journal, “over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier. According to Barnes and Noble, “Based on local history and family stories passed down by the author’s great-great-grandfather, Cold Mountain is the tale of a wounded soldier Inman, who walks away from the ravages of the war and back home to his prewar sweetheart, Ada. Inman’s odyssey through the devastated landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated South interweaves with Ada’s struggle to revive her father’s farm, with the help of an intrepid young drifter named Ruby. As their long-separated lives begin to converge at the close of the war, Inman and Ada confront the vastly transformed world they’ve been delivered.
Charles Frazier reveals marked insight into man’s relationship to the land and the dangers of solitude. He also shares with the great nineteenth-century novelists a keen observation of a society undergoing change. Cold Mountain recreates a world gone by that speaks eloquently to our time.”
The Color Purple, Alice Walker. According to Schmoop, “The Color Purple was published in 1982 and earned Alice Walker the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. The story follows an uneducated black woman during thirty years of life, through her suffering and attempts to find love and happiness in life. It graphically depicts the violence and sexual subjugation that many black women endured during the 20th century and, as a result, has been banned multiple times. It ranks high on the American Library Association’s list of most banned books. Ultimately an uplifting story, Steven Spielberg directed the 1985 film adaptation, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.
Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje. According to Barnes and Noble, “Bringing to life the fabulous, colorful panorama of New Orleans in the first flush of the jazz era, this book tells the story of Buddy Bolden, the first of the great trumpet players—some say the originator of jazz—who was, in any case, the genius, the guiding spirit, and the king of that time and place.
In this fictionalized meditation, Bolden, an unrecorded father of Jazz, remains throughout a tantalizingly ungraspable phantom, the central mysteries of his life, his art, and his madness remaining felt but never quite pinned down. Ondaatje’s prose is at times startlingly lyrical, and as he chases Bolden through documents and scenes, the novel partakes of the very best sort of modern detective novel—one where the enigma is never resolved, but allowed to manifest in its fullness. Though more ‘experimental’ in form than either The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion, it is a fitting addition to the renowned Ondaatje oeuvre.”
Copenhagen, Michael Frayn. According to Barnes and Noble, “Copenhagen is a reimagining of the mysterious wartime meeting between two Nobel laureates to discuss the atomic bomb. In 1941 the German physicist Werner Heisenberg made a strange trip to Copenhagen to see his Danish counterpart, Niels Bohr. They were old friends and close colleagues, and they had revolutionized atomic physics in the 1920s with their work together on quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. But now the world had changed, and the two men were on opposite sides in a world war. The meeting was fraught with danger and embarrassment; it ended in disaster.” “Why Heisenberg went to Copenhagen and what he wanted to say to Bohr are questions that have exercised historians ever since. In Michael Frayn’s new play, an ambitious, fiercely intelligent, and daring dramatic sensation, Heisenberg meets Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, once again to look for the answers and to work out – just as they had worked out the internal functioning of the atom – how we can ever know why we do what we do.”
The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett. According to Barnes and Noble, “A classic of American fiction, memorializing the traditions, manners and dialect of Maine coast natives at the turn of the 20th century. In luminous evocations of their lives, Maine-born Jewett created startlingly real portraits of individual New Englanders, and a warm, humorous, and compassionate vision of New England character.”
Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton. According to Barnes and Noble, “Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.”
The most famous and important novel in South Africa’s history, and an immediate worldwide bestseller when it was published in 1948, Alan Paton’s impassioned novel about a black man’s country under white man’s law is a work of searing beauty. The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, “We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony.”
Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.
Examines different aspects of Paton’s novel about race relations in South Africa, with a biographical sketch of the author and critical essays on this work.”
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon. According to Barnes and Noble, “The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self knowledge.”
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevski. According to Schmoop, “Crime and Punishment (like most Dostoevsky stories) is incredibly fluid and is open to a wide variety of interpretations by readers. As Simon Karlinksy suggests in his essay “Dostoevsky as Rorschach Test,” how we interpret Crime and Punishment might be a reflection of our own psychology (source).
Dostoevsky was a brilliant fiction writer, a journalist, and a publisher. He also had a gambling problem, suffered from epilepsy, and had constant financial problems. Like the hero of our novel, he spent time in prison in Siberia. He wasn’t imprisoned for murder, though, but for being a member of the Petrashevsky Circle (source).
Dostoevsky was under tremendous time and money pressure when he was writing Crime and Punishment. We know from his letters (excerpts from which are translated by George Gibian in the fabulous Norton Third Edition) that, in addition to having to produce the monthly Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky installment, he had to come up with another novel for another publisher.
He had borrowed money from a fellow named Stellovsky, in exchange for writing a novel. If he didn’t give Stellovsky this other book by November 1, 1866, Stellovsky would own the rights to all of Dostoevsky’s work for the next ten years! So Dostoevsky set out to do the impossible – write two novels at the same time, one in the morning, one at night. He was terribly depressed about it, but he did it. He handed Stellovsky The Gambler right on schedule, and Russian Messenger got what you see before you, except in Russian.”
“The Crisis,” Thomas Paine. According to Barnes and Noble, “The highly original satire about Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself enmeshed in a worldwide conspiracy, meets some extremely interesting characters, and attains a not inconsiderable amount of self knowledge.”
The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. According to Barnes and Noble, “In The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy fulfills the promise of All the Pretty Horses and at the same time give us a work that is darker and more visionary, a novel with the unstoppable momentum of a classic western and the elegaic power of a lost American myth.
In the late 1930s, sixteen-year-old Billy Parham captures a she-wolf that has been marauding his family’s ranch. But instead of killing it, he decides to take it back to the mountains of Mexico. With that crossing, he begins an arduous and often dreamlike journey into a country where men meet ghosts and violence strikes as suddenly as heat-lightning—a world where there is no order “save that which death has put there.”
An essential novel by any measure, The Crossing is luminous and appalling, a book that touches, stops, and starts the heart and mind at once.”
The Crucible, Arthur Miller. According to Schmoop, “The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is a dramatic re-enactment of the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in the late 1600’s. Although the play centers on real events, it is not actual “history” – Miller changed the ages of characters and consolidated several historical figures so that there are fewer actors on stage. It was first produced on stage in January 1953. Arthur Miller intended to use the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory about the anti-communist Red Scare and the congressional hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy going on in the United States at the time. For more information about the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy trials, please see Shmoop History on “Colonial New England” and “Cold War: McCarthyism & Red Scare.”
Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand. According to Schmoop, “Cyrano de Bergerac is a play about an eloquent, talented, and brave, but physically unappealing, man and his love for a beautiful woman, Roxane. Playwright Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac as a comedy, and something of a satire of the overly romanticized literature of France in the 1600s (literature such as Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, which was published in 1844). As such, you’ll find it chock-full of historical references to writers, royalty, philosophers, dramatists, and scientists of the time. Light-hearted in nature, this work is full of frivolous pomp and overblown dialogue. Adding to its showy, intentionally grandiose quality is the form: rhyming couplets of twelve syllables per line in the original French. The translated meter you often see in English is iambic pentameter, which, we all know, is a party waiting to happen.
Published in French in 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac hit the stages of Paris to instant acclaim. Under the flourishes of renowned stage actor Constant Coquelin (to whom Rostand dedicated his play), Cyrano came to life. Basing his main character on a historical figure of the same name, Rostand accurately recounts much of the real Cyrano’s life – as told by Le Bret and a number of other biographers – in his beloved play.”
Daisy Miller, Henry James. According to Schmoop, “Daisy Miller might just be the most widely read and studied work of Henry James, an American novelist so great he eventually had to leave America—it wasn’t big enough for the one of him. Despite all of this great greatness, the novella was initially rejected for publication. (Keep this in mind next time you go on a job interview.)
The problem was, the American publisher thought the story would anger American readers. Instead, James had to sell the story to the English, who were delighted by the charm and wit of their newest import. According to the journalist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells, English readers were reportedly split between “Daisy Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites”—those who adored the main character and those who deemed her the harbinger of all of the tackiness and classlessness of American culture to come. Maybe now you’re starting to get why an American publisher would be wary.
Daisy represents a lot of things that were then, and maybe still are now, associated with being an American: youth, vigor, enthusiasm, idealism, and flash. James himself had a complicated relationship with the nation of his birth. He came from a moderately well-to-do but highly respected family of American intellectuals.
When little Henry James became cynical adult Henry James, he started to feel like America was getting overrun by the stupid and the materialistic. So he moved to England in 1876, when he was 33. He never came back, except for one brief visit in which he wrote a sad book that’s basically about how the country looks from the window of a train (The American Scene).”
Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel. According to Barnes and Noble, “It is 1936 and harvest time in County Donegal. In a house just outside the village of Ballybeg live the five Mundy sisters, barely making ends meet, their ages ranging from twenty-six up to forty. The two male members of the household are brother Jack, a missionary priest, repatriated from Africa by his superiors after twenty-five years, and the seven-year-old child of the youngest sister. In depicting two days in the life of this menage, Brian Friel evokes not simply the interior landscape of a group of human beings trapped in their domestic situation, but the wider landscape, interior and exterior, Christian and pagan, of which they are nonetheless a part.”
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens. According to Schmoop, “David Copperfield, Charles Dickens‘s eighth novel, came out in monthly magazine installments from May 1849 to November 1850. By the time this novel started to appear, Dickens had already published some of his most famous works, including The Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1839), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), and A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens’s fiction appeared regularly in the popular journals of the day, including Bentley’s Miscellany and his own periodical, Household Words (which ran from 1850 to 1859). By 1850, at the age of 38, Dickens had established himself as a genuine literary celebrity (perhaps along the lines of today’s J.K. Rowling).
Indeed, like J.K. Rowling, Dickens’s main claim to fame is twofold: first, he writes enduring characters that everybody remembers – and we hope that, after exploring David Copperfield with us, you’ll see why no one can forget Uriah Heep, even if you might want to. And second, Dickens is great at mixing humor with serious questions about social justice. For Rowling, that social conscience mostly deals with larger issues of right and wrong: how can we recognize and fight evil without becoming Dolores Umbridge? For Dickens, he depicts more specific injustices: cruelty to children, the mistreatment of women, and urban poverty and debt. Despite huge differences in setting, what the worlds of Harry Potter and David Copperfield share in common is a light touch with all of these heavy issues, which keeps us entertained even while provoking us to think.”
“The Death,” James Joyce. According to Sparknotes, “At the annual dance and dinner party held by Kate and Julia Morkan and their young niece, Mary Jane Morkan, the housemaid Lily frantically greets guests. Set at or just before the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which celebrates the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi, the party draws together a variety of relatives and friends. Kate and Julia particularly await the arrival of their favorite nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and his wife, Gretta. When they arrive, Gabriel attempts to chat with Lily as she takes his coat, but she snaps in reply to his question about her love life. Gabriel ends the uncomfortable exchange by giving Lily a generous tip, but the experience makes him anxious. He relaxes when he joins his aunts and Gretta, though Gretta’s good-natured teasing about his dedication to galoshes irritates him. They discuss their decision to stay at a hotel that evening rather than make the long trip home. The arrival of another guest, the always-drunk Freddy Malins, disrupts the conversation. Gabriel makes sure that Freddy is fit to join the party while the guests chat over drinks in between taking breaks from the dancing. An older gentleman, Mr. Browne, flirts with some young girls, who dodge his advances. Gabriel steers a drunken Freddy toward the drawing room to get help from Mr. Browne, who attempts to sober Freddy up.
The party continues with a piano performance by Mary Jane. More dancing follows, which finds Gabriel paired up with Miss Ivors, a fellow university instructor. A fervent supporter of Irish culture, Miss Ivors embarrasses Gabriel by labeling him a “West Briton” for writing literary reviews for a conservative newspaper. Gabriel dismisses the accusation, but Miss Ivors pushes the point by inviting Gabriel to visit the Aran Isles, where Irish is spoken, during the summer. When Gabriel declines, explaining that he has arranged a cycling trip on the continent, Miss Ivors corners him about his lack of interest in his own country. Gabriel exclaims that he is sick of Ireland. After the dance, he flees to a corner and engages in a few more conversations, but he cannot forget the interlude with Miss Ivors.
Just before dinner, Julia sings a song for the guests. Miss Ivors makes her exit to the surprise of Mary Jane and Gretta, and to the relief of Gabriel. Finally, dinner is ready, and Gabriel assumes his place at the head of the table to carve the goose. After much fussing, everyone eats, and finally Gabriel delivers his speech, in which he praises Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane for their hospitality. Framing this quality as an Irish strength, Gabriel laments the present age in which such hospitality is undervalued. Nevertheless, he insists, people must not linger on the past and the dead, but live and rejoice in the present with the living. The table breaks into a loud applause for Gabriel’s speech, and the entire party toasts their three hostesses.
Later, guests begin to leave, and Gabriel recounts a story about his grandfather and his horse, which forever walked in circles even when taken out of the mill where it worked. After finishing the anecdote, Gabriel realizes that Gretta stands transfixed by the song that Mr. Bartell D’Arcy sings in the drawing room. When the music stops and the rest of the party guests assemble before the door to leave, Gretta remains detached and thoughtful. Gabriel is enamored with and preoccupied by his wife’s mysterious mood and recalls their courtship as they walk from the house and catch a cab into Dublin.
At the hotel, Gabriel grows irritated by Gretta’s behavior. She does not seem to share his romantic inclinations, and in fact bursts into tears. Gretta confesses that she has been thinking of the song from the party because a former lover had sung it to her in her youth in Galway. Gretta recounts the sad story of this boy, Michael Furey, who died after waiting outside of her window in the cold. Gretta later falls asleep, but Gabriel remains awake, disturbed by Gretta’s new information. He curls up on the bed, contemplating his own mortality. Seeing the snow at the window, he envisions it blanketing the graveyard where Michael Furey rests, as well as all of Ireland.”
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. According to Barnes and Noble, “Death Comes for the Archbishop sprang from Willa Cather’s love for the land and cultures of the American Southwest. Published in 1927 to both praise and perplexity, it has since claimed for itself a major place in twentieth-century literature. The narrative follows Bishop Jean Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant, friends since their childhood in France, as they organize the new Roman Catholic diocese of Santa Fe subsequent to the Mexican War. While seeking to revive the church and build a cathedral in the desert, the clerics, like their historical prototypes, Bishop Jean Laury and Father Joseph Machebeuf, face religious corruption, natural adversity, and the loneliness of living in a strange and unforgiving land. The historical essay traces the artistic and spiritual development that led to its writing. The broad-ranging explanatory notes illuminate the elements of French, Mexican, Hispanic, and Native American cultures that meet in the course of the narrative, they also explain the part played by the land and its people – their history, religion, art, and languages.
A narrative which recounts a life lived simply in the silence of the southwestern desert.”
A Death in the Family, James Agee. According to Barnes and Noble, “Forty years after its original publication, James Agee’s last novel seems, more than ever, an American classic. For in his lyrical, sorrowful account of a man’s death and its impact on his family, Agee painstakingly created a small world of domestic happiness and then showed how quickly and casually it could be destroyed.
On a sultry summer night in 1915, Jay Follet leaves his house in Knoxville, Tennessee, to tend to his father, whom he believes is dying. The summons turns out to be a false alarm, but on his way back to his family, Jay has a car accident and is killed instantly. Dancing back and forth in time and braiding the viewpoints of Jay’s wife, brother, and young son, Rufus, Agee creates an overwhelmingly powerful novel of innocence, tenderness, and loss that should be read aloud for the sheer music of its prose.”
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy. According to Schmoop, “The Death of Ivan Ilych – alternately called a short story or a novella – is probably the most famous shorter work of Count Leo Tolstoy. Since it was published in 1886, in Volume 12 of Tolstoy’s collected works (edited by his wife, Countess Sofia Tolstoy), it’s been hailed as a masterpiece by critics and readers. Ivan Ilych also acquired a reputation as one of the modern treatments of death – one that has changed the way that subject is treated.
Writing about death was nothing new, to be sure. In the 19th century, death had been a favorite subject of the Romantics and many writers who came after them. They just couldn’t stop talking about it, and created dying romantic heroes of all kinds: star-crossed lovers with tragic deaths, lonely tortured artists who came to painfully beautiful ends, and valiant men in battle who sacrificed themselves. (Our popular culture still owes a lot to the Romantics.)
What was new and remarkable in Tolstoy’s work was how unremarkable its main character – and his death – was. The Death of Ivan Ilych is the story of a painfully ordinary government official who comes down with an untreatable illness and dies at home slowly, painfully, and full of loneliness. He’s middle aged, has an unhappy family life, and a petty personality. Rather than turning to religion, art, or the love of his life to cope with death, he turns to doctors. About as far from a dying romantic hero as you can get. Much more like, well, us normal people.”
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller. According to Schmoop, “Death of a Salesman is a tragedy about the differences between a New York family’s dreams and the reality of their lives. The play is a scathing critique of the American Dream and of the competitive, materialistic American society of the late 1940s. The storyline features Willy Loman, an average guy who attempts to hide his averageness and failures behind delusions of grandeur as he strives to be a “success.”
The idea for the play first manifested itself as a short story, which Arthur Miller abandoned. His interest was renewed later on however, by an uncle who was a salesman. When the play version appeared on Broadway, it was a total hit. It won Arthur Miller the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. By this point in his career, Miller had already proven his chops with his hit play, All My Sons. However, with Death of a Salesman, Miller was launched into a whole other level of his career.
Death of a Salesman is widely considered even to this day to be one of the greatest American plays ever written. It’s often ranked right up there with classics like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Like all classics, Death of a Salesman’s themes still ring true today. Its harsh criticism of American capitalism may not be quite as shocking as it was when the play first premiered. But we have a feeling that every modern-day audience member knows exactly what Miller is getting at – whether you agree with it or not.”
Delta Wedding, Eudora Welty. According to Barnes and Noble, “A vivid and charming portrait of a large southern family, the Fairchilds, who live on a plantation in the Mississippi delta. The story, set in 1923, is exquisitely woven from the ordinary events of family life, centered around the visit of a young relative, Laura McRaven, and the family’s preparations for her cousin Dabney’s wedding. A novel about a Southern family.
Desire under the Elms, Eugene O’Neill. According to Barnes and Noble, “Eugene O’ Neill’s tale of Ephraim Cabot, greedy and hard like the stone walls that surround his farm, the family patriarch brings home his new young bride, Abbie. His grown sons dissaprove; one leaves but the other stays to fight for the family fortune. What follows is a tragedy of epic proportions. A full-cast production featuring: Paul Adelstein, Orson Bean, Amy Brenneman, Dwier Brown, Maurice Chasse and Charlie Kimball.”
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler. According to Barnes and Noble, “Pearl Tull is nearing the end of her life but not of her memory. It was a Sunday night in 1944 when her husband left the little row house on Baltimore’s Calvert Street, abandoning Pearl to raise their three children alone: Jenny, high-spirited and determined, nurturing to strangers but distant to those she loves; the older son, Cody, a wild and incorrigible youth possessed by the lure of power and money; and sweet, clumsy Ezra, Pearl’s favorite, who never stops yearning for the perfect family that could never be his own.
Now Pearl and her three grown children have gathered together again–with anger, hope, and a beautiful, harsh, and dazzling story to tell.”
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri. According to Barnes and Noble, “A landmark of world literature, The Divine Comedy tells of the poet Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in search of salvation. Before he is redeemed by his love for the heavenly Beatrice, he learns the meaning of evil, sin, damnation, and forgiveness through a series of unforgettable experiences and encounters. This edition of The Divine Comedy features Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s renowned and 135 full-page reproductions of Gustave Dore’s classic engravings from the 1867 edition.
The Divine Comedy is part of Barnes & Noble’s series of quality leatherbound volumes. Each title in the series presents a classic work in an attractively designed edition bound in genuine bonded leather. These books make elegant additions to any home library.”
The Diviners, Margaret Laurence. According to Barnes and Noble, “In The Diviners, Morag Gunn, a middle aged writer who lives in a farmhouse on the Canadian prairie, struggles to understand the loneliness of her eighteen-year-old daughter. With unusual wit and depth, Morag recognizes that she needs solitude and work as much as she needs the love of her family.”
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe. According to Schmoop, “This one’s got it all, folks: devils, damsels, and dastardly deeds. Doctor Faustus is the story of a great scholar who decides a little magical mojo will cure his ennui. The catch? He has to sign his soul over to the devil in order to get that mojo workin’.
The legend of Faustus was already well-known in Europe by the time Christopher Marlowe turned it into a play in 1594. It had been making the rounds as a folktale in Germany since the early 1500s, and was translated into English and published in England in the 1590s as a chapbook (that’s the Renaissance version of a pulp paperback) entitled “The Historie of the Damnable Life, and Deserved Death, of Doctor Iohn Faustus.” So Marlowe had all kinds of sources to draw from when it came to bringing the devil to life.
And boy did he ever bring him to life. We know Doctor Faustus was immediately popular with audiences because it was actually published in 1604. That’s something that only happened if people were really clamoring for a printed version of their favorite play. Apparently Doctor Faustus struck a chord or two in the hearts and minds of its renaissance audience.
That might have something to do with its uniqueness. Doctor Faustus stood out from the crowd by combining things we associate with medieval drama (like allegory) to explore what we now think of as modern questions: What form should knowledge take? What is the nature of true power? Should we believe in fate or free will?”
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak. According to Barnes and Noble, “First published in Italy in 1957 amid international controversy, Doctor Zhivago is the story of the life and loves of a poet/physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds. Set against this backdrop of cruelty and strife is Zhivago’s love for the tender and beautiful Lara, the very embodiment of the pain and chaos of those cataclysmic times. Pevear and Volokhonsky masterfully restore the spirit of Pasternak’s original—his style, rhythms, voicings, and tone—in this beautiful translation of a classic of world literature.”
A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen. According to Schmoop, “Henrik Ibsen was born in Skein, Norway on March 20, 1828. After spending most of his early years in poverty, he eventually made a name for himself as one of the most respected playwrights of all time. He is often called “the father of modern drama” because he helped popularize realism, which a good portion of today’s entertainment imitates without even knowing it. Just about every show on television owes a little something to Ibsen. Just imagine what Law and Order would be like in verse – Oh, dearest judge, do not slam your gavel; for if you do, justice will unravel. Weird.
After a few smaller successes with plays such as Brand, Peer Gynt, and Pillars of Society, Ibsen took the world by storm with A Doll’s House. Boy, was it controversial. Nora’s door-slamming exit is sometimes described as a shot heard around the world. The very idea that a woman might have something to do other than keep house and raise children was pretty scandalous in the Victorian era. Party invitations were sent out, requesting that people not discuss the play. Hosts were afraid their elegant engagements would turn into all out brawls. Many critics were just as scandalized. They scathingly criticized Ibsen for undermining society’s most sacred institution: marriage. However, a few critics, such as George Bernard Shaw, championed Ibsen because he was unafraid to challenge societal norms.
Though the play is often pigeon-holed as a feminist manifesto, Ibsen denied it. Once when he was being honored by the Norwegian Society for Women’s Rights he said, “I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights” (source). To Ibsen, it wasn’t necessarily about the fact that Nora is a woman; it’s about the fact that she’s a human being. He thought that all people, men and women alike, should have the courage to stand up against society and form their own opinions. Think about it – in a way Torvald, Nora’s husband, is just as caged by society as his wife. Society has programmed them both into their prescribed roles: dominant provider husband, submissive homemaking wife. In Ibsen’s mind, all human beings have a sacred duty to themselves.”
The Dollmaker, Harriet Arnot. According to Barnes and Noble, “The Dollmaker was originally published in 1954 to immediate success and critical acclaim. In unadorned and powerful prose, Harriette Arnow tells the unforgettable and heartbreaking story of the Nevels family and their quest to preserve their deep-rooted values amidst the turmoil of war and industrialization. When Gertie Nevels, a strong and self-reliant matriarch, follows her husband to Detroit from their countryside home in Kentucky, she learns she will have to fight desperately to keep her family together. A sprawling book full of vividly drawn characters and masterful scenes, The Dollmaker is a passionate tribute to a woman’s love for her children and the land.”
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. According to Barnes and Noble, “Widely regarded as the world’s first modern novel, and one of the funniest and most tragic books ever written, Don Quixote chronicles the famous picaresque adventures of the noble knight-errant Don Quixote of La Mancha and his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, as they travel through sixteenth-century Spain.”
Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set in Havana, Brooklyn, and the Cuban seaside in the 1970s, Dreaming in Cuban unravels the lives and fortunes of four women of the colorful Del Pino family. Celia is the aging matriarch faithful to Fidel . . . Felicia is her mad (and possibly murderous) daughter . . . Lourdes, her other child, is a capitalist counterrevolutionary . . . and her daughter, Pilar, is an artistic punk filled with impossible Cuban dreams.”
Dutchmen, Amiri Baraka and Leroi Jones. According to Barnes and Noble, “Since Vitruvius described in his famous work not only fixed buildings but also mobile objects and constructions, the possibility of incorporating change and motion into architecture has continued to fascinate architects. Yet it is only since radically new materials and IT media have been developed that the dream has become reality. “Flying Dutchmen” shows the way a selection of innovative Dutch architects have incorporated the issue of movement in their buildings. The examples are drawn by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, NOX Architects, Kas Oosterhuis, UN Studio, NL Architects, Bentham Crouwel, and Herman Hertzberger. The analyses provide a fascinating glimpse into the design process and its results, from sensitive surfaces to dynamic spaces, from aerodynamic forms to interactively linked buildings.”
East of Eden, John Steinbeck. According to Barnes and Noble, “The masterpiece of Steinbeck’s later years, East of Eden is the powerful and vastly ambitious novel that is both family saga and a modern retelling of the book of Genesis.
This sprawling and often brutal novel, set in the rich farmlands of California’s Salinas Valley, follows the intertwined destinies of two families–the Trasks and the Hamiltons–whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. “A strange and original work of art.”–New York Times Book Review.”
Emma, Jane Austen. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1815, Emma was written at the height of Jane Austen’s popularity. The novel focuses on a heroine who takes an interest in matchmaking. The Prince Regent, George, did Austen the “favor” of allowing her to dedicate Emma to him. Austen probably wasn’t so excited about the prospect of dedicating her novel to a man who was, by all accounts, dissipated, drunk, and superficial. George set the standards of “gentlemanlike” behavior during his time. According to him, fashionable men were dandies – the sort who would ride sixteen miles to London just to get a haircut.
Interestingly, Austen’s novel also takes up the question of gentlemanly – (and gentlewomanly) behavior – but she comes to very, very different conclusions than the Prince Regent. It might not be a coincidence that Mr. Knightley, the rugged, thoughtful, honest hero of our novel, is also named George. Ironic? Just a little. We like to imagine the good prince squirming in his seat as he read this novel.
Emma contains one of Austen’s most remarkable heroines. That’s a huge claim, we know – Austen is known for her strong, intelligent, amazing women. Emma is, of course, strong and intelligent and pretty amazing – but she’s also amazingly flawed. She charges right in to mistake after mistake, convinced that she’s somehow impervious to the sorts of errors in judgment which she’s so quick to notice in those around her. Misguided heroines are actually pretty common in literature, but rarely do they display the sorts of tenacity and charm that Emma exudes. We love her even when she’s screwing up – largely because she’s able to accurately dissect most peoples’ characters even as she remains blind to her own.”
An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen. According to Schmoop, “A lot of people believe that Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen penned An Enemy of the People with a big old chip on his shoulder. He wrote the play directly after Ghosts, which got all kinds of nasty criticism in the papers for its talk of taboo subjects like syphilis and assisted suicide. Dr. Stockmann, the protagonist of An Enemy of the People, harshly criticizes just the sort of liberal media that had talked smack about Ghosts. Chances are this isn’t just a random coincidence.
We know from a series of letters that many of the ideas spouted by Dr. Stockmann, were very close to Ibsen’s own opinions. In a letter to his editor upon completing his manuscript, Ibsen wrote that he felt “lost and lonely” now that he had completed the script, because he and Dr. Stockmann had “got on excellently” and “agree[d] on so many subjects.” Ibsen went on the say that Doctor has “characteristics because of which people will stand hearing a good many things from him which they might perhaps not have taken in such very good part had they been said by me” (source). The evidence seems to be pointing to the fact that the Ibsen saw Stockmann as a mouthpiece of sorts, a more likeable alter ego who people were more likely to listen to.
Even though it is widely believed that An Enemy of the People was inspired by the negative critical reactions to Ghosts, it’s also pretty clear that the core ideas of the play were in Ibsen’s mind for a long time. Shortly after he published his earlier play A Doll’s House, Ibsen wrote to a Professor buddy of his, “It appears to me doubtful whether better artistic conditions can be attained in Norway before the intellectual soil has been thoroughly turned up and cleansed, and all the swamps drained off” (source). This happens to be the very same sort of conclusion that Dr. Stockmann comes to at the end of An Enemy of the People and is also the play’s central metaphor. It looks like the ideas that erupt on the stage in An Enemy of the People had been burning inside of Ibsen for quite some time.”
Equus, Peter Shaffer. According to Barnes and Noble, “An explosive play that took critics and audiences by storm, Equus is Peter Shaffer’s exploration of the way modern society has destroyed our ability to feel passion. Alan Strang is a disturbed youth whose dangerous obsession with horses leads him to commit an unspeakable act of violence. As psychiatrist Martin Dysart struggles to understand the motivation for Alan’s brutality, he is increasingly drawn into Alan’s web and eventually forced to question his own sanity. Equus is a timeless classic and a cornerstone of contemporary drama that delves into the darkest recesses of human existence.”
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton. According to Schmoop, “Ethan Frome is a novella by New York City-born author Edith Wharton. It was first published in 1911, when Wharton was about 49 years old. As a writer, Wharton was very prolific, constantly producing and publishing shorts stories, poems, novels, novellas, and essays. Check out this timeline that lists her publishing history. Wharton won a Pulitzer Prize for he society novel The Age of Innocence in 1921, making her the first woman ever awarded one. She was also the first woman to be given an honorary doctorate by Yale University.
Ethan Frome is one of Wharton’s most famous stories, in part because of its extremely raw portrait of the poverty stricken residents of the fictional town of Starkfield, Massachusetts. Take that and throw in a creepy love triangle, and a whole lot of broken dreams. Anyone who has ever wanted to escape to a better life will be able to relate to this story.
Also – just so you know – Wharton probably didn’t pull this love triangle business out of her hat. Before her divorce from the physically and mentally ailing Teddy Wharton, and before the publication of Ethan Frome, Edith had an affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist for The London Times (source).”
The Eumenides, Aeschylus. The Eumenides is the last part of the play. According to Barnes and Noble, “The importance of Æschylus in the development of the drama is immense. Before him tragedy had consisted of the chorus and one actor; and by introducing a second actor, expanding the dramatic dialogue thus made possible, and reducing the lyrical parts, he practically created Greek tragedy as we understand it. Like other writers of his time, he acted in his own plays, and trained the chorus in their dances and songs; and he did much to give impressiveness to the performances by his development of the accessories of scene and costume on the stage. “The Oresteia” is one of the supreme productions of all literature. It deals with the two great themes of the retribution of crime and the inheritance of evil; and here again a parallel may be found between the assertions of the justice of God by Æschylus and by the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. Both contend against the popular idea that the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge; both maintain that the soul that sinneth, it shall die. The nobility of thought and the majesty of style with which these ideas are set forth give this triple drama its place at the head of the literary masterpieces of the antique world.”
The Fall, Albert Camus. According to Schmoop, “The Fall is the fictional, first person confession of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a Parisian expatriate. Jean-Baptiste used to be a hotshot defense lawyer, but suddenly realized his life was hypocritical and now lives out his days in a seedy bar in Amsterdam. The novel puts you in the center of the action (not unlike those “Choose Your Own Adventure ” books) because Jean-Baptiste talks to you while you’re sitting by him in said seedy bar.
But The Fall is famous for more than its interesting narrative technique. For one, it was written by Albert Camus, a French thinker known for his philosophy of the absurd, a close cousin to existentialism, and his frenemy status with Jean-Paul Sartre, another French philosopher of the mid-1900s. (Note that throughout his life Camus maintained that he was not an existentialist.) Now, Camus is most famous for three big novels. The first is The Stranger, published in 1942, which tells the story of a detached, emotionless man convicted of murder, who finds existential freedom while in prison awaiting his death. The second is The Plague, in 1947, which revolves around an outbreak of the bubonic plague in an Algerian town, and the struggle of its citizens to deal with human suffering. And of course, the third is The Fall, in 1956, published shortly before Camus was awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature. Camus died only three years afterwards, making The Fall his final piece of fiction.
Through these three novels, as well as his other works, Camus establishes and explores several ideas of his philosophy. In many ways, The Fall can be seen as the high point of Camus’s thinking. His ideas increase in complexity over the course of his novels. You’ll probably notice that interpreting and analyzing The Plague is more difficult than taking on The Stranger, and likewise, The Fall is more challenging than the works which precede it. But don’t take our word for it. Sartre himself said that The Fall was the most beautiful of Camus’s works, but also the least understood. Scholar David R. Ellison says “it seems as if no real progress has been made in deciphering the text’s central enigmas.” For you, this is good news and bad. The bad news is no one can tell you with any real authority exactly how to interpret The Fall. The good news is you can interpret it however you want.
You may find it helpful to read Camus’s novels in the order in which they were written. It’s fascinating to see the way his ideas grow over time, and it’s also useful to gain some experience with Camus before you tackle his final work of fiction. Still, if you haven’t read The Stranger or The Plague, don’t worry; we’ll get you through The Fall unscathed, or at least with only minor injuries.”
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway. According to Schmoop, “A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 by Ernest Hemingway, a Nobel Prize-winning American author. This novel is semi-autobiographical. Like the protagonist, Hemingway served in the Italian Army as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I, got wounded, and spent time in an American Army in Milan, where he met a nurse. But unlike Hemingway, the novel’s protagonist starts a love affair with the nurse. Similar to characters in A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway was deeply influenced by his experiences at war. In fact, Hemingway is considered to be part of the “The Lost Generation.” The phrase was coined by Gertrude Stein to refer to Modernist artists who felt “lost” after witnessing the horrors of World War I.
Hemingway certainly relied on his own experiences in WWI Italy to write this novel, but he did use other sources as well. Though A Farewell to Arms begins in 1916, Hemingway didn’t get to Italy until the summer of 1918. The Italian retreat from Caporetto, described in such detailed in the novel, began in October 1917. So how did Hemingway describe it so well? The novel is meticulously researched. Hemingway was a journalist and worked for the Kansas City Star newspaper when the retreat was on, read details of it, and was extremely concerned over the war in general. (For a discussion of the importance of newspapers to the novel, see “Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory.”) It’s likely that such concern inspired him to enlist with the Red Cross in the first place.
A Farewell to Arms caused a lot of fuss when its first installment was published by Scribner’s Magazine. The Boston superintendent of police kept Scribner’s off newsstands, though not for long. He claimed it was pornography. (Check out “Sex” for more.) Luckily, the ban only boosted sales and gave the novel free publicity. Nowadays, it’s hardly considered pornographic and is instead known for its sensitive depiction of the war. The novel is even taught at U.S. military academies.”
The Father, August Strindberg. According to Barnes and Noble, “Many experiences in the personal life of poet, author, and dramatist August Strindberg involved a duel between the sexes, with ruthless, aggressive women usurping male prerogatives of decision-making and leadership. Strindberg explores this theme in The Father — his best work and one of the most gripping psychological dramas of modern theater.”
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev. According to Schmoop, “Fathers and Sons, published in 1862, was more than a breakout novel for Ivan Turgenev; it was a breakout novel for Russian literature as a whole. In its realism and its careful depiction of the rise of nihilism (a philosophy that takes no principle whatsoever for granted; everything is open to question), it anticipates the great Russian novels of the second half of the nineteenth century. Both Leo Tolstoyand Fyodor Dostoevsky were admirers of Turgenev, and one could argue that his little book did a great deal to open up the landscape that those two later authors would plow.
When Fathers and Sons was released, however, it created a scandal that broke like a thunderstorm right over Turgenev’s head. Conservative Russians read Turgenev’s book and thought that he was glorifying nihilism through the character of Bazarov. Radical Russians read the book and were convinced that he was caricaturing the younger generation. In short, both groups went to the book and wanted to see their own opinions and beliefs right there on the page, but neither found them. It is, in a sense, a testament to the success of Turgenev’s novel. He refuses to come down on one side or another, to offer a dogmatic bottom line. Put another way, ideology takes a back seat to art. Turgenev’s goal is to depict the lives of his characters as carefully as he can, not to transmit a political message.
The book is a fantastic piece of literature, but one might argue that it has become even more than that. It’s almost impossible to speak of mid-nineteenth-century Russian history without a reference to Turgenev’s novel. Any discussion of the growing liberalism of Russia, the move to emancipate the serfs in 1861, the anger and radicalism of the younger Russian generation, feels somehow abstract without Turgenev. What this means is that Turgenev’s carefully crafted fiction has become part of the historical record. He took upon himself a role that not too many modern novelists are even ambitious enough to attempt: national elegist. His personal struggle to understand what it meant to be a Russian circa 1860 was so well articulated that it became his country’s.
Of course, what has made his novel last is not just that it is a piece of Russian history, but that it has universal appeal. Parents relate to Nikolai Petrovich attempting to understand his son, and children relate to Arkady and Bazarov trying to surpass their fathers. More importantly, though, the novel exposes parents and children to the vantage point of the other, and by doing so, creates the possibility of empathy.”
Faust, Johann Goethe. According to Barnes and Noble, “Goethe’s FAUST is a classic tragic play, telling the story of a wager between God and Mephistopholes (Satan), who wishes to tempt the central character, Faust, away from righteousness. The Devil offers the ultimate “Faustian bargain”: Mephistopholes will do Faust’s bidding on Earth, and Faust will serve the Devil in Hell.”
The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton. According to Schmoop, “With the ratification of the Constitution, the United States celebrated a new political beginning. Yet while most Americans were optimistic, great challenges still lay ahead: national and state debts, a stagnant economy, and foreign threats lurking in Florida, Canada, and the Mississippi Valley. There were internal political divisions, as well. Over the next twelve years, two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, would play the principal role in steering the young nation through these challenges. These Federalist presidents would accomplish a great deal, both domestically and internationally, but by 1800, their party and their policies would be rejected by the American public
Fences, August Wilson. According to Schmoop, “Fences won Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize. What’s amazing is that when the play first came to Broadway, Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was already playing there. This made Wilson the first black playwright to have more than one play on Broadway at the same time.
Fences was an all-out hit and is widely considered to be Wilson’s biggest commercial success. It premiered at Yale Rep under the direction of Lloyd Richards and starred James Earl Jones as the deeply flawed Troy Maxson. Besides the Pulitzer Prize, the play won tons of Tonys and Drama Desk Awards.
Some say that Troy Maxson may be based on David Bedford, Wilson’s stepfather. Bedford had many similarities to Troy, like the fact that he was once a talented athlete and had spent time in prison for murder. It’s also been said that Rose may be based on Wilson’s mother Daisy. Notice the flower names? Hmm. Wherever the play came from, its successful Broadway run cemented Wilson’s reputation. It proved he could play in the big leagues. Though he died too early – of liver cancer at the age of 60 – he has taken his place among the greats of American playwriting. (If you want to learn more about Wilson, check out the August Wilson Center’s website.)”
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. According to Barnes and Noble, “With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.
As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.
Fifth Business, Robertson Davis. According to Barnes and Noble, “Ramsay is a man born twice, a man who has returned from the hell of the battle-grave at Passchendaele in World War I decorated with the Victoria Cross, and destined to be caught in a no-man’s land where memory, history, and myths collide. As Ramsay tells his story, it begins to seem that from boyhood he has exerted a perhaps mystical, perhaps pernicious influence on those around him. His apparently innocent involvement in such innocuous events as the throwing of a snowball or the teaching of card tricks to a small boy proves, in the end, neither innocent or innocuous.”
The Fixer, Bernard Malamud. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set in czarist Russia, The Fixer is the story of the strains and anxieties that beset a man who finds himself a stranger in his community and a victim of irrational prejudice as a wave of anti-Semitic hysteria engulfs a town after the murder of a boy. Yakov Bok, an ordinary handyman, is charged with the “ritual murder” of the boy simply because of his Jewish heritage. The story of Bok’s struggle in an atmosphere of hate is universally applicable to that of any victim of a miscarriage of justice and mob prejudice.”
For Whom the Bells Toll, Ernest Hemingway. According to Schmoop, “Ernest Hemingway‘s 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a classic war romance (that’s a war drama and a romance, in one). Set in the mountains of Spain in 1937, it tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American fighting for the Republicans (that’s one side of the Spanish Civil War, not the American political party) who is ordered to blow up a bridge as part of a larger offensive. To help him with his mission, he has to work with a colorful group of local guerillas, one of whom he falls in love with.
A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into this book, and we mean literally. It’s actually grounded in, and informed by, Hemingway’s own visits to war-torn Spain as a journalist and film production assistant in 1937 and 1938. He himself called the book “the most important thing I’ve ever done,” though, admittedly, that was in 1939, before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Old Man and the Sea.
The critics seemed to agree with his good assessment back then in 1940, or at least most of them. There was a widespread sense that Hemingway was “back,” after taking rather too long of a vacation from noteworthy writing since his first two breakout successes, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. For Whom the Bell Tolls was affirmed as “the great novel of the Spanish Civil War.” It was the biggest seller in American fiction since Gone With the Wind as of 1943, and to date it still appears to be Hemingway’s best-selling book. When released, For Whom the Bell Tolls shot immediately to the top, or near the top, of various “Best of” lists, whether it be best of the decade, best American books, or best novels, period.
But not everyone was so wild about it. In fact, violent controversy erupted around the book right after its publication. Much of this was political, as the environment at the time (remember, this was during WWII) was politically charged, to say the least. In one case, this cost Hemingway big time: the book was denied the Pulitzer Prize by Columbia University‘s president (he sided with the fascists), even though Hemingway’s novel was unanimously voted the winner by the prize board. Result: no award for 1941.”
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. According to Schmoop, “Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant Swiss scientist who discovers the secret of bringing inanimate things to life, eventually creating a human-like monster which proceeds to ruin his life. Most impressive is that Mary Shelley wrote this when she was nineteen. We don’t know about you, but we certainly weren’t writing earth-shattering, Halloween-costume-generating, horror-movie-spawning literature before we turned twenty. The novel made an impact at the time because of the oh-so-recent Industrial Revolution (1820s-ish). People were scared about these new “science” fields that were apparently capable of ungodly horrors. Frankenstein, like any good, famous novel, remarks on the times and reflects the emotions of society at large, namely their fears of science and technology.”
A Free Life: A Novel by Ha Jin. According to Barnes and Noble, “From the award-winning author of Waiting, a new novel about a family’s struggle for the American Dream.
Meet the Wu family-father Nan, mother Pingping, and son Taotao. They are arranging to fully sever ties with China in the aftermath of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, and to begin a new, free life in the United States. At first, their future seems well-assured. But after the fallout from Tiananmen, Nan’s disillusionment turns him toward his first love, poetry. Leaving his studies, he takes on a variety of menial jobs as Pingping works for a wealthy widow as a cook and housekeeper. As Pingping and Taotao slowly adjust to American life, Nan still feels a strange attachment to his homeland, though he violently disagrees with Communist policy. But severing all ties-including his love for a woman who rejected him in his youth-proves to be more difficult than he could have ever imagined.”
A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest Gaines. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation in the 1970s, A Gathering of Old Men is a powerful depiction of racial tensions arising over the death of a Cajun farmer at the hands of a black man.
“Poignant, powerful, earthy…a novel of Southern racial confrontation in which a group of elderly black men band together against whites who seek vengeance for the murder of one of their own.”—Booklist
“A fine novel…there is a denouement that will shock and move readers as much as it does the characters.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
Germinal, Emile Zola. According to Barnes and Noble, “The thirteenth novel in Émile Zola’s great Rougon-Macquart sequence, Germinal expresses outrage at the exploitation of the many by the few, but also shows humanity’s capacity for compassion and hope.
Etienne Lantier, an unemployed railway worker, is a clever but uneducated young man with a dangerous temper. Forced to take a back-breaking job at Le Voreux mine when he cannot get other work, he discovers that his fellow miners are ill, hungry, and in debt, unable to feed and clothe their families. When conditions in the mining community deteriorate even further, Lantier finds himself leading a strike that could mean starvation or salvation for all.”
Author Biography: Émile Zola (1840-1902) was the leading figure in the French school of naturalistic fiction. His principal work, Les Rougon-Macquart, is a panorama of mid-nineteenth century French life in a cycle of twenty novels which Zola wrote over a period of twenty-two years.
Roger Pearson is professor of French at the University of Oxford and fellow and tutor in French at The Queen’s College, Oxford.
Zola’s 1885 masterpiece of everyday relationships and working life exposes the inhuman conditions of miners in northern France in the 1860s. The new film version stars Gerard Depardieu. An Oxford University Press World Classic.
A Gesture Life, Chang-Rae Lee. According to Barnes and Noble, “The riveting story of a Japanese immigrant who leads a proper, decorous life in a New York suburb. As his life slowly unravels, he is transported back to his days as a medic in the Japanese army in World War II, and his obsessive love of a young comfort woman.”
Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen. According to Schmoop, “Guess. Just guess where the premiere of Henrik Ibsen‘s play Ghosts took place. You won’t get it, because it’s completely crazy. The very first performance of Ghosts happened in Chicago on May 20th 1882, at a place called Aurora Turner Hall. It was the first time an Ibsen play was performed in the United States. The actors were mostly Norwegian and Danish amateurs; the play was performed in Norwegian for Scandinavian immigrants.
But wait, isn’t Ibsen supposed to be a big deal? Like, the Father of Modern Drama kind of big deal? Couldn’t he have a grander opening that that? Not with Ghosts, which he wrote between A Doll’s House and Enemy of the People. Ghosts was a serious hot potato nobody had touched since its publication a year before. Thousands of copies were returned to the publisher. The play was met in Denmark and Norway with shock and horror because of its defense of iconoclasm (the attack of settled beliefs), satire of the church, and discussion of taboo topics like syphilis, incest, and assisted suicide. There were just too many firecrackers in that box.
The most explosive reaction came from Londoners in 1891, when one performance was presented at J.T. Grein’s Independent Theatre. Critics and public alike flogged the play, calling it “an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly” and so on. Ibsen contemporary and translator William Archer compiled a whole litany of abuses in his article “Ghosts and Gibberings” in The Pall Mall Gazette.
The particular topics that scandalized early audiences don’t hit us in the same way today. We have difficulty seeing protagonist Mrs. Alving as a radical when many of her revolutionary ideas have become more mainstream. Premarital sex, religious protest, dysfunctional marriage – she owns up to them, but many of us do too. Think about substituting some of today’s radical concepts into the play to give yourself an idea of just how shocking it could be to have a character on stage discussing controversial ideas. Even if particular social arguments have changed, the play is still terrifyingly powerful in its story of a woman exorcising her ghosts.”
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams. According to Schmoop, “The Glass Menagerie is a play first produced in 1944. The author, Tennessee Williams, was launched into fame and made victim to the forties’ equivalent of literary paparazzi because of it. The play revolves around a young man begrudgingly supporting the family his father has abandoned. It also features a painfully shy and slightly crippled sister character, whose preoccupation with a collection of glass animals draws her away from reality. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, the family struggles together with the past, the future, and one another.”
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1997, The God of Small Things quickly skyrocketed Arundhati Roy to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. Her first (and to date only) novel won the 1997 Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the English-language literary world. Interestingly, Roy was trained as an architect and had never before considered herself a novelist. The novel, which Roy wrote between 1992 and 1996, has sold over 6 million copies and has been translated into 40 languages. Yup, not bad for a rookie effort.
The novel takes place in Ayemenem, a village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, in 1969 and 1993. The narrative shifts back and forth in time in a series of flashbacks, memories, and foreshadowing of what’s ahead. The plot centers on Estha and Rahel, fraternal boy and girl twins living with their divorced mother, Ammu, and her family. The central events of the novel involve the fateful visit of their half-English cousin, Sophie Mol, and her mother Margaret Kochamma. We learn at the beginning of the novel that Sophie Mol drowns in the river by the family’s house. The rest of the novel pieces together the events that led up to her death and the aftermath that ensued, darting back and forth between Estha and Rahel’s childhood and adulthood in the process.
While telling the story of Sophie Mol’s death, the novel resonates with larger political and social issues. The society that our characters inhabit is still largely shaped by the caste system, which defined social classes in India and dictated the status each person held. The Indian Constitution of 1949 outlawed the caste system and discrimination based on social status, but it’s pretty clear throughout the novel that there are certain social rules that persist and that still have to be obeyed – particularly in terms of who is allowed to interact with whom. The novel pays particular attention to what the narrator calls the “Love Laws,” which interpret the caste system to explore who is allowed to love whom, how, and how much. The violation of these social rules is central to the unraveling of the seemingly nice, simple life that Estha and Rahel experience as children and has a key role in forming the circumstances that lead up to Sophie Mol’s death.
The novel also pays attention to class politics, particularly those based on Marxism and communism. The rise of the lower classes and the toppling of the upper classes is a concept at the heart of these political ideologies that gives hope to some of the novel’s characters and fills others with fear. Roy herself seems to be particularly interested in the politics of class. She has written many political articles and was even awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004. All in all, there is a lot to untangle in this book, but Roy’s gorgeous writing makes the whole journey a pleasure – even at the moments when this book is at its most heart-wrenching.
Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien. According to Barnes and Noble, “In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.”
The Golden Bowl, Henry James. According to Barnes and Noble, “With the marriage of the Italian Prince Amerigo to the American girl Maggie, daughter of millionaire Adam Verver, James presents a story of illicit love which is supposedly overcome with the reestablishment of the social order of marriage. After Maggie’s marriage, her father marries his daughter’s best friend. Behind James’ diaphanous, sophisticated language, lurks adultery and the specter of incest.”
A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor. According to Schmoop, “Some readers think “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a cynical tale, uncompromising in the way it brings out human pettiness and manipulation. Others think it’s a black comedy worthy of a Coen brothers short film, or a twisted cartoon. Or perhaps it’s a horror story. Still others think it’s an uplifting depiction of the mysterious ways God works through human beings over and above their own wills. Maybe it’s even all of these at once?
Since it was first published, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has been Flannery O’Connor‘s best-known story. Though she’d written it in1953, the story was published in 1955 as part of a collection with the same name, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. Her second published work, the collection established Flannery O’Connor as a major voice in American literature, and particularly Southern literature, until her early death (at the age of 39) in 1964. It also brought her fame as a modern master of the short story (her novels were critically less successful).
Even during O’Connor’s lifetime, her works provoked very different reactions in her readers. Many readers and critics found them consistently “grotesque” in their depiction of debased, repulsive (and usually unsympathetic) characters and their at times spectacular displays of violence or cruelty. Some appreciated them as comedies for this reason, while others reacted with disgust. “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” as O’Connor’s most popular story, frequently stood at the center of discussion. It was also, for that reason, the story about which the author herself spoke most often (she also gave several public readings of it).
O’Connor saw all of her fiction, certainly including this story, as realistic, demandingly unsentimental, but ultimately hopeful. Her inspiration as a writer came from a deeply felt faith in Roman Catholicism, which she claimed informed all of her stories. She wrote, “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism” (source: The Habit of Being, p. 90). A recurrent theme throughout her writings was the action of divine grace in the horribly imperfect, often revolting, generally funny world of human beings, a theme very much present in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” This story affords perhaps the best place to start in exploring the work of this rather eccentric, certainly unique literary voice.”
The Good Soldier, Ford Maddox Ford. According to Barnes and Noble, “Originally titled “The Saddest Story” and heralded by Graham Greene as “one of the finest novels of our century,” Ford’s 1915 tale of passion and deceit in the lives of two married couples is a modernist masterpiece. The Norton Critical Edition of The Good Soldier allows the reader to thoroughly study Ford’s great work and unravel its mysteries and meanings. This Second Edition is again based on the meticulously edited first text of the novel and offers detailed annotation, a note on the text, and sections on textual variants and manuscript development along with pertinent illustrations.
“Backgrounds and Contexts” brings together important appraisals of the work directly following its publication. Reactions from Rebecca West and Theodore Dreiser are included among the reviews. The section also collects critiques on literary impressionism, including one by Ford, and related writings by Henry James and by frequent Ford collaborator Joseph Conrad, among others.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinback. According to Schmoop, “The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most beloved novels of American literature. Having earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, The Grapes of Wrath pretty much has a V.I.P. pass to every “Top 100 Books of All Time” list in the universe. It’s a big deal. Written by John Steinbeck and published in 1939, this story vividly portrays life during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in America as it follows a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers traveling westward. It explores the strength and goodness of the human spirit in the face of gruesome, dismal circumstances.
When first published, Americans both embraced and scorned the novel. Some applauded Steinbeck for capturing so honestly the lives of migrant farm workers during the Depression. Others accused him of being a socialist and of championing communist beliefs (i.e., share the wealth, friends). Californian farmers loathed Steinbeck’s unsavory depiction of, well, Californian farmers. In short, this novel sent America into a bit of a frenzy. Eleanor Roosevelt took note, and, as a result, she called for congressional hearings on migrant worker camp conditions. Labor laws were changed (source).
The Grapes of Wrath has been banned, burned, and bought over and over again. And that’s why we love it. That’s why it’s still around. The novel has been translated into nearly every language, and approximately 100,000 copies continue to be sold every year (source).
John Steinbeck is a seriously famous Californian writer. His novels and stories often detail the lives of agricultural communities in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley (where he grew up). At the time of the Dust Bowl, when tens of thousands of Americans migrated to California in search of a better life, Steinbeck was writing a series of seven articles about migrant worker communities for the San Francisco Chronicle. He spent a lot of time getting to know families who lived in various migrant worker camps in towns like Bakersfield, CA and Visalia, CA. He was infuriated and disgusted by the amount of heartbreak and suffering that he witnessed, and he channeled that fury as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. It was not easy going, and he had to scrap many drafts of the novel, but he finally gained momentum after visiting a camp in Bakersfield, CA. He gave himself 100 days to finish the novel.”
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. According to Schmoop, “Great Expectations was Charles Dickens‘s penultimate novel (a.k.a. the second to last one he ever wrote), and it was originally featured in a magazine. That’s right. Great Expectations was a serialized publication lasting from December 1, 1860 until August 3, 1861. Two chapters were published every week, telling the story of a young man named Pip who aspired to be a gentleman and win over the beautiful Estella. Basically, Great Expectations (and serialized novels like it) were as close as Victorian England got to Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, or Lost. People waited anxiously every week for the next “episode” to arrive in the newsstands and on the shelves.
When he prepared to write this novel, Charles Dickens was already world famous for his robust body of work, but he was also the editor of a struggling publication called All the Year Round. This publication was no Atlantic Monthly, but it was a solid literary magazine featuring stories, essays, and illustrations. The problem was that his number one, superstar writer was churning out one seriously snooze-worthy (serialized) story. All the Year Round’s readership was diminishing, and Charles Dickens had to do something drastic to keep it from tanking altogether. As luck would have it, he had the plot for a new novel sketched out. He was saving it for publication in another (cooler and better-paying) publication, but decided to run it in his own magazine in order to stave off bankruptcy.
Though Dickens had the plot and skeleton of Great Expectations already planned, he was able to listen to the criticism and comments of his readers each week over the nine-month period (like a TV season) and to make adjustments to the novel accordingly. Much like current sitcom writers do today, Dickens paid very close attention to the criticism that his work garnered each week. In many ways, the novel was always changing form. Dickens is known as a master of the serialized novel; he was able to create enticing two-chapter segments each week, full of cliff-hangers and nail-biting action, while remaining true to the novel’s overall storyline. His stories worked well in fragments and as a cohesive whole. That’s not easy to do.
Great Expectations was widely popular and was riddled with many of the themes that fascinated Charles Dickens throughout his literary career. He was drawn especially to social justice and to commenting on the inequalities inherent to Victorian society. While England was growing rich and powerful in the era of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, Dickens saw the injustice that ran rampant among the working and lower classes. He sought to document Britain’s underbelly and to explore the fight for survival in a time of such wealth.
Dickens, along with many other nineteenth century novelists, was also very interested in childhood and in orphans. The innocence and hopefulness of childhood contrasted heavily with the sadness and suffering that he witnessed. Dickens also was in love with doppelgangers and doubles, and so constructed the world of his novels out of complex networks of character doubles. Things come in twos in Dickensian works, so get ready for some double-hunting.”
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to Schmoop, “As one of the most important books in American literature, it captures a fascinating and lively time in American history. The Roaring Twenties (a.k.a. the Jazz Age) was a time of great, mind-bending change. The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is set in New York City and Long Island during the Prohibition era (remember, the Prohibition era was a time in which alcohol was illegal, no matter how old you were – yowsa).
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald associated this moment in American history – the Jazz Age – with materialism (“I want things! Lots of things!”) and immorality. Materialism and immortality were the name of the game for many of the newly wealthy of the post-World War I era. The novel’s star is Jay Gatsby, a young, rich man in love with a society girl from his past. A girl who, as it happens, is married to someone else. Do we smell a Twilight-esque love triangle approaching? We do indeed.
And that’s not the only reason why Gatsby still feels fresh today. The novel’s very title has become a kind of buzzword for periods of excess and fake luxury. The economic collapse of 2008 brought back, to many, distant and unwelcome memories of the stock market crash of 1929, casting the boom times of the 1990s and early 2000s as the modern-day analogue of the Roaring Twenties. In the 1920s it had been a bubble in stocks that brought easy prosperity, while in our own time the bubble had been in the housing market.
In both cases, though, unsustainable boom times led to devastating crashes with profound cultural consequences. In the 1920s and the 2000s, easy money meant that many people could begin to dream of living out their days like Jay Gatsby, with life as just one grand party in a seersucker suit. But as that vision of easy luxury crashed and burned (in both 1929 and 2008), newfound hard times required a redefinition of the American Dream.Gatsby tackles the American Dream, as well as issues of wealth and class, materialism, and marital infidelity.
And while Gatsby is a work of fiction, the story has many similarities to Fitzgerald’s real-life experiences. Gulp. Fitzgerald’s personal history is mirrored in the characters of Jay Gatsby and narrator Nick Carraway. Nick is both mesmerized and disgusted by Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle, which is similar to how Fitzgerald claimed to feel about the “Jazz Age” excesses that he himself adopted. As an Ivy League educated, middle-class Midwesterner, Fitzgerald (like Nick) saw through the shallow materialism of the era. But (like Gatsby) Fitzgerald came back from World War I and fell in love with a wealthy southern socialite – Zelda Sayre.
The Great Gatsby is swaddled in Fitzgerald’s simultaneous embrace of and disdain for 1920s luxury. Since Fitzgerald did indeed partake in the Jazz Age’s high life of decadence, it’s not surprising that the details of the setting and characters make The Great Gatsby a sort of time capsule preserving this particular time in American history. Gatsby is taught all over the world partly because it’s a history lesson and novel all rolled into one delicious lettuce wrap of intrigue. Mmmmm…intrigue. You may find that when many people refer to the “Jazz Age” or the “Roaring Twenties,” they automatically associate it with Gatsby, and vice versa.”
Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin. According to Barnes and Noble, “Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.”
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. According to Schmoop, “You might have heard people call Gulliver’s Travels a satire. A satire is a (generally funny) fictional work that uses sarcasm and irony to poke fun at the general patheticness of humanity – our weakness, our stupidity, all that jazz. Some of our favorite satires include The Onion and The Daily Show. But if you love twenty-first century satire (like we do), you should check out the eighteenth century – those guys were huge fans of a good satire. In fact, some of the greatest thinkers of the eighteenth century, including poet Alexander Pope, mathematician John Arbuthnot, and our main man, Jonathan Swift, could not get enough satire. They even started a club, the Scriblerus Club, to express their general contempt for humanity and for bad writing in particular.
Thus, we think it’s fair to say that the early eighteenth century was a good time for haters. This was lucky for Jonathan Swift, since he’s like the king of haters – one of the greatest writers of satire that English literature has ever seen.
In fact, Swift had a lot of cause to despise people, because he had a somewhat disastrous public life. Swift was an Irish clergyman who regularly came to London to participate in the political and literary scene under Queen Anne. While Jonathan Swift began life as a Whig (Britain’s liberal party in the eighteenth century), he eventually became a prominent Tory (a member of England’s conservative party).
Tories favored royal authority and the national church (Anglicanism). The Tories also opposed increased power for the Parliament, the English equivalent of the American Congress. Swift may not have believed as strongly in the divine right of kings as some dyed-in-the-wool Tories (as you might guess from his satire of kings in Gulliver’s Travels). Still, he did generally side with political conservatives on the issues of the day.
Everything seemed to be going relatively well until George I took the English throne in 1714. With George came a strongly pro-Whig Parliament. The Whigs were the political enemies of the Tories, and Swift found himself up a creek without a paddle. Facing the end of his political life, Swift headed back to Ireland, becoming dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin (source). This feud between the Whigs and the Tories provides the primary political material for Gulliver’s Travels – for more specifics, check out our “Character Analysis” of the Lilliputians.”
The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill. According to Barnes and Noble,” Although one of his lesser known one-act plays, “The Hairy Ape,” written in 1922, followed the success of his first two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays. This drama follows the disturbing dehumanization of Yank, a ship’s fireman and a representation of the lower class. He feels superiority from his brute strength until he meets Mildred, the well-intentioned daughter of an extremely wealthy steel magnate. She initiates Yank’s uncertainty and disillusionment concerning his place in society and humanity, leading to his bitter anger and ultimate demise. While the character of Long introduces hints of socialist ideas in the play and Paddy wistfully recalls the days before machinery, these commentaries serve to enhance the powerful conviction of the terrible human toll of industrialization. “The Hairy Ape” was received largely as thought-provoking entertainment in O’Neill’s day, and it continues to provide readers today with an insightful view of a pivotal time in American society, ultimately exploring human nature and a society that would endanger and disassociate many of the hard-working people within it.”
Hamlet, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Shakespeare was a groundbreaking pioneer in his time and wrote plays that were totally different from anything the world had ever seen before. He explored the human spirit and what happens when it is challenged. He also tested the limits of language, inventing new words and phrases. (What? You want an example? How about: “eaten out of house and home” or “one fell swoop.”)
Hamlet, in particular, has a lot of “most famous” things in it. It is Shakespeare’s most famous play about Shakespeare’s most famous character (that would be Hamlet), and it contains Shakespeare’s most famous line: “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
Big Willy wrote Hamlet between 1599 and 1601, and the play tells the story of Prince Hamlet. When the play opens, we discover that Hamlet’s dad (the King of Denmark) has been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle (Claudius). Not too long after the murder, Claudius married Hamlet’s mom, Gertrude. Which is all pretty messed up. Hamlet doesn’t know what to do. He’s famous for being really indecisive.
In some respects, Hamlet is like a typical weekend; basically, within the span of a five-act play, Hamlet has a ton of things to do, but just can’t figure out how to make himself do them. Think about your To Do list – it’s hard enough to accomplish the kinds of everyday tasks you probably have lined up (let’s just start with one word: laundry). Then, imagine Hamlet’s To Do list…in comparison, it’s epic. For starters, there are the obvious things: hang out with Dad’s ghost, feign madness, dump girlfriend, accuse Mom of treachery, plot the convoluted details of your elaborate revenge. Then, of course, there’s the looming task at hand: kill Uncle/Stepdad/King. Wow. And Hamlet really takes his sweet time in avenging his father’s murder. The question of why Hamlet delays taking revenge has puzzled critics for centuries.”
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. According to Schmoop, “The Handmaid’s Tale, a best-selling book first published in 1985, could have been marketed as a kind of sci-fi horror story. After all, it’s a scary vision of a dystopian future, kind of like Brave New World, 1984, or even The Hunger Games. In this future, nearly all the women have become infertile, so the few who can still have babies have been rounded up, brainwashed, and assigned to powerful men in a twisted attempt to restore the human race.
The Handmaid’s Tale won author Margaret Atwood some seriously major awards, including the 1986 Los Angeles Times Best Fiction Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction, and a nomination for the Booker Prize. It’s probably her most successful book. While The Handmaid’s Tale has gotten tons of praise as a work of science fiction, Atwood has claimed that this book is actually something else. She calls it “speculative” fiction instead, which has caused some problems with sci-fi fans. (For more on this, see “Genre.”)
Many years later, the book’s warnings about the future still resonate. Because the book was published smack dab in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, some believed it was a commentary on the United States in the 1980s. Reagan, a Republican and former actor, was president from 1981 to 1989. During that time he made many economic reforms. Some of the economic reforms Reagan fought for, though, did not take full effect until a few years after the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale.
In any case, Atwood tried to play down that specific political connection in an 1986 interview with the New York Times: “Despite the novel’s projections from current events, Margaret Atwood resists calling her book a warning. ‘I do not have a political agenda of that kind. The book won’t tell you who to vote for,’ she said” (source). It’s up to readers to determine how the vision in the book connects to our everyday lives – how we can protect both ourselves and our freedom.”
Hard Times, Charles Dickens. According to Schmoop, “So, in 1854, to point out the dangers of the popular economic theories in his day, Dickens wrote the novel Hard Times. It’s about a brother and a sister raised totally on the principles of economic theory (or at least economic theory the way Dickens understood it). And guess what? Not so surprisingly, their lives turn out pretty horrible. (But you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens – we don’t want to spoil the ending for you.) Dickens seems to say, “Economics is going to mess everyone up!” But the same thing that makes writing fiction awesome (you get to make everything happen how you want it to happen) is what makes it easy to criticize. When this novel came out, many people loved it. But at the same time, lots of pro-economics, pro-industrialization, pro-business people started to nitpick all the little mistakes Dickens had made about how factories really work and what economic theories actually look like.
What these nitpickers weren’t paying attention to, though, is something that we don’t really get to experience anymore – the way that people originally read the novel. It was originally published serially in Dickens’s social commentary magazine, Household Words. Every week, a new issue of Household Words would come out. The very first thing in it was the latest installment of Hard Times, talking about the general crummy-ness of things. And right after this first section, the rest of the magazine was socially-conscious journalism, documenting this same crummy-ness in real-life England. It was basically the nineteenth century version of watching episodes of The Wire while streaming NPR.”
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1902, Heart of Darkness has become one of the most celebrated and effective novels to combine a psychological journey with a horrifyingly stark account of imperialism, or specifically of European colonies in Africa. Based onJoseph Conrad’s own experience traveling up the Congo River into the African interior, Heart of Darkness follows the disturbing journey of English ivory-trading agent Marlow who, working for a Belgian company, travels into the jungles of Africa in search of a mysterious man named Kurtz. The novel sparked controversy in 1975 when famed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe condemned it, accusing it of dehumanizing Africans and reducing them to extensions of the hostile and primal jungle environment. Since then, writers have heatedly debated this topic. Scholars can’t quite seem to conclude whether the novel is racist or anti-racist.”
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene. According to Barnes and Noble, “In this modern classic about a good man’s conflict between passion and faith, a scrupulously honest police officer in British West Africa becomes enmeshed in intrigue and evil when he falls for a woman other than his wife.”
Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen. According to Barnes and Noble, “Universally condemned in 1890 when it was written, Hedda Gabler has since become one of Ibsen’s most frequently performed plays. Its title role is elusive and complex: Hedda is an intelligent and ambitious woman, who has no means of finding personal fulfilment in the stifling world of late nineteenth-century bourgeois society. Too frightened of scandal to become involved with a brilliant, wayward writer, she opts for a conventional but loveless marriage in the hope of finding surrogate fulfilment through her husband’s career. Blending comedy and tragedy disconcertingly together, Ibsen probes the thwarted aspirations and hidden anxieties of his characters against a background of contemporary social conditions and attitudes.”
Henry IV, Parts I and II, William Shakespeare. According to Barnes and Noble, “Part 1: Memorable historical drama concerns rebellion against King Henry led by Harry Percy (“Hotspur”) and other nobles, complicated by the king’s difficulties with his wayward son, Prince Hal. Superb blend of courtly intrigue, battlefield action, and low comedy featuring Sir John Falstaff, all expressed in fine blank verse and stirring prose. Part 2: Picking up where Henry IV, Part One left off after the Battle of Shrewsbury, Henry IV, Part Two is the story of England’s King Henry IV during his final months of life, his reconciliation with his wayward heir, and his eventual death.”
Henry V, William Shakespeare. According to Barnes and Noble, “This book (hardcover) is part of the TREDITION CLASSICS. It contains classical literature works from over two thousand years. Most of these titles have been out of print and off the bookstore shelves for decades. The book series is intended to preserve the cultural legacy and to promote the timeless works of classical literature. Readers of a TREDITION CLASSICS book support the mission to save many of the amazing works of world literature from oblivion. With this series, tredition intends to make thousands of international literature classics available in printed format again – worldwide.”
A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes. According to Barnes and Noble, “Richard Hughes’s celebrated short novel is a masterpiece of concentrated narrative. Its dreamlike action begins among the decayed plantation houses and overwhelming natural abundance of late nineteenth-century Jamaica, before moving out onto the high seas, as Hughes tells the story of a group of children thrown upon the mercy of a crew of down-at-the-heel pirates. A tale of seduction and betrayal, of accommodation and manipulation, of weird humor and unforeseen violence, this classic of twentieth-century literature is above all an extraordinary reckoning with the secret reasons and otherworldly realities of childhood.”
The Homecoming, Harold Pinter. According to Barnes and Noble, “In an old and slightly seedy house in North London there lives a family of men: Max, the aging but still aggressive patriarch; his younger, ineffectual brother Sam; and two of Max’s three sons, neither of whom is married—Lenny, a small-time pimp, and Joey, who dreams of success as a boxer. Into this sinister abode comes the eldest son, Teddy, who, having spent the past six years teaching philosophy in America, is now bringinghis wife, Ruth, home to visit the family she has never met. As the play progresses, the younger brothers make increasingly outrageous passes at their sister-in-law until they are practically making love to her in front of her stunned but strangely aloof husband.”
Home to Harlem, Claude McKay. According to Barnes and Noble, “With sensual, often brutal accuracy, Claude McKay traces the parallel paths of two very different young men struggling to find their way through the suspicion and prejudice of American society. At the same time, this stark but moving story touches on the central themes of the Harlem Renaissance, including the urgent need for unity and identity among blacks.”
A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipul. According to Barnes and Noble, “The early masterpiece of V. S. Naipaul’s brilliant career, A House for Mr. Biswas is an unforgettable story inspired by Naipaul’s father that has been hailed as one of the twentieth century’s finest novels.
In his forty-six short years, Mr. Mohun Biswas has been fighting against destiny to achieve some semblance of independence, only to face a lifetime of calamity. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning death of his father, for which he is inadvertently responsible, Mr. Biswas yearns for a place he can call home. But when he marries into the domineering Tulsi family on whom he indignantly becomes dependent, Mr. Biswas embarks on an arduous–and endless–struggle to weaken their hold over him and purchase a house of his own. A heartrending, dark comedy of manners, A House for Mr. Biswas masterfully evokes a man’s quest for autonomy against an emblematic post-colonial canvas.
The book that first brought Naipaul worldwide acclaim, this richly comic novel tells the moving story of a man without a single asset who enters a life devoid of opportunity, and whose tumble-down house becomes a potent symbol of the search for identity in a postcolonial world.”
House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday. According to Barnes and Noble, “A young Native American, Abel has come home from a foreign war to find himself caught between two worlds. The first is the world of his father’s, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, and the ancient rites and traditions of his people. But the other world — modern, industrial America — pulls at Abel, demanding his loyalty, claiming his soul, goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of dissipation and disgust. And the young man, torn in two, descends into hell.”
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton. According to Barnes and Noble, “Edith Wharton’s dark view of society, the somber economics of marriage, and the powerlessness of the unwedded woman in the 1870s emerge dramatically in the tragic novel The House of Mirth. Faced with an array of wealthy suitors, New York socialite Lily Bart falls in love with lawyer Lawrence Selden, whose lack of money spoils their chances for happiness together. Dubious business deals and accusations of liaisons with a married man diminish Lily’s social status, and as she makes one bad choice after another, she learns how venal and brutally unforgiving the upper crust of New York can be.
One of America’s finest novels of manners, The House of Mirth is a beautifully written and ultimately tragic account of the human capacity for cruelty.”
The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne. According to Barnes and Noble, “The house of the title is a gloomy New England mansion, haunted from its foundation by fraudulent dealings, accusations of witchcraft, and sudden death. The current resident, the dignified but desperately poor Hepzibah Pyncheon, opens a shop in a side room to support her brother Clifford, who is about to leave prison after serving thirty years for murder.
A cartoon version of the misfortunes that plague a prominent New England family because of greed and a two-hundred-year-old curse.”
The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros. According to Barnes and Noble, “Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero. Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo. According to Barnes and Noble, “One of the first great novels of the Romantic era, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame has thrilled generations of readers with its powerfully melodramatic story of Quasimodo, the deformed hunchback who lives in the bell tower of medieval Paris’s most famous cathedral.
Feared and hated by all, Quasimodo is looked after by Dom Claude Frollo, a stern, cold priest who ignores the poor hunchback in the face of his frequent public torture. But someone steps forward to help—the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, whose single act of kindness fills Quasimodo with love. Can the hunchback save the lovely gypsy from Frollo’s evil plan, or will they all perish in the shadows of Notre Dame?
An epic tale of beauty and sadness, The Hunchback of Notre Dame portrays the sufferings of humanity with compassion and power.”
The Iliad, Homer. According to Barnes and Noble, “”Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus / and its devastation.” For sixty years, that’s how Homer has begun the Iliad in English, in Richmond Lattimore’s faithful translation—the gold standard for generations of students and general readers.
This long-awaited new edition of Lattimore’s Iliad is designed to bring the book into the twenty-first century—while leaving the poem as firmly rooted in ancient Greece as ever. Lattimore’s elegant, fluent verses—with their memorably phrased heroic epithets and remarkable fidelity to the Greek—remain unchanged, but classicist Richard Martin has added a wealth of supplementary materials designed to aid new generations of readers. A new introduction sets the poem in the wider context of Greek life, warfare, society, and poetry, while line-by-line notes at the back of the volume offer explanations of unfamiliar terms, information about the Greek gods and heroes, and literary appreciation. A glossary and maps round out the book.
The result is a volume that actively invites readers into Homer’s poem, helping them to understand fully the worlds in which he and his heroes lived—and thus enabling them to marvel, as so many have for centuries, at Hektor and Ajax, Paris and Helen, and the devastating rage of Achilleus.
Retells the events of the war between Greece and the city of Troy, focusing on Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon.”
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde. According to Schmoop, “The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s last and most famous play, debuted in London on February 14, 1895. Wilde’s fans wildly anticipated this new play and sunk their fangs into any breaking news of it. To protect his work-in-progress from prying eyes, Wilde’s company gave it the working title Lady Lancing, who is mentioned once in Act III of the play.
At the time, Wilde was at the height of his success. But just a few months later his boyfriend’s father sent an insulting letter calling him a “somdomite” – yep, he misspelled it. A humiliating trial was set in motion, and Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor.
“Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it,” wrote Wilde in one of his first plays, Vera or The Nihilists. Long interested in the combination of the serious with the trivial, Oscar Wilde experimented with different proportions of each in his plays like a baker trying to get the perfect sugar to salt ratio in chocolate chip cookies. By the time Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest he had perfected his recipe.
The Importance of Being Earnest is funny all the time. There is nothing earnest about this play, at least on the surface. It’s a satire of the Victorian era, when an intricate code of behavior governed everything from communication to sexuality. The most important rules applied to marriage – always a popular topic in Victorian plays, and one that interested Wilde, who was married to a woman but sexually involved with men.
During the Victorian period, marriage was about protecting your resources, and keeping socially unacceptable impulses under control. We can see this at work in the The Importance of Being Earnest, usually when the social referee, Lady Bracknell, blows her whistle. Her two main concerns are class and money. Jack is a no-go because he doesn’t know who his parents are (i.e., his class is unknown). Lady Bracknell is concerned that he might be a butler in disguise who will squander her daughter Gwendolen’s wealth. One character in particular, Cecily, becomes a lot more interesting when her fortune is mentioned. The ridiculous end of the play – three engagements in five minutes – is a “happy” one because everyone gets together. But think about it – they only get together because their social and economic fitness for each other is demonstrated.”
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai. According to Barnes and Noble, “Kiran Desai’s first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was published to unanimous acclaim in over twenty-two countries. Now Desai takes us to the northeastern Himalayas where a rising insurgency challenges the old way of life. In a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga lives an embittered old judge who wants to retire in peace when his orphaned granddaughter Sai arrives on his doorstep. The judge’s chatty cook watches over her, but his thoughts are mostly with his son, Biju, hopscotching from one New York restaurant job to another, trying to stay a step ahead of the INS, forced to consider his country’s place in the world. When a Nepalese insurgency in the mountains threatens Sai’s new-sprung romance with her handsome Nepali tutor and causes their lives to descend into chaos, they, too, are forced to confront their colliding interests. The nation fights itself.
The cook witnesses the hierarchy being overturned and discarded. The judge must revisit his past, his own role in this grasping world of conflicting desires–every moment holding out the possibility for hope or betrayal. A novel of depth and emotion, Desai’s second, long-awaited novel fulfills the grand promise established by her first.”
Inferno, Dante. According to Schmoop, “Written in the early fourteenth century by Italian politician Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy is a literary reaction to the bitterly contested politics of medieval Florence. Florence, the richest of the Italian city-states and possibly all of Europe at that time, was divided between two political parties – the Blacks (who supported the Pope) and the Whites (who didn’t). When Pope Boniface VIII schemed with the Blacks to seize power over Florence in a military coup, Dante was exiled. His hatred of the Pope can be seen throughout his Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy is Dante’s fictional account of himself traveling through the three divine realms: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Not surprisingly, in this story Dante puts his enemies in Hell; the Inferno is heavily populated with corrupt Florentine politicians characterized as sinners.
But more than just a means to get payback, the Divine Comedy is the first Italian epic work of poetry that is not in church Latin but in the vernacular – the language of the common people – the Florentine dialect of Italian. So Dante played a major role in standardizing the Italian language, coining new words and paving the way for major works of literature written in the vernacular. In other words, Dante’s a big kahuna among poets.”
In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien. According to Barnes and Noble, “This riveting novel of love and mystery from the author of The Things They Carried examines the lasting impact of the twentieth century’s legacy of violence and warfare, both at home and abroad. When long-hidden secrets about the atrocities he committed in Vietnam come to light, a candidate for the U.S. Senate retreats with his wife to a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota. Within days of their arrival, his wife mysteriously vanishes into the watery wilderness.
The author of The Things They Carried offers a riveting novel of love and mystery. When long-hidden secrets about the atrocities he committed in Vietnam come to light, a candidate for the U.S. Senate retreats with his wife to a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota. Within days of their arrival, his wife mysteriously vanishes into the watery wilderness.”
In the Time of Butterflies, Julia Alvarez. According to Barnes and Noble, “It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their deaths as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies.”
In this extraordinary novel, the voices of all four sisters—Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and the survivor, Dedé—speak across the decades to tell their own stories, from hair ribbons and secret crushes to gunrunning and prison torture, and to describe the everyday horrors of life under Trujillo’s rule. Through the art and magic of Julia Alvarez’s imagination, the martyred Butterflies live again in this novel of courage and love, and the human cost of political oppression.
Set during the waning days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republica in 1960, this extraordinary novel tells the story the Mirabal sisters, three young wives and mothers who are assassinated after visiting their jailed husbands.”
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. According to Schmoop, “Published by Ralph Ellison in 1952 to immediate acclaim, Invisible Man is the story of a man in New York City who, after his experiences growing up and living as a model black citizen, now lives in an underground hole and believes he is invisible to American society.
Invisible Man is unique not only in the literature world for its improvisational jazz-inspired style, but also in the political world for adding a new voice to the discussion about blacks in America. Ellison depicts several ideologies in the novel that line up with the ideologies of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and communism. To equate the ideologies would be a mistake, because the characters portrayed in the novel are only caricatures of their real-life inspirations (in the same way that Pete in Family Guy is not an accurate representation of a middle-class father). But the novel’s rejection of ideology in general is a central theme, which explains why Invisible Man wasn’t exactly a hit among influential black thinkers from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to this day.
Ellison drew heavy fire for being, in their view, politically disengaged and removed from the collective plight of black America. Invisible Man, in its efforts to transcend the confines of racial labeling, was criticized by those who wanted to keep those labels in place and use them as the impetus for political action.
But then there are lots of artsy literature types who would respond along the lines of, “Yoohoo! This is a novel!” Putting politics aside, Invisible Man is significant for its incredibly daring style. (It’s equivalent to the Gwen Stefani of the literary world.) Ellison stated in his National Book Award acceptance speech that he viewed Invisible Man as exceptional for its experimental attitude. A lifelong lover of jazz, Ellison sought to create its literary equivalent. Invisible Man follows the stylistic foundations of jazz by using discordant rhythms, drawing on other literary works, and synthesizing prior traditions into a new art form. But more on that later, under Style.”
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. According to Schmoop, “Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre, a three-volume novel, in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell. The novel tells the story of a young woman who, orphaned as a child, must become first a teacher and then a governess to survive. In her first post as a governess, Jane Eyre develops a romantic fondness for her employer, the craggy, rough-mannered Mr. Rochester, but she also discovers that his country estate holds mysterious and frightening secrets.
Like Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Jane Eyre is a classic Victorian bildungsroman, or “novel of development.” Jane Eyre and David Copperfield are also both famous for using autobiographical material from the author’s life in a fictional context. In Jane Eyre, for example, Brontë draws on her own experiences of teaching and nursing the terminally ill, of watching her sister Maria sicken and die, and of falling in love with her supervisor while at a school in Brussels.
The most successful of the various novels by the three Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), Jane Eyre was an instant bestseller and has been continually in print since its first publication. Charlotte Brontë’s willingness to engage, not only the titillating tropes of Gothic fiction and the difficulties facing unmarried middle-class women, but also the problems of empire and colony in 19th century England, has created a hybrid text that remains relevant and interesting for 21st century readers. Readers can focus on anything from the details of interpersonal relationships and romances to the fear and suspense of the Gothic genre or the problems of nationalism.
Viewing audiences have also embraced the story; Jane Eyre has been adapted for film and television more than two dozen times over the last century, from a 1910 silent version to the 2009 film currently in production, and has also been transformed into a musical, a ballet, and an opera.”
Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee. According to Barnes and Noble, “Jasmine, widowed at seventeen, and living quietly in the small Indian Village where she was born, wants more. Her journey from rural Hasnapur to southern Florida, to Manhattan and ultimately to Iowa, creates a Jasmine in metamorphsis. Her vision and intelligence reveal America to us in new ways, while her courage and her exhilarating energy draw us irresistibly through pain and tragedy to renewal and hope.”
J.B., Archibald MacLeish. According to Barnes and Noble, “Based on the story of Job, this drama in verse tells the story of a twentieth-century American banker and millionaire whom God commands be stripped of his family and wealth, but who refuses to turn his back on God. J.B. won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1959 and the Tony Award for best play. More important, the play sparked a national conversation about the nature of God, the meaning of hope, and the role of the artist in society.”
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, August Wilson. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set in a black boardinghouse in Pittsburgh in 1911, this drama by the author of The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Fences is an installment in the author’s series chronicling black life in each decade of this century. Each denizen of the boardinghouse has a different relationship to a past of slavery as well as to the urban present. They include the proprietors, an eccentric clairvoyant with a penchant for old country voodoo, a young homeboy up from the South and a mysterious stranger who is searching for his wife.”
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan. According to Schmoop, “Partly inspired by Amy Tan’s own relationship to her mother, The Joy Luck Club, Tan’s debut novel, was published in 1989. It tells the stories of four immigrant women from China – their hopes, fears, and tragic pasts – as well as the stories of their four American-born daughters. This mother-daughter story encompasses numerous universal themes, such as family, hope, love, sacrifice, strength, and wishes for a better life.”
Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding. According to Barnes and Noble, “Joseph Andrews refuses Lady Booby’s advances, she discharges him, and Joseph and his old tutor, Parson Adams (one of the great comic figures of literature), sets off to visit his sweetheart, Fanny. Along the way, they meet with a series of adventures in which, through their own innocence and honesty, they expose the hypocrisy and affectation of others.”
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. According to Barnes and Noble, “Virginia Woolf called him “the greatest tragic writer among English novelists,” but Thomas Hardy was so distressed by the shocked outrage that greeted Jude the Obscure in 1895 that he decided to quit writing novels. For in telling the story of Jude Fawley, whose many attempts to rise above his class are crushed by society or the forces of nature, Hardy had attacked Victorian society’s most cherished institutions—marriage, social class, religion, and higher education.
A poor villager, Jude Fawley longs to study at the elite University of Christminster, but his ambitions are thwarted by class prejudice—and an earthy country girl who tricks him into marriage by pretending to be pregnant. Entrapped in a loveless marriage, he becomes a stonemason and falls in love with his cousin—the intellectual, free-spirited Sue Bridehead, who is also unhappy in marriage. Sue leaves her husband to live with Jude and eventually bears his children out of wedlock. Their poverty and the weight of society’s disapproval begin to take their toll on the couple, forcing them into a shattering downward spiral that ends in one of the most shocking scenes in all of literature.
A stunning masterpiece, Jude the Obscure is Hardy’s bleakest and most personal novel.”
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Written around 1599, Julius Caesar is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The play is based on historical events surrounding the conspiracy against the ancient Roman leader Julius Caesar (c.100-44B.C.) and the civil war that followed his death. Shakespeare portrays Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March (March 15) by a group of conspirators who feared the ambitious leader would turn the Roman Republic into a tyrannical monarchy.
Julius Caesar was most likely the first play performed at the Globe Theater. Shakespeare wrote the play around 1599, just after he had completed a series of English political histories. Like the history plays, Julius Caesar gives voice to some late-16th-century English political concerns. When Shakespeare wrote Caesar, it was pretty obvious that the 66-year-old Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) wasn’t going to produce an heir to the throne, and her subjects were stressed out about what would happen upon the monarch’s death. Would chaos ensue when Elizabeth died? Who would take the queen’s place? Would the next monarch be a fit ruler or a tyrant? In other words, Julius Caesar asks its audience to think about the parallels between ancient Roman history and contemporary politics.
Shakespeare’ s main source for the play is Plutarch’s famous biography The Life of Julius Caesar, written in Greek in the 1st century and translated into English in 1579 by Sir Thomas North. This is no big surprise, since Shakespeare and his contemporaries were completely obsessed with Roman culture and politics. (In fact, Elizabethan schoolboys spent most of their time reading and translating ancient Roman and Greek literature.)
Today, along with Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar is often taught in 9th grade classrooms as an introduction to Shakespeare. The relatively straightforward language and simplicity of plot make it a good starting point for students new to 16th-century drama. Julius Caesar is also considered to be the least sexy of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, which, for some, makes it a “safe” option in classrooms full of teenagers.”
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair. According to Barnes and Noble, “1906 bestseller shockingly reveals intolerable labor practices and unsanitary working conditions in the Chicago stockyards as it tells the brutally grim story of a Slavic family that emigrates to America full of optimism but soon descends into numbing poverty, moral degradation, and despair. A fiercely realistic American classic that will haunt readers long after they’ve finished the last page.”
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami. According to Barnes and Noble, “Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.
As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.”
King Lear, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The play’s action centers around an aging king who decides to divvy up his kingdom between his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia) in order to avoid any conflict after his death. Early retirement and the division of the kingdom turn out to be a big no-no. Lear’s actions end up destroying his family, tearing apart the kingdom, and causing a big old war, leaving just about everyone dead by the play’s end.
King Lear was written between 1604 and 1606, after King James I of England (also known as King James VI of Scotland) ascended the English throne (1603). (FYI – King James just so happened to attend a performance of the play at Whitehall on December 26, 1606.) The play seems to have been pretty popular on stage (since it was subsequently published in 1608 for reading audiences).
For the past several decades, King Lear has been regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, perhaps even better than Hamlet. Surprisingly, this wasn’t always the case. After the English Civil War (1642-1651), the play came to be regarded as a theatrical failure. The excessive portrayal of cruelty and suffering in Shakespeare’s play (especially the violent blinding of Gloucester, Lear’s descent into madness, and the tragic death of Cordelia) was just too painful for audiences to bear.”
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. According to Schmoop, “Khaled Hosseini published The Kite Runner in 2003. By the end of 2005, it was a bestseller in the United States. It seemed readers couldn’t get enough Hosseini’s story about the troubled friendship between two Afghan boys. In 2007, Marc Forster directed a film adaptation of the novel. His adaptation was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Granted, The Kite Runner has also had its share of controversy. By 2008, The Kite Runner was on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. (Although the book was never banned, enough patrons thought the book should be banned to put it at #9 on the American Library Association list.) The film adaptation didn’t do much to quiet the controversy. The director, Marc Forster, chose to include the infamous rape scene found in the novel. Although the filmmakers used body doubles for the child actors and no nudity was shown, the Afghan community was outraged. Some of the child actors received death threats. Paramount Studios even paid to relocate the actors involved from Kabul to the United Arab Emirates. The studio will continue to pay their living expenses until the actors reach adulthood.
In a way, the controversy (and success) of The Kite Runner has obscured the sheer accomplishment of the novel. For starters, it’s Hosseini’s first book, which he wrote while practicing medicine in California. The novel was accepted for publication almost as soon as it was finished. Even though sales were initially low, the book won the South African Boeke Prize in 2004. Two years after its publication, the novel skyrocketed to #3 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Pretty impressive, especially considering that Hosseini learned English as a second language.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde. According to Barnes and Noble, “Lady Windermere is jealous of her husband’s interest in an older woman. The fact that the older woman just happens to be Lady Windermere’s long-presumed-dead mother is just the beginning of this divinely funny comedy.”
The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper. According to Barnes and Noble, “James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is a historical novel taking place in 1757 during the French and Indian War as France and Great Britain battle for control of the North American colonies.
The Last of the Mohicans was one of the most popular in English in its time, although critics identified narrative flaws. This volume includes the Mark Twain critical review Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.
James Fenimore Cooper was a popular American writer whose historical romances of frontier and Indian life in the early American days created a unique form of American literature.”
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman. According to Barnes and Noble, “I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.”
So begins Leaves of Grass, the first great American poem and indeed, to this day, the greatest and most essentially American poem in all our national literature.
The publication of Leaves of Grass in July 1855 was a landmark event in literary history. Ralph Waldo Emerson judged the book “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” Nothing like the volume had ever appeared before. Everything about it–the unusual jacket and title page, the exuberant preface, the twelve free-flowing, untitled poems embracing every realm of experience–was new. The 1855 edition broke new ground in its relaxed style, which prefigured free verse; in its sexual candor; in its images of racial bonding and democratic togetherness; and in the intensity of its affirmation of the sanctity of the physical world.”
A Lesson before Dying, Ernest Gaines. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s, A Lesson Before Dying is an “enormously moving” (“Los Angeles Times”) novel of one man condemned to die for a crime he did not commit and a young man who visits him in his cell. In the end, the two men forge a bond as they both come to understand the simple heroism of resisting–and defying–the expected. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
From the author of A Gathering of Old Men and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman comes a deep and compassionate novel. A young man who returns to 1940s Cajun country to teach visits a black youth on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Together they come to understand the heroism of resisting.”
Letters from an American Farmer, de Crevecoceur. According to Barnes and Noble, “18th-century classic detailing seafaring life in New England and plantation culture in the South also provided Old World readers with first major impressions of American landscapes, people, institutions, and problems of making one nation out of diverse former colonies.”
Light In August, William Faulkner. According to Barnes and Noble, “18th-century classic detailing seafaring life in New England and plantation culture in the South also provided Old World readers with first major impressions of American landscapes, people, institutions, and problems of making one nation out of diverse former colonies.”
The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman. According to Barnes and Noble, “Picture a charming home in the South. Into this peaceful scene put the prosperous, despotic Hubbard family—Ben, possessive and scheming; Oscar, cruel and arrogant; Ben’s dupe, Leo, weak and unprincipled; Regina wickedly clever—each trying to outwit the other. In contrast, meet lonely intimidated Birdie, whom Oscar wed for her father’s cotton fields; wistful Alexandra, Regina’s daughter; and Horace, ailing husband of Regina, between whom a breach has existed for years. The conflict in these lives has been caused by Ben’s ambition to erect a cotton mill. The brothers still lack $75,000 to complete the transaction. This, they hope, will come from Horace, who has been in a hospital with a heart ailment. Horace is beset by his relatives the first hour of his homecoming, but refuses to commit himself. Desperate, Leo and his father, Oscar, plan for Leo to take $80,000 worth of bonds from Horace’s safe-deposit box. However, knowing that he is to be short-lived, Horace has his box brought to him. Discovering the theft, he informs his wife that he has willed the bonds to her. He promises to say nothing about the theft, calling it a loan. Cruelly, Regina recalls their unhappy married life, causing Horace to be stricken with a severe attack. Regina refuses to get his medicine upstairs, hoping that the effort of climbing may prove fatal. Horace collapses. Then Regina blackmails her brothers into giving her 75% of the business instead of their planned 33 1/3%, or she will reveal their theft. We feel, however, that crafty Ben holds the trump card by his parting remark, “What was a man in a wheelchair doing on a staircase?”
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. According to Schmoop, “Little Women is a classic – if not the classic – girls’ book. Written just after the Civil War in response to a publisher’s demand for a novel that could appeal to young female readers, it was originally published as two books: Chapters 1-23 were issued in 1868 with the title Little Women, and, after the book became a sensational success, Chapters 24-47 were issued in 1869 with the title Good Wives. Today we read both sections together as Little Women, but it’s important to know that the book began in two pieces, because there’s more separating them than time.
The first half of the book is loosely based on Louisa May Alcott’s own life; in fact, it’s semi-autobiographical, and reflects the experiences she had growing up with her sisters in New England. After it was published, readers wrote to Alcott and her publishers asking for more, and especially asking about the girls’ love lives. Most readers wanted to know who each sister married – especially whether Jo married Laurie. Alcott herself remained unmarried all her life, so, in order to write the sequel, she had to depart from autobiography and write straight-up fiction. Without her own life experiences, the second part of the novel may feel less realistic. However, no amount of fan-mail could force Alcott to marry off the two main characters in the way her readers expected. What does she do? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out, but let’s just say you probably won’t see it coming!
Little Women has been popular ever since its first publication; after more than 140 years, it still appeals to readers young and old, female and male – although, admittedly, the majority of the novel’s lifelong lovers are female. The story has been adapted three times as a film, starring first Katharine Hepburn, then June Allyson, then Winona Ryder as Jo March. It has also been transformed into a play, an opera, and a musical. Apart from the different version of Little Women itself, we think we can detect the influence of Little Women on other great North American girls’ books, such as The Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables, as well as some of the great British girls’ books of the time, such as A Little Princess.
Part of the fascination with the novel is its treatment of gender roles, which balances tradition and gender distinction with more forward-thinking, proto-feminist attitudes. We fully expect that readers will be considering and debating issues of gender in this novel for many decades to come.”
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill. According to Schmoop, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the story of one devastating day in the Tyrone family. The play depicts the family members’ downward spiral into addiction, disease, and their own haunted pasts. It is generally regarded asEugene O’Neill‘s masterpiece.
O’Neill (1888-1953) was a major figure in the international drama scene. Before he came along, the rest of the world didn’t give a flip about American plays. In the rest of the world’s defense, there really wasn’t much going on in the way of American play writing. Our buddy Eugene wasn’t having that. He busted up on the scene and became the first American playwright to gain a real and lasting international reputation. In 1936 he became the first and only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
O’Neill also has the distinction of winning the Pulitzer Prize more times than any other playwright. He did so three times during his life – for Beyond the Horizon, 1920; Anna Christie, 1922; Strange Interlude, 1928. As if that wasn’t enough, he went and won a fourth Pulitzer for Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1957. The thing is – he was already dead.
O’Neill’s wife, Carlotta, published the play after his death. This went against his wishes. He gave instructions that the play not be published until 25 years after his death. Carlotta, for whatever reason, couldn’t wait that long. At first she tried to get Random House to publish it, but they felt bad about going against O’Neill’s wishes. Yale Press, however, didn’t seem to mind and published the play in 1956. This was only three years after O’Neill’s death.
Whether or not it was cool of Carlotta to go against O’Neill’s wishes is up for debate. Whatever the case, the play premiered in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 2, 1956. The Swedes went nuts over it, and everybody else did too. The play went on to cement O’Neill’s reputation. He is now considered to be one of the world’s greatest dramatists.”
Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe. According to Barnes and Noble, “Look Homeward, Angel is an elaborate and moving coming-of-age story about Eugene Gant, a restless and energetic character whose passion to experience life takes him from his small, rural hometown in North Carolina to Harvard University and the city of Boston. The novel’s pattern is artfully simple—a small town, a large family, high school and college—yet the characters are monumental in their graphic individuality and personality.
Through his rich, ornate prose, Wolfe evokes the extraordinarily vivid family of the Gants, and with equal detail, the remarkable peculiarities of small-town life and the pain and upheaval of a boy who must leave both. A classic work of American literature, Look Homeward, Angel is a passionate, stirring, and unforgettable novel.
Thomas Wolfe’s classic coming-of-age novel, first published in 1929, is a work of epic grandeur, evoking a time and place with extraordinary lyricism and precision. Set in Altamont, North Carolina, this semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a restless young man who longs to escape his tumultuous family and his small town existence.”
Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad. According to Barnes and Noble, “At its heart, this classic novel is a book about the sea. Published in 1900, Lord Jim was originally intended as a short story. It grew to a full-length book as Conrad explored in great depth the perplexing dilemmas of lost honor and guilt, expiation and heroism.
An English boy from a simple village has bigger dreams than most around him, so he embarks at an early age into a sailor’s life. Haunted by guilt over an act of cowardice, Jim becomes an agent at an isolated East Indian trading post. There, his feelings of inadequacy and responsibility are played out to their logical and inevitable end.
The novel, which explores the nature of the human spirit, is a delicately crafted picture of a character who reaches the status of literary hero.”
Lord of the Flies, William Golding. According to Schmoop, “Lord of the Flies was first published in 1954 by William Golding, an English writer. It took awhile to gain wide readership, but by the 1960s it was a big success and Golding was off on his writing career that would include a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. According to the prize committee, Golding’s novels “illuminate the human condition of the world today.” Not bad.
This particular novel is about what happens when a bunch of young boys are stranded on an island and left to fend for themselves. Lord of the Flies is an allegory (essentially a story with a moral), about…well, it’s about something. People can’t seem to decide exactly what. It’s either about the inherent evil of man, or psychological struggle, or religion, or human nature, or the author’s feelings on war (he was in the Navy during WWII), or possibly all of the above.
The whole boys-being-stuck-on-an-island thing is nothing new, and it seems Golding used this scenario to respond to another novel, The Coral Island,written by R.M. Ballantyne in 1857. The Coral Island depicts some white, European boys who end up on an island and use Christianity to “conquer” the “heathen ways” of the Polynesian natives. Naturally, this was a huge success in Victorian England. Golding read it and got all fired up, and wrote Lord of the Flies using many of the same names for his characters that Ballantyne did. Unlike The Coral Island, Lord of the Flies shows the British boys as savage and, to use a technical term, rather “sketch.”
The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh. According to Barnes and Noble, “In Hollywood, at Whispering Glades, a full-service funeral home for departed greats, the mononymous Mr. Joyboy and Aimee Thanatogenos fall in love…with each other and their work. He is chief embalmer, she a crematorium cosmetician. They spend their days contentedly prepping the loved ones for a final appearance.
Into this idyllic scene comes Denis Barlow, aspiring poet and funerary colleague. But Denis is downscale, his employer the Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery. Denis looks to Aimee for professional reconstruction, falls in love with her instead, and sets up a triangle that is literally more than Aimee can bear.”
“Long Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot. According to Schmoop, “”The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is totally a modernist poem.
Whoa, whoa, hold on there a sec – what’s this all about?
OK, so you might have heard of a little movement called “modernism.” Nobody out there has a great definition of modernism, but here’s ours. For most of history, most people lived really far away from one another in small villages. They didn’t travel much or interact with one another. This is the pre-modern world. Then, along come all these new technologies – everything from sewer systems to railroads – and suddenly lots of people are living close together in cities, and even those who aren’t living close together are able to find out what’s going on with the help of (from oldest to most recent) telegrams, newspapers, telephones, cell phones, and the internet. Welcome to the modern world – but, of course, you were here already, Mr. or Mrs. Internet User.
Nowadays, we’re all used to living in the modern world, but it wasn’t always that way. The “modernists” basically include all the artists and writers who were living smack in the middle of the huge, massive transformation from olden days to modern times, which was roughly the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. In their work, they try to make sense of all these changes, which no one quite understands. Got it?
So “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is totally a modernist poem. Its author, T.S. Eliot, was an American who moved to Britain in 1914. Eliot wrote most of “Prufrock” when he was 22 years old (!), in the years before the start of World War I. At that time, Britain was considered the most modern country in the world. The poem is set in a big, dirty city, and its speaker is a very unhappy man who is afraid of living and therefore bored all the time. War, cities, boredom, and fear: these are all classic modernist themes.
Eliot got “Prufrock” published in Poetry magazine in 1915 with the help of his buddy Ezra Pound, who was like a friendly uncle-figure to a lot of the European modernists. In 1917 it was published as part of a small book called Prufrock and Other Observations.
It was considered pretty experimental at the time, and a lot of people hated it. The “Literary Supplement” of The London Times had this to say: “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry…” (Times Literary Supplement 21 June 1917, no. 805, 299). A lot of people still hate the poem, mostly because they had it pounded into them by overly strict teachers in school, which is the quickest way to suck the fun out of anything. Fortunately, Eliot has fallen a bit out of style lately, so now’s the perfect time to pick up the poem and decide for yourself how you feel about it.”
Lysistrata, Aristophanes. According to Barnes and Noble, “LYSISTRATA is a classic Old Comedy set during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Wearied by 20 years of war, Lysistrata persuades the women of Athens to withhold sexual favors from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing them to negotiate peace with Sparta.”
Macbeth, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare written around 1606. The only Shakespearean drama set in Scotland, Macbeth follows the story of a Scottish nobleman (Macbeth) who hears a prophecy that he will become king and is tempted to evil by the promise of power. Macbeth deals with the themes of evil in the individual and in the world more closely than any of Shakespeare’s other works. Shakespeare draws on Holinshed’s Chronicles as Macbeth’s historical source, but he makes some adjustments to Holinshed’s depiction of the real-life Macbeth. Holinshed’s Macbeth was a soldier, and not much more; he was capable, and not too thoughtful or self-doubting. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it is the internal tension and crumbling of Macbeth, entirely Shakespeare’s inventions, that give the play such literary traction.
Macbeth is also unique among Shakespeare’s plays for dealing so explicitly with material that was relevant to England’s contemporary political situation. The play is thought to have been written in the later part of 1606, three years after James I, the first Stuart king, took up the crown of England. James I was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots (cousin to Elizabeth I) and this less-than-direct connection meant that James was eager to assert any legitimacy he could over his right to the English throne (even though he was a Scot).
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Banquo as one of the play’s few unsoiled characters (in Holinshed’s Chronicles, Banquo helps Macbeth murder the King) is a nod to the Stuart political myth. King James traced his lineage to Banquo, who is thought to be the founder of the Stuart line. In Act I, scene iii, the witches predict that Banquo’s heirs will rule Scotland and later, the witches conjure a vision of Banquo’s descendants—a line of eight kings that culminates in a symbolic vision of King James, who was crowned King of Scotland and England (and also claimed to be king of France and Ireland).
Shakespeare, whose theater company (the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) became the King’s Men under James’s rule, seems intent on flattering the King. Shakespeare also dramatizes one of the king’s special interests: witchcraft. In Macbeth the three “weird sisters” feature centrally in the plot. They show Macbeth visions of the future and manipulate his murderous ambition in a play full of dark forces and black magic. Witchcraft was a hot topic in England at the time and James even published his own treatise on the subject in 1597, entitled Daemonologie. As James’s court play-maker, Shakespeare would’ve known that inclusion of the dark arts would interest the King.
Beyond the abstract of evil, James was also the target of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, where a group of rebel Catholics tried to blow up the King and Parliament (this is the historical version of Guy Fawkes, that guy in V for Vendetta). Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan, then, would have struck a sensitive chord with the play’s audience. There’s also another allusion to the Gunpowder plot during the Porter’s infamous comic routine in Act II, scene iii. The Porter refers to Catholic “equivocators,” which is a reference to Jesuit Henry Garnet, a man who was tried and executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. Garnet wrote “Treatise on Equivocation,” a document that encouraged Catholics to speak ambiguously or, “equivocate” when they were being questioned by Protestant inquisitors (so they wouldn’t be persecuted for their religious beliefs).”
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. According to Schmoop, “You’ve probably heard of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Maybe it’s because you caught a re-run of some old French movie version of it super late one night, or perhaps you’ve seen a beat-up copy of it lying around from your parents’ school days. Why is it so famous? Well, first of all, the book made a huge splash when it was first published. The novel originally appeared in installments in a magazine called La Revue de Paris in 1856, which caught the eye of the censors. As a result, Flaubert was put on trial in January of 1857 for obscenity; the novel seemed too risqué for the tastes of the government. The trial actually had the opposite effect to the one the authorities had hoped for; after Flaubert was acquitted, the book became a smash hit.
After its tempestuous birth, Madame Bovary continued to make waves in the literary scene. It’s seen as one of the best examples of the Realist novel (see more in “Genre”), and its influence was strongly felt in the decades that followed. In the novel, Flaubert takes us to a level of intimacy and familiarity with his characters that was unimaginable before he came along; even if we don’t like the characters or don’t think they’re doing the right thing, we still feel incredibly close to them.
Even today, Flaubert’s masterpiece is still going strong. In 2007, a book called The Top Ten polled 125 famous authors for their top 10 books of all time and constructed a master list from all of their input. Madame Bovary came in second place, a most impressive finish, only behind Anna Karenina.”
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann. According to Barnes and Noble, “With this dizzyingly rich novel of ideas, Thomas Mann rose to the front ranks of the great modern novelists, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. The Magic Mountain takes place in an exclusive tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps–a community devoted to sickness that serves as a fictional microcosm for Europe in the days before the First World War. To this hermetic and otherworldly realm comes Hans Castorp, an “ordinary young man” who arrives for a short visit and ends up staying for seven years, during which he succumbs both to the lure of eros and to the intoxication of ideas.”
Main Street, Sinclair Lewis. According to Barnes and Noble, “The first of Sinclair Lewis’s great successes, Main Street shattered the sentimental American myth of happy small-town life with its satire of narrow-minded provincialism. Reflecting his own unhappy childhood in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis’s sixth novel attacked the conformity and dullness he saw in midwestern village life. Young college graduate Carol Milford moves from the city to tiny Gopher Prairie after marrying the local doctor, and tries to bring culture to the small town. But her efforts to reform the prairie village are met by a wall of gossip, greed, conventionality, pitifully unambitious cultural endeavors, and-worst of all—the pettiness and bigotry of small-town minds.
Lewis’s portrayal of a marriage torn by disillusionment and a woman forced into compromises is at once devastating social satire and persuasive realism. His subtle characterizations and intimate details of small-town America make Main Street a complex and compelling work and established Lewis as an important figure in twentieth-century American literature.”
Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw. According to Barnes and Noble, “Andrew Undershaft, a millionaire armaments dealer, loves money and despises poverty. His energetic daughter Barbara, on the other hand, shows her love for the poor by working as a Major in the Salvation Army. She sees her father as just another soul to be saved. But when the Salvation Army needs funds to keep going, it is Undershaft who saves the day. is the Army right to accept money that has been obtained by ‘Death and Destruction’? Barbara is forced to examine her moral assumptions. Is she tricked into the attempt to unite spiritual goodness with material power?
Full of lively comedy and sparkling debate, Major Barbara is also one of Shaw’s most powerful and forward-looking plays. As Margery Morgan says, while Shaw was responding to ‘a material and cultural situation that is now part of history’, his work still has relevance ‘in a period when new technologies drive the globalization of trade and the migration of populations … and ancient forms of brutality and carnage have reappeared.”
Man and Superman, George Bernard Shaw. According to Barnes and Noble, “‘A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth’
After the death of her father, Ann Whitefield becomes the joint ward of two men: the respectable Roebuck Ramsden and John Tanner, author of ‘The Revolutionist’s Handbook’. Believing marriage would prevent him from achieving his higher intellectual and political ambitions, Tanner is horrified to discover that Ann intends to marry him, and flees to Spain with the determined young woman in hot pursuit. The chase even leads them to the underworld, where the characters’ alter egos discuss questions of human nature and philosophy in a lively debate in a scene often performed separately as ‘Don Juan in Hell’. In Man and Superman, Shaw combined seriousness with comedy to create a satirical and buoyant exposé of the eternal struggle between the sexes.”
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen. According to Schmoop, “Hitting the shelves in 1814, Mansfield Park was the third novel that Jane Austen published and the fourth that she completed. This novel was a pretty big departure from Austen’s other works, and it was a bit of a shock coming after the much more light-hearted Pride and Prejudice, which was published just one year prior. The first of its relatively funny traits (for Austen) is that the heroine’s main rival in Mansfield Park seems to a lot in common with the beloved heroine of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett. Mansfield Park’s heroine isn’t nearly as charming and spunky. In addition, Mansfield Park explores some serious issues (like religion, slavery, politics) much more directly than Austen’s previous works.
So what’s going on with this novel? It seems downright un-Austen at times. This is, of course, significant. It’s good to try to read Mansfield Park without preconceptions or assumptions, which is actually one of the major themes of the book. Nearly everyone in Mansfield Park spends the book making faulty assumptions about other people. No one really seems to understand one another, and few people even make an effort to try and understand those around them. Yet, typical to Austen’s writing, the characters in Mansfield Park are often very real: they’re difficult and contradictory and confusing and unclassifiable. Antagonists act more like heroes, heroines are sometimes unsympathetic, and villains suddenly transform into protagonists.
Interestingly, this novel can also be seen as a precursor to Austen’s later novels like Emma and Persuasion, both of which contain highly complex characters and deal with contemporary events and serious social issues.”
Master Harold…and the Boys, Athol Fugard. According to Barnes and Noble, “This play about a young white boy and two African servants is at once a compelling drama of South African apartheid and a universal coming-of-age story. Originally produced in 1982, it is now an acknowledged classic of the stage, whose themes of injustice, racism, friendship, and reconciliation traverse borders and time.
A provocative journey into the psychosis of racism, set in South Africa.”
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy. According to Barnes and Noble, “THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE follows the life of Michael Henchard, the respectable mayor of the English town of Casterbridge who hides a terrible secret. As a young husband and father, Henchard sold his wife and daughter to another man while drunk. After sobering up, he finds his family is lost, but when they return unexpectedly, Henchard’s life–and station in society–seem disrupted forever.”
M. Butterfly, David Henry Wang. According to Barnes and Noble, “John Lithgow and B.D. Wong recreate their original roles from the Tony Award-winning production. Inspired by an actual espionage scandal, a French diplomat discovers the startling truth about his Chinese mistress.”
Medea, Euripides. According to Schmoop, “Euripides (480-406 B.C.) was a misunderstood genius. His classic Medea got totally dissed in its time. It came in third place at the annual Athenian play competition at the Theatre of Dionysus. “Third place,” you might say, “that’s not tooo too bad.” Yeah, except that, as usual, there were only two other playwrights competing. Euripides got trounced by his old rival, Sophocles, and Euphorion, the son of Aeschylus.
Medea’s bronze medal probably came as no surprise to Euripides. He is said to be the author of around 92 plays, but he only won the competition five times. Euripides didn’t even get to enjoy the final win. The prize (for The Bacchae) was awarded after his death. To add insult to injury, Euripides died by being ripped apart by a pack of wild Macedonian dogs. Some scholars say that this story of his death is totally fictional. We hope they’re right.
Poor Euripides was always getting picked on. Aristophanes lampooned him mercilessly. The comic playwright made fun of Euripides’s use of language and his characters’ tendency to spout the new fangled philosophies of Socrates. Like his buddy Socrates, Euripides’s ideas were hard for mainstream Athens to swallow. This was due in part to his progressive ideas. The guy was anti-war, sympathetic to slaves and women, and so critical of traditional religion that many believed him to be an atheist. Athens just wasn’t ready for these “liberal” ideas.
Euripides was known to be kind of a loner. He spent most of his time writing in a cave on the island of Salamis. Eventually the lack of appreciation and disgust with Athenian politics (especially the destructive Peloponnesian War) may well have been what drove Euripides to leave Athens. He spent the last months of his life in the court of the King of Macedonia, where he proved them all wrong by penning his undisputed classic, The Bacchae, and perhaps met a pack of dogs with a taste for playwrights.
In Poetics, Aristotle rates Euripides as much a lesser tragedian than Sophocles, pointing out his haphazard plots and un-heroic heroes. These criticisms are valid (both are true in Medea), but we wonder if Aristotle ever stopped to think that Euripides had another agenda altogether. While his rival Sophocles was towing the traditional line, Euripides was busy inventing entirely new genres. In retrospect, we can see that it wasn’t necessarily that Euripides didn’t know how to write a traditional tragedy; he was just dissatisfied with the form altogether.
By blending comic elements with tragic, Euripides basically created Tragicomedy genre. His loosely plotted plays with happy endings created the genre of Romance. And, of course, there’s Medea, which revolutionized Revenge Tragedies by letting its heroine off the hook. On top of all that, Euripides’s focus on the emotional lives of his characters, along with his comparatively natural-sounding dialogue, foreshadowed by thousands of years the creation of modern realism.
History has vindicated Euripides. More of his plays are extant (still around) than any other ancient Greek playwright. Medea is now recognized as a timeless classic, while the two plays that beat it in the original competition don’t even exist anymore. Euripides is now known as one of the greatest and most innovative playwrights to ever walk the Earth. We’re glad the man has finally gotten his due – he was basically a one man dramatic revolution.”
The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers. According to Barnes and Noble, “The novel that became an award-winning play and a major motion picture and that has charmed generations of readers, Carson McCullers’s classic The Member of the Wedding is now available in small- format trade paperback for the ﬁrst time. Here is the story of the inimitable twelve-year-old Frankie, who is utterly, hopelessly bored with life until she hears about her older brother’s wedding. Bolstered by lively conversations with her house servant, Berenice, and her six-year-old male cousin—not to mention her own unbridled imagination—Frankie takes on an overly active role in the wedding, hoping even to go, uninvited, on the honeymoon, so deep is her desire to be the member of something larger, more accepting than herself. “A marvelous study of the agony of adolescence” (Detroit Free Press), The Member of the Wedding showcases Carson McCullers at her most sensitive, astute, and lasting best.”
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards. According to Barnes and Noble, “A #1 New York Times bestseller by Kim Edwards, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is a brilliantly crafted novel of parallel lives, familial secrets, and the redemptive power of love
Kim Edwards’s stunning novel begins on a winter night in 1964 in Lexington, Kentucky, when a blizzard forces Dr. David Henry to deliver his own twins. His son, born first, is perfectly healthy, but the doctor immediately recognizes that his daughter has Down syndrome. Rationalizing it as a need to protect Norah, his wife, he makes a split second decision that will alter all of their lives forever. He asks his nurse, Caroline, to take the baby away to an institution and never to reveal the secret. Instead, she disappears into another city to raise the child herself. So begins this beautifully told story that unfolds over a quarter of a century—in which these two families, ignorant of each other, are yet bound by the fateful decision made that winter night long ago.
A family drama, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter explores every mother’s silent fear: What would happen if you lost your child and she grew up without you? It is also an astonishing tale of love and how the mysterious ties that hold a family together help us survive the heartache that occurs when long-buried secrets are finally uncovered.”
The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Written by William Shakespeare around 1597, The Merchant of Venice is a “comedy” about a bitter and detested Jewish moneylender (Shylock) who seeks revenge against a Christian merchant who has defaulted on a loan.
Merchant’s controversial and painful subject matter has earned it a reputation as a “problem play” that continues to ask a series of difficult questions 400 years after it was first staged:
- Does the play endorse the anti-Semitic attitudes of its Christian characters?
- Does it critique the kinds of prejudices it portrays on stage?
- Or does it merely dramatize racial and religious intolerance without taking a stance one way or the other?
Before we can even address these questions, it’s important to know about the historical circumstances of the play. For Shakespeare, writing to an English audience about a Jewish moneylender might have seemed unusual. Officially, there were no Jews in 16th century England because they had been banished in 1290 under the Edict of Expulsion. Some studies suggest there were fewer than 200 Jews in Elizabethan England (only about 100 have been identified by historians). Most of these Jews were outwardly practicing Christians and many of them were probably Marranos (Jews who practiced their religion in secret).
So how were Jews perceived in the imaginations of Elizabethan audiences?
Jews were a popular target of hatred in Shakespeare’s England in large part due the trial of Queen Elizabeth’s personal physician, Rodrigo Lopez, a converted Portuguese Jew (and a Marrano). In 1594 Lopez was convicted of plotting to poison Queen Elizabeth I and was executed as a traitor – meaning he was hanged, cut down (while still alive), and mutilated before a crowd of vengeful spectators.
The Lopez trial and execution inspired the revival of playwright Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589), in which the play’s title character is a Jew named Barabas, a greedy, cunning, and murderous stereotype. In other words, Barabas fit the bill of “stock” Jewish characters that Elizabethan theatergoers of the time loved to hate.
Since there were no actual Jews publicly living in England, the worst kinds of stereotypes and legends about the entire group could prevail unchecked. Jews were accused of everything from sacrificing kidnapped Christian children on Easter to killing adult Christians for their blood to be used in Passover rituals. Christopher Marlowe’s play, and his inexplicably evil Jewish villain, sparked English thinking about the long-absent English Jews.
Shakespeare, with his pulse on the popular interest, presented The Merchant of Venice around 1597, hot on the heels of the Lopez trial. What’s interesting about Shakespeare’s Jewish merchant, Shylock, is that, depending on how you read the story, he is not a caricature of all-things-evil like Marlowe’s Barabas. Shylock is deeply flawed, but he’s also complex and deeply human. When he famously asks, “if you prick us [Jews] do we not bleed?” (3.1.6), he insists on the fact that Jews and Christians share a common humanity, despite the fact that he’s been spit upon, kicked, and railed against for being different.”
Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka. According to Schmoop, “The great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once remarked that “if Kafka’s The Metamorphosis strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers” (source). Far be it for us to quibble with Nabokov. But you could say that Franz Kafka‘s story deserves its status as one of the greatest literary works of all time precisely because it’s an awesome work of fantasy. It’s a story about a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes up as a gigantic, gross bug. Gregor’s abrupt and unexplained transformation, along with the story’s juxtaposition of everyday and fantastic elements, gives the story a dream-like quality that is enigmatically compelling.
Perhaps it’s because of the story’s dream-like elusiveness that a veritable critical industry has been devoted to figuring out exactly what the story is all about. Some look to Kafka’s biographical and historical context to argue that the story, published in 1912, expresses Kafka’s own sense of self-alienation. Not only was he a German speaker living in Czech Prague, and a Jew living in virulently anti-Semitic times, but Kafka also felt enormous pressure to become a successful businessman like his father. Gregor’s transformation into a disgusting parasite is often viewed as an expression of Kafka’s feelings of isolation and inferiority. The story is also read as a prescient allegory for genocide, in particular the Holocaust. The word used to describe Gregor – Ungeziefer – is a term that the Nazis used to refer to the Jews (Bruce 113). While Kafka died in 1924, many surviving members of his family perished in the Holocaust.
Others point to Kafka’s readings of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche as a way into the complex philosophical themes of this apparently simple tale. Gregor’s conflict with his father and the dream-like quality of the story is seen as a nod to Freud’s analysis of dreams and the Oedipal complex. A Marxist would read Gregor’s inability to work as a protest against the dehumanizing and self-alienating effects of working in a capitalistic society. And others view Gregor’s monstrous insect form as representing Gregor’s radical refusal to submit to society’s values and conventions, much in the same way as the Nietzschean Übermensch.
Heavy stuff indeed for a story about a cockroach who likes to slurp putrid waste and hang upside down from the ceiling. The beauty of Kafka’s tale is that it can elicit all of these readings while still wiggling an antennae or two for some earthy entomological hilarity.”
Middlemarch, George Eliot. According to Barnes and Noble, “Vast and crowded, rich in irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character, with two of the era’s most enduring characters, Dorothea Brooke, trapped in a loveless marriage, and Lydgate, an ambitious young doctor.”
Middle Passage, V.S. Naipaul. According to Barnes and Noble, “In 1960 the government of Trinidad invited V. S. Naipaul to revisit his native country and record his impressions. In this classic of modern travel writing he has created a deft and remarkably prescient portrait of Trinidad and four adjacent Caribbean societies–countries haunted by the legacies of slavery and colonialism and so thoroughly defined by the norms of Empire that they can scarcely believe that the Empire is ending.
In The Middle Passage, Naipaul watches a Trinidadian movie audience greeting Humphrey Bogart’s appearance with cries of “That is man!” He ventures into a Trinidad slum so insalubrious that the locals call it the Gaza Strip. He follows a racially charged election campaign in British Guiana (now Guyana) and marvels at the Gallic pretension of Martinique society, which maintains the fiction that its roads are extensions of France’s routes nationales. And throughout he relates the ghastly episodes of the region’s colonial past and shows how they continue to inform its language, politics, and values. The result is a work of novelistic vividness and dazzling perspicacity that displays Naipaul at the peak of his powers.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Girl meets boy. Girl falls in love with boy. Girl loses boy when mischievous fairy sprinkles love “juice” on boy’s eyelids, making him fall for another girl. Girl wins boy back (with the help of a little fairy magic).
No, it’s not the latest romantic comedy to hit theaters near you; it’s a play that was dreamed up by William Shakespeare toward the end of the 16th century. Like the modern-day romantic comedy genre it’s helped to shape and influence, A Midsummer Night’s Dream features young lovers who fall comically in and out of love in a ridiculously brief period of time (over the course of a single, enchanted midsummer night).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595) was written around the same time Shakespeare whipped up his famous play about two “star-cross’d” lovers,Romeo and Juliet. In Dream, a group of craftsmen (the “Mechanicals”) bumble their way through a ridiculous performance of Pyramus and Thisbe (a story taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses). The Mechanicals’ play is widely considered to be Shakespeare’s light-hearted and silly mock-up of Romeo and Juliet.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of speculation about the occasion for which Shakespeare might have written the play. Did he write Dream to be performed at a big, fancy, nobleman’s wedding? Some scholars think so. This is a nice idea and it makes sense because plays were often commissioned for these kinds of fancy shindigs. (In the play itself, a group of amateur actors put together a performance to celebrate the marriage of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta.) It’s too bad there’s no real evidence to support the idea. Still, it’s fun to imagine that Shakespeare created the piece to help a couple of happy newlyweds “dream away the time” before their much anticipated wedding night (1.1.1).”
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot. According to Barnes and Noble, “One of George Eliot’s best-loved works, The Mill on the Floss is a portrait of the bonds of provincial life as seen through the eyes of the free-spirited Maggie Tulliver, who is torn between a code of moral responsibility and her hunger for self-fulfillment. Rebellious by nature, she causes friction both among the townspeople of St. Ogg’s and in her own family, particularly with her brother, Tom. Maggie’s passionate nature makes her a beloved heroine, but it is also her undoing.” The Mill on the Floss is a luminous exploration of human relationships and of a heroine who critics say closely resembles Eliot herself.”
The Misanthrope, Moliere. According to Schmoop, “Meet our stock characters. There’s (1) the humanity hating curmudgeon; (2) the hopeless flirt; (3) the bumbling knuckleheads; (4) the innocent bystanders; (5) that lady who is crazy jealous of the flirt.
Sounds like the setup for a Jack Black movie, doesn’t it? Well, maybe if Jack Black were a master at depicting the subtle range of human interactions. For that, we need Jean-Baptiste Poquelin—or, as we like to call him (okay, and everyone else, too): Moliére.
Moliére is the Shakespeare of French drama, or he would be if Shakespeare were an aristocrat who abandoned his social status to pursue a life on the stage. Doesn’t sound too shocking? Well, this was all taking place in seventeenth century France, when actors and playwrights had about the same amount of respect as, oh, prostitutes. (Seriously.) If you were from any kind of respectable family, acting was Just Not Done.
But Moliére did it. He was so good at it that eventually he became the head of a troupe and then a writer. In fact, he was so good at it that he became a favorite of France’s very own Sun King, Louis XIV.
Today, The Misanthrope is one of Molière’s most famous plays. First performed en Français (“in French”) in 1666, it’s about a guy who hates everyone except for the most insincere and deceitful lady you could imagine. Oh, but she’s pretty.
With The Misanthrope, Molière was trying to tone down his Richard Pryor edginess, because he got in a lot of trouble for an earlier play, Tartuffe. But he still managed to get out a lot of zingers. Where Tartuffe is all up in your face, The Misanthrope goes for the more smooth and slick style. Hey, and there’s even some slapstick.
That combination of snark and silly has made The Misanthrope one of French literature’s greatest hits. Every generation since 1666 has managed to find something in it that reminds them of their own society—including our own. Countless movies, TV shows, and theatre productions are based on this 350ish-year-old work. Even everyone’s favorite period actress Keira Knightley has jumped at the chance to bring Molière’s words to life. And how could Keira be wrong?”
Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West. According to Barnes and Noble, “Praised by great writers from Flannery O’Conner to Jonathan Lethem, Miss Lonelyhearts is an American classic. A newspaper reporter assigned to write the agony column in the depths of the Great Depression seeks respite from the poor souls who send in their sad letters, only to be further tormented by his viciously cynical editor, Shrike. This single volume of Miss Lonelyhearts features its original Alvin Lustig jacket design, as well as a new introduction by Harold Bloom, who calls it “my favorite work of modern American fiction.”
Moby Dick, Herman Melville. According to Schmoop, “Moby-Dick, Herman Melville‘s 1851 novel, tells the story of obsessed Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge on the White Whale as observed by a common seaman who identifies himself only as Ishmael. In the past century and a half, this novel has achieved legendary status. Moby-Dick is probably second only to War and Peace as a cultural byword for a long, difficult book that unnerves even the most gung-ho readers with its web of digressions and literary and cultural references.
When the novel was first published, reviewers and readers alike were, at best, puzzled by its density and, at worst, offended by its religious and sexual allusions. It was the so-called “Melville Revival” of the early twentieth century that placed Moby-Dick on every critic’s short list of great American novels (or great novels from any culture, for that matter). Even those who’ve never read a word of Moby-Dick often recognize the book’s famous first line, “Call me Ishmael,” or the plot device of an insane quest for vengeance on an aspect of the natural world.
Moby-Dick has been referenced in popular culture throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, showing up in everything from a Led Zeppelin song to The Simpsons to Star Trek. There are many different adaptations of Moby-Dick in a variety of genres, most notably a 1956 film starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and a 1998 TV miniseries with Patrick Stewart in the same role. Both these adaptations get a bad rap because they can’t reproduce the language and structure of Melville’s novel. In fact, there’s really no substitute for this book, and reading it can make a whole new side of American culture visible.”
Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe. According to Barnes and Noble, “MOLL FLANDERS is the humorous story of Moll Flanders, a con-artist and trull who seeks money and love at any price, even to abandon her own children. “
Monkey Bridge, Lan Cao. According to Barnes and Noble, “For the first time in fiction, the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese immigrant experience is examined in this tale of a young girl’s coming-of-age in the United States in the aftermath of war. Mai Nguyen’s journey begins when she leaves Vietnam in February 1975, just before the withdrawal of American troops from Saigon. She enters the world of Falls Church, Virginia, a “Little Saigon” community that encompasses refugees and veterans, reinvented lives and entrepreneurial schemes, secrets and lies about a war-torn and conflicted past, and Mai’s dreams for a newly minted American future. But the secrets, and what is both hidden and revealed in diaries found buried in her mother’s dresser drawer, pull Mai inexorably back to Vietnam. Within these diaries, Mai retraces not only her own earliest experiences, but also her mother’s and grandmother’s histories – and the story that began to unfold a generation past in the rice fields of the Mekong Delta. Past and present, east and west, Vietnamese myth and American-style reality intertwine and, ultimately, the legacy of long-simmering hatreds and what occurred late one afternoon in a burial ground near the banks of the Mekong River is revealed.”
The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie. According to Barnes and Noble, “In his first novel since The Satanic Verses, Rushdie gives readers a masterpiece of controlled storytelling, informed by astonishing scope and ambition, by turns compassionate, wicked, poignant, and funny. From the paradise of Aurora’s legendary salon to his omnipotent father’s sky-garden atop a towering glass high-rise, the Moor’s story evokes his family’s often grotesque but compulsively moving fortunes in a world of possibilities embodied by India in this century.
In his first novel since The Satanic Verses, Rushdie gives readers a masterpiece of controlled storytelling, informed by astonishing scope and ambition, by turns compassionate, wicked, poignant, and funny. From the paradise of Aurora’s legendary salon to his omnipotent father’s sky-garden atop a towering glass high-rise, the Moor’s story evokes his family’s often grotesque but compulsively moving fortunes in a world of possibilities embodied by India in this century.”
Mother Courage and Her Children, Berthold Brecht. According to Barnes and Noble, “Widely considered one of the great dramatic creations of the modern stage, Mother Courage and Her Children is Bertolt Brecht’s most passionate and profound statement against war. Set in the seventeenth century, the play follows Anna Fierling — “Mother Courage” — an itinerant trader, as she pulls her wagon of wares and her children through the blood and carnage of Europe’s religious wars. Battered by hardships, brutality, and the degradation and death of her children, she ultimately finds herself alone with the one thing in which she truly believes — her ramshackle wagon with its tattered flag and freight of boots and brandy. Fitting herself in its harness, the old woman manages, with the last of her strength, to drag it onward to the next battle. In the enduring figure of Mother Courage, Bertolt Brecht has created one of the most extraordinary characters in the literature of drama.”
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. According to Barnes and Noble, “This novel explores the hidden springs of thought and action in one day of a woman’s life, a day that is also the last day of a war veteran’s life. Direct and vivid in her account of the details of Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for a party she is to give that evening, Woolf ultimately manages to reveal much more; for it is the feeling behind these daily events and their juxtaposition with the journey to suicide of Septimus Smith that gives Mrs. Dalloway its texture and richness.
Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is the inspiration for Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, the award-winning novel and Oscar-nominated film.
A 1925 landmark of modernist fiction that follows an the wife of an MP around London as she prepares for her party that afternoon. Direct and vivid in its telling of details, the novel shifts from the consciousness of Clarissa Dalloway to that of others, including a shell-shocked veteran of World War I whose destiny briefly intersects with hers.
The feelings that loom behind such mundane events as buying flowers — the social alliances, the exchanges with shopkeepers, the fact of death — give Mrs. Dalloway its texture and richness.”
Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw. According to Barnes and Noble, “One of Bernard Shaw’s early plays of social protest, Mrs. Warren’s Profession places the protagonist’s decision to become a prostitute in the context of the appalling conditions for working class women in Victorian England. Faced with ill health, poverty, and marital servitude on the one hand, and opportunities for financial independence, dignity, and self-worth on the other, Kitty Warren follows her sister into a successful career in prostitution. Shaw’s fierce social criticism in this play is driven not by conventional mrality, but by anger at the hypocrisy that allows society to condemn prostitution while condoning the discrimination against women that makes prostitution inevitable.” This Broadview edition includes a comprehensive historical and critical introduction; extracts from Shaw’s prefaces to the play; Shaw’s expurgations of the text; early reviews of the play in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain; and contemporary contextual documents on prostitution, incest, censorship, women’s education, and the “New Woman.”
Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Much Ado About Nothing is one of William Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. Written around 1598, the play is about a young woman wrongly accused of being unchaste who is later reconciled with her accusing lover. It is also about a second couple – two witty, bright individuals who swear they will never fall in love.
Stories about young women wrongly accused, brought close to death, and then rejoined with their lovers were really popular during the Renaissance. Shakespeare used that trope (which can be traced all the way back to the Greek romances) to make this light and silly comedy. The play trips along at a steady place as characters invent and pass on totally misleading information; watching this process as it undoes characters is like playing a 16th century game of Telephone.
This is a neat chance to watch Shakespeare shake a complex (sometimes unnecessarily complex) plot. Further, it’s a cool “study in progress” of Shakespeare: Beatrice and Benedick’s acidic romance is a more developed version of the hatred-turned-to-love from The Taming of the Shrew; and Don John, the inexplicably evil villain of this play, is a sort of character study for the inexplicably evil Iago of Shakespeare’s later play Othello.”
Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot. According to Barnes and Noble, “T. S. Eliot’s verse dramatization of the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Archbishop Thomas Becket speaks fatal words before he is martyred in T. S. Eliot’s best-known drama, based on the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. Praised for its poetically masterful handling of issues of faith, politics, and the common good, T. S. Eliot’s play bolstered his reputation as the most significant poet of his time.
A dramatization in verse of the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury.”
“My Last Duchess,” Robert Browning. According to Barnes and Noble, “Robert Browning published “My Last Duchess” in 1842 in a book of poems titled Dramatic Lyrics. As the title suggests, in these poems Browning experiments with form, combining some aspects of stage plays and some aspects of Romantic verse to create a new type of poetry for his own Victorian age. The Victorians are the poor unfortunates who come between the Romantics and the Modernists. In other words, authors in this period got sandwiched between two great movements that majorly influenced Western Culture, and so readers sometimes forget about the Victorian age writers.
It’s important to notice that “My Last Duchess” is one of the poems that falls into this somewhat problematic in-between age. (For reference, you can think of the Victorian era as stretching from 1837-1901. At least, those are the years when Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. You might know her better by the shorter title of Queen of England. Keep in mind that literary movements only correspond roughly with her reign.)
For the most part, poetry didn’t do so well in the Victorian period – it was the age of the novel, and everyone was reading Charles Dickens, George Eliot, or “penny dreadfuls,” which were the Victorian version of the sensationalist paperbacks sold in your local grocery store today. Most Victorian poets were highly experimental and, with the exception of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, not so highly popular; people kept reading the now-classic Romantic poets, likeWilliam Wordsworth and Lord Byron, instead of tuning in to the new developments in poetry.
Robert Browning alarmed his Victorian readers with psychological – and sometimes psychopathic – realism, wild formal experiments, and harsh-sounding language. These qualities, however, are what make poems like “My Last Duchess” so attractive to today’s readers, who value the raw power of Browning’s writing more than some of the feel-good flowery Romantic poems.
Browning’s inspiration for “My Last Duchess” was the history of a Renaissance duke, Alfonso II of Ferrara, whose young wife Lucrezia died in suspicious circumstances in 1561. Lucrezia was a Medici – part of a family that was becoming one of the most powerful and wealthy in Europe at the time. During Lucrezia’s lifetime, however, the Medici were just beginning to build their power base and were still considered upstarts by the other nobility. Lucrezia herself never got to enjoy riches and status; she was married at 14 and dead by 17. After her death, Alfonso courted (and eventually married) the niece of the Count of Tyrol.
Robert Browning takes this brief anecdote out of the history books and turns it into an opportunity for readers to peek inside the head of a psychopath. Although Browning hints at the real-life Renaissance back-story by putting the word “Ferrara” under the title of the poem as an epigraph, he removes the situation from most of its historical details. It’s important to notice that the Duke, his previous wife, and the woman he’s courting aren’t named in the poem at all. Even though there were historical events that inspired the poem, the text itself has a more generalized, universal, nameless feel.”
My Antonia, Willa Cather. According to Schmoop, “My Ántonia, published in 1918, is arguably the most famous work of American novelist Willa Cather. The novel takes the form of a fictional memoir written by Jim Burden about an immigrant girl named Ántonia with whom he grew up in the American West. Cather, like her character Jim, moved to Nebraska when she was ten years old, and she bases many of the events, characters, and settings of the novel on her own childhood experiences. The novel forms a sort of “trilogy” with two other prairie novels by Cather, O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915).
For its time and context, My Ántonia pushed the boundaries of traditional literature. First, its narrative structure is mainly built from episodes and anecdotes rather than a continuous storyline – Cather thinks nothing of jumping twenty years ahead in between chapters. For this reason, the novel is sometimes considered a modernist work (see “Genre” for more).
My Ántonia also blurs gender barriers. To begin, the novel is written by a woman but told through the eyes of a male narrator. Additionally, the characters in the story break from stereotypical gender roles – the women are strong, athletic, and active, while the men are generally passive and weak. Interestingly, while studying at the University of Nebraska, Cather herself used to wear men’s clothing and go by the name “William.”
Cather was also nontraditional in her choice of subject matter. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Cather chose to write about everyday people in the American West. My Ántonia focuses on the lives and concerns of average Nebraskans, including European immigrants – the kind of people that Cather grew up around. As a result, the novel provides modern readers a glimpse into the lives of the early white settlers of the American West.”
My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok. According to Barnes and Noble, “Asher Lev is a Ladover Hasid who keeps kosher, prays three times a day and believes in the Ribbono Shel Olom, the Master of the Universe. Asher Lev is an artist who is compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy.In this stirring and often visionary novel, Chaim Potok traces Asher’s passage between these two identities, the one consecrated to God, the other subject only to the imagination.
Asher Lev grows up in a cloistered Hasidic community in postwar Brooklyn, a world suffused by ritual and revolving around a charismatic Rebbe. But in time his gift threatens to estrange him from that world and the parents he adores. As it follows his struggle, My Name Is Asher Lev becomes a luminous portrait of the artist, by turns heartbreaking and exultant, a modern classic.”
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri. According to Barnes and Noble, “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies established this young writer as one the most brilliant of her generation. Her stories are one of the very few debut works—and only a handful of collections—to have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Among the many other awards and honors it received were the New Yorker Debut of the Year award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the highest critical praise for its grace, acuity, and compassion in detailing lives transported from India to America. In The Namesake, Lahiri enriches the themes that made her collection an international bestseller: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the conflicts of assimilation, and, most poignantly, the tangled ties between generations. Here again Lahiri displays her deft touch for the perfect detail—the fleeting moment, the turn of phrase—that opens whole worlds of emotion.
The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves. The New York Times has praised Lahiri as “a writer of uncommon elegance and poise.” The Namesake is a fine-tuned, intimate, and deeply felt novel of identity.”
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass. According to Barnes and Noble, “The impassioned abolitionist and eloquent orator provides graphic descriptions of his childhood and horrifying experiences as a slave as well as a harrowing record of his dramatic escape to the North and eventual freedom. Published in 1845 to quell doubts about his origins, the Narrative is admired today for its extraordinary passion, sensitive descriptions, and storytelling power. A selection of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”
Native Son, Richard Wright. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1940, Richard Wright’s Native Son was an instant success, even though it met with some controversy and chagrin among middle and upper middle class black Americans, who wished he had published a novel celebrating black people’s ability to transcend oppression. On the other hand, as a contemporaneous Time magazine article noted, Wright had written an even more difficult novel – one about a black man justly accused of murder whose actions were nevertheless shaped by American cultural, social, and economic forces that he couldn’t control. The sales of Native Son made Wright a wealthy writer and one of the most acclaimed black writers of all time. He is often called the “father” of black American literature.”
Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee. According to Barnes and Noble, “L is for Lee. Korean American Henry Park is “surreptitious, B+ student of life, illegal alien, emotional alien, Yellow peril: neo-American, stranger, follower, traitor, spy…” or so says his wife, in the list she writes upon leaving him. Henry is forever uncertain of his place, a perpetual outsider looking at American culture from a distance. And now, a man of two worlds, he is beginning to fear that he has betrayed both and belongs to neither. Chang-Rae Lee’s first novel Native Speaker is a raw and lyrical evocation of the immigrant experience and of the question of identity itself.”
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro. According to Barnes and Noble, “From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.
Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day.”
1984, George Orwell. According to Schmoop, “1984 is a famous novel by George Orwell about an ideal or “utopian” society gone bad. In literary terms, you would call this a “dystopian” society. Its primary message is something along the lines of “don’t let the government have too much power or they will make your lives completely miserable and possibly torture you for extended periods of time.” Orwell is a master satirist and 1984 is a textbook example of his scathing exaggerations. The book is so famous that we hear its language everywhere – all those “Big Brother” jokes? This is where they came from.”
No Exit, John Paul Sartew. According to Barnes and Noble, “No Exit was first presented in New York at the Biltmore Theatre with Claude Dauphin, Annabella, and Ruth Ford. Two women and one man are locked up together for eternity in one hideous room in hell. The windows are bricked up; there are no mirrors; the electric lights can never be turned off; and there is no exit. The irony of this hell is that its torture is not of the rack and fire, but of the burning humiliation of each soul as it is stripped of its pretenses by the cruel curiosity of the damned. Here the soul is shorn of secrecy, and even the blackest deeds are mercilessly exposed to the fierce light of hell. It is an eternal torment.”
No-No Boy, John Okada. According to Barnes and Noble, “John Okada was born in Seattle, Washington in 1923. He attended the University of Washington and Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II, wrote one novel and was dead of a heart attack at the age of 47. John Okada died in obscurity believing that Asian America had rejected his work.
“Asian American readers will appreciate the sensitivity and integrity with which the late John Okada wrote about his own group. He heralded the beginning of an authentic Japanese American literature.”–Gordon Hirabayashi, Pacific Affairs
“Nisei will recognize the authenticity of the idioms Okada’s characters use, as well as his descriptions of the familiar Issei and Nisei mannerisms that make them come alive.” –Bill Hosokawa, Pacific Citizen.”
Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevski. According to Schmoop, “Notes from the Underground is a fictional, first-person “confession” told by a hateful, hyper-conscious man living “underground.” Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian thinker living in St. Petersburg, wrote Notes in 1864. His wife was dying at the time, so you can speculate on how that might have affected his work. When writing, Dostoevsky said of the work: “It will be a powerful and candid piece; it will be truth.”
Later, Notes from the Underground was hailed as a forerunner to existential literature of the 20th century. Dostoevsky explores themes of absurdity, isolation, and radical personal freedom. Philosophers and writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett would take these ideas and run with them, developing more fully an entire school of thought, the seeds of which can be found in Notes. Existentialism, the philosophical belief that individuals (rather than a god or a government or authority) define the meaning of their own lives, blossomed in the 20th century. In other words, Dostoevsky was way ahead of his time.
Even outside of existentialism the impact of Notes from the Underground is staggering. It made popular a distinct and often imitated approach to the novel: the fictional “confession.” We see it again in Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man; in fact, the first paragraphs of Ellison’s novel are an explicit reference to Notes. Since Dostoevsky published Notes, we’ve seen everything from homage to parody, and a mountain of literary criticism.
Of course, all of this criticism, being good criticism and all, isn’t just talking about Notes from the Underground itself. It’s viewing the work in the context of its intellectual history. As you’ll soon find out, to study one piece of Russian literature often means studying many pieces of Russian literature. This stems from the fact that guys like Dostoevsky were carrying out their arguments on the written page. It worked like this: someone would write a treatise or argumentative novel, and instead of disagreeing in person, some other guys would just write a treatise or novel back. (This is why there are so many Russian texts.)
Before Dostoevsky wrote Notes, Ivan Turgenev published Fathers and Sons. Go back for a minute to Russia in the 1840’s, where, according to Turgenev, there’s a growing divide between the older generation (the traditionalist liberal “fathers”) and the younger (the growing group of nihilist “sons”). Traditionalists are steeped in Russian Orthodoxy (i.e., a belief God and morality), while the nihilists reject any notion of God or objective truth. Turgenev picks up on this growing divide, makes it the focus of the aptly-named Fathers and Sons, and publishes his earth-shattering novel in 1862.
Meanwhile, big changes are going down in Russia. Feudalism is coming to an end, the plight of the peon is finally brought to light, and governing this all is the European Enlightenment blowing in from the West, bringing with it social, political, and scientific change. (As one example, Darwin‘s Origin of Specieswas published in 1859 and first translated into Russian in 1864. This is a big rejection of the classic, age-old idea that God made everything.) The Enlightenment introduces rational egoism, the idea that man will always act reasonably and according to his own best interests.
So in 1863, a year after Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky publishes his response to the work, a novel called What Is to Be Done?This becomes known as “the handbook of radicalism” (source). It embraces the Enlightenment, praises socialism and rational egoism, and promises to turn all of society into “a Crystal Palace,” a technologically-advanced utopia (or ideal society).
Now what about Dostoevsky? Well, back in the 1840’s he’s hanging out with radical socialist thinkers and loving the idea of reform for Russia. Great, until 1849 when he gets thrown into prison for his intellectual troublemaking. When he finally gets back to St. Petersburg in 1859, he is singing a different tune. Rather than praising the virtues of reform, Dostoevsky is Mr. Traditional Russian Values – just in time to rail on Western European values for changing Russian institutions. Talk about being in the wrong intellectual camp at the wrong time.
And so, finally, in 1864, Dostoevsky writes Notes from the Underground, at least in part as a response to Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? from a year before. Remember, Chernyshevsky was all about rational egoism and the Crystal Palace – both of which are slandered and mocked in Notes from the Underground. Notes argues that man can never be confined to reason – to think as much would be to ignore free will, which, you will soon see, is quite the force of nature.”
Obasan, Joy Kogawa. According to Barnes and Noble, “Based on the author’s own experiences, this award-winning novel was the first to tell the story of the evacuation, relocation, and dispersal of Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War.”
The Octopus, Frank Norris. According to Barnes and Noble, “Based on an actual bloody dispute in 1880 between wheat farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad, this shocking tale of greed, betrayal, and a lust for power is played out during the waning days of the western frontier. The Octopus vividly and relentlessly records social and economic problems of the late-19th century.”
The Odyssey, Homer. According to Schmoop, “Published sometime between 800 and 600 BC, the Odyssey is, along with the Iliad, one of the best known, and most stupendously awesome, works of ancient literature – make that any literature. To fully appreciate its awesomeness, you’ll have to read it for yourself – Shmoop’s just here to make it a smoother ride. First, though, we can fill you in on some background information.
Being an ancient epic, the Odyssey was originally composed in the classic oral tradition of…not being written at all. Well, at least that’s what some scholars think, pointing to how the poem’s use of repetition echoes that of oral poets, who used repetition as a memory aid. On the other hand, if Homer did compose it on paper, wouldn’t it make sense for him to imitate the style of the oral poetry before him? It’s your call; the jury’s still out on this one. (For more information on this debate, check out our guide to the Iliad.) But this is missing the point. What really matters is the amazing power of Homer’s poem, which you now get to experience for yourself.
On one level, the Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad – but don’t let any prejudice about sequels throw you off. Really, the two poems are more like night and day – they complement each other, and are equally great. That said, to echo Bob Dylan, the author of these poems can definitely “take the dark out of the nighttime, / and paint the daytime black.” Even though the Iliad is all about war and suffering, it still finds time for moments of profound humanity. Meanwhile, the Odyssey, which is all about Odysseus’s crazy adventures on his way back home from war, never lets us forget that, for him, most of those adventures involve a lot of suffering. Also, you don’t have to read the Iliad first – the Odyssey itself fills you in on most of the relevant background background information, though you might want to refresh your memory of the Trojan War, if you’re feeling a bit rusty. (Unfortunately, watching the movie Troy doesn’t count.)
One more thing: if you haven’t already stopped reading this introduction and picked up Homer’s book, just think of all the generations of readers who have felt that the Odyssey speaks to them. Many of these readers have gone on to create their own, original artworks inspired by Homer’s epic. In this category, you’ve got Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid; Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”; James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses; countless paintings (check out Henry Fuseli’s “Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis”); Cream’s song “Tales of Brave Ulysses”; the Cohen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? – and the list goes on. Whether you’re most interested in literature, visual art, music, or movies, you’ve got to read Homer’s Odyssey to see where everybody’s getting their ideas.”
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles. According to Barnes and Noble, “Oedipus Rex is the greatest of the Greek tragedies, a profound meditation on the human condition. The story of the mythological king, who is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, has resonated in world culture for almost 2,500 years. But Sophocles’ drama as originally performed was much more than a great story—it was a superb poetic script and exciting theatrical experience. The actors spoke in pulsing rhythms with hypnotic forward momentum, making it hard for audiences to look away. Interspersed among the verbal rants and duels were energetic songs performed by the chorus.”
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck. According to Schmoop, “Adults can’t decide if they want to require you to read John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men—or make that sure you never even pick it up. Since it was published in 1937, it’s been banned about as often as it’s been assigned.
Why? Take your pick, really. Killing. Violence. Swearing. Brothels. Racism. Sexism. The book’s ending is beyond sad, and might be considered an endorsement of euthanasia. Not to mention, its message isn’t exactly full of praise for the American way of life.
Set in the American West during the Great Depression, the book is based on Steinbeck’s experiences during a 1936 assignment for the San Francisco News covering the migrant workers in California. Its two main characters, George and Lennie, embody the American struggle to survive the Depression—and capture the isolation and suffering that exist even in the land of opportunity. Despite its filthy-for-the-time language and a real downer of an ending, the book was popular right away, even being chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection before it was published. (That was something like being chosen for Oprah’s book club.)
And it wasn’t just popular with the middle-class book club readers. Critics and scholars praised its gritty realism, and Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature on the strength of this book and others like it. Although shorter than his super-famous The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men has all the same themes in one smaller, bite-sized package.
Not that it’s an easy bite to swallow. Of Mice and Men is risky, controversial, and modern. It says that maybe we’re all in big trouble—and not just from climate change, either. It says that our American notions of happiness are messed up, and if we expect perfection, or even fair play, we’re in for a sad surprise. Even in a country where we pride ourselves our supposed ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, there frequently aren’t enough bootstraps to go around. And when you do manage to get hold of a pair, those bootstraps often break.”
Old School, Tobia Wolff. According to Barnes and Noble, “The protagonist of Tobias Wolff’s shrewdly—and at times devastatingly—observed first novel is a boy at an elite prep school in 1960. He is an outsider who has learned to mimic the negligent manner of his more privileged classmates. Like many of them, he wants more than anything on earth to become a writer. But to do that he must first learn to tell the truth about himself.
The agency of revelation is the school literary contest, whose winner will be awarded an audience with the most legendary writer of his time. As the fever of competition infects the boy and his classmates, fraying alliances, exposing weaknesses, Old School explores the ensuing deceptions and betrayals with an unblinking eye and a bottomless store of empathy. The result is further evidence that Wolff is an authentic American master.”
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens. According to Schmoop, “Oliver Twist is one of the most famous novels Charles Dickens ever wrote, which is impressive, given that he wrote fifteen very popular novels during his life. It’s a classic rags-to-riches story about an orphan who has to find his way through a city full of criminals, and avoid being corrupted. People read Oliver Twist in Dickens’s day, and are still reading it now, for the gritty realism with which Dickens portrays working class people and the horrible living conditions of the London slums.
Oliver Twist is the second novel Dickens ever wrote, and it was published in installments between 1837 and 1839. Many novels at the time were published serially, meaning that each chapter was issued separately, once a month, over the space of a year or two.
Oliver Twist is very different from The Pickwick Papers, and some people had a hard time believing the two novels were written by the same person. The Pickwick Papers is a chaotic, rollicking good time. Everyone in it seems to be drunk on brandy fruit punch about three quarters of the time, and the rest of the time, they’re falling in love, being caught in compromising circumstances by going to the wrong hotel room, and eloping with spinster aunts.
Then there’s Oliver Twist. Where’s the rollicking good time? Where’s the punch? Where’s the smooching behind the garden wall? Instead, it opens in a dingy workhouse with the birth of the soon-to-be orphaned Oliver Twist. It’s a much darker story than Pickwick right from the get-go.
And it wasn’t just the lack of punch that caused contemporary readers to object. Oliver Twist is an example of a style of novel that was incredibly popular (but widely criticized) from the 1820s to the 1840s: the “Newgate novel.” The Newgate novel takes its name from the Newgate prison, the main prison for felons (pickpockets, thieves, prostitutes, murderers) in London. Throughout the 18th century, criminals were hanged on a regular basis in London, and the prisoners all spent their last days and nights in Newgate.
The famous criminals (the Charles Manson and Scott Petersons of the time) had little pamphlets written about them that were handed out at their execution. (Executions were like big street parties – children got to go, and vendors sold snacks.) These pamphlets, with the lives of criminals and their last words, were collected and published in one big volume called the “Newgate Calendar.” Writers like Charles Dickens would read the criminal biographies and get ideas for their novels.
Oliver Twist is Dickens’s only novel that qualifies as a “Newgate novel,” though, so it seems like he just wanted to try his hand at the popular style of writing before turning to other, loftier pursuits. We’re certainly happy that he experimented with the Newgate genre, because we’re left with the fruits of that experiment. And Oliver Twist, while not the rollicking good time of The Pickwick Papers, does have a lot going for it.”
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solshenitsyn. According to Barnes and Noble, “In the madness of World War II, a dutiful Russian soldier is wrongfully convicted of treason and sentenced to ten years in a Siberian labor camp. So begins this masterpiece of modern Russian fiction, a harrowing account of a man who has conceded to all things evil with dignity and strength.
First published in 1962, it is considered one of the most significant works ever to emerge from Soviet Russia. Illuminating a dark chapter in Russian history, Ivan Denisovich is at once a graphic picture of work camp life and a moving tribute to man’s will to prevail over relentless dehumanization.
One of the most chilling novels ever written about the oppression of totalitarian regimes–and the first to open Western eyes to the terrors of Stalin’s prison camps, this book allowed Solzhenitsyn, who later became Russia’s conscience in exile, to challenge the brutal might of the Soviet Union.”
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. According to Schmoop, “How’s this for an awesome origin myth? In 1966, a moderately successful journalist is driving his family to Acapulco. All his life, he’s wanted to write about growing up in his grandparents’ house, but he’s never really gotten a handle on just how to get across the weird mix of superstition, knowledge, religion, personal stories, and global history that surrounded him. Suddenly, the idea hits him full-on: a dead-end town; an endlessly repeating, cyclical, completely self-involved family; and above all, a narrator who doesn’t give any kind of overarching ethical commentary on the insanity of the characters or on the supernatural and fantastical things being described.
The journalist turns the car around, drives home, and sells the car for money. He begs his landlord and local stores for credit to keep him and his family going. Nine months later, out comes One Hundred Years of Solitude – one of the most important books of the century. It wins him the Nobel Prize for literature. It gets translated into a bazillion languages. And just like that, Gabriel García Márquez becomes one of the world’s most famous living authors. Pretty cool, right? You try writing a world-renowned masterpiece in nine months and let us know how it goes.
So what exactly makes this book so universally admired? There’s probably a long list, what with the beautiful use of language, the amazing imagery, and the peculiar style. But right up there is the incredible way that García Márquez takes the complicated history of Colombia – all the way from just after Bolivar liberated the colony from Spanish rule to the middle of the 20th century – and conveys it to us through the eyes of one crazily outsized, doomed family, and an equally messed up fictional town.
It’s not really historical fiction, the genre where made-up characters are plopped into the middle of actual events in the past (think Saving Private Ryan orA Tale of Two Cities). It does have elements of historical fiction (e.g., Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s involvement in the Colombian civil wars in the second half of the nineteenth century). But it’s much more than just “watch Joe Shmoe interact with George Washington.” The history is mixed in (sans commentary) with the very complicated personal lives of various members of the Buendía family and various magical and supernatural phenomena. When the book came out, it was unlike anything anybody had read before.
One last thing: if you don’t read Spanish and you’re worried that you won’t be able to really get a feel for the original, get a load of this. The novel was translated into English in 1970 by Gregory Rabassa, and Gabriel García Márquez has said that he prefers Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude to the Spanish original. Pretty impressive.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1962, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the story of a controlling nurse in a mental institute and a patient rebellion against her. The novel is based on the experiences author Ken Kesey had while working as an orderly in a mental institution in Menlo Park, California. In order to better understand the experiences of people in a mental institute, Kesey actually subjected himself to electroshock therapy (a form of treatment for the mentally ill, also called electroconvulsive therapy) and took many of their prescription drugs. After Kesey published the novel, it was made into a Broadway play and later a film starring Jack Nicholson.”
O Pioneers! Willa Cather, According to Barnes and Noble, “Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, takes over the family farm after her father’s death and falls under the spell of the rich, forbidding Nebraska prairie. Strong and resolute, she turns the wild landscape into orderly fields.
Born of Willa Cather’s early ties to the prairie and the immigrants who tamed it, O Pioneers! established new territory in American literature. In her transformation of ordinary Americans into authentic literary characters, Cather discovered her own voice.
A rich evocation of 19th-century American life on the prairie, Cather’s novel of immigrant homesteaders in Nebraska celebrates the landscape.”
The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty. According to Barnes and Noble, “This story of a young woman’s confrontation with death and her past is a poetic study of human relations.”
The Orestia, Aeschylus. According to Barnes and Noble, “In the Oresteia — the only trilogy in Greek drama that survives from antiquity — Aeschylus took as his subject the bloody chain of murder and revenge within the royal family of Argos. As they move from darkness to light, from rage to self-governance, from primitive ritual to civilized institution, their spirit of struggle and regeneration becomes an everlasting song of celebration.”
Orlando: A Biography of Virginia Wool, According to Barnes and Noble, “Virginia Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century and Orlando is one of her most unique and fantastic works. The protagonist, Orlando, begins the novel as a young sixteenth century aristocrat and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. She gives him an estate and orders him never to grow old. We then follow Orlando through the centuries, as he crisscrosses the world, falls in love, and becomes a woman. Profound and comic, Orlando is Woolf’s deepest investigation of gender roles.
A fictional biography–spanning three centuries in the life of an Elizabethan nobleman who becomes a woman.”
Othello, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Othello is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare around 1603. The play tells the story of a powerful general of the Venetian army, Othello, whose life and marriage are ruined by a conniving, deceitful, and envious soldier, Iago.
Othello is possibly the most famous literary exploration of the warping powers of jealousy and suspicion. At the same time, it’s among the earliest literary works dealing with race and racism. Othello, undeniably heroic even if ultimately flawed, is the most prominent black protagonist in early Western literature. Othello faces constant racism from other characters, especially when he marries Desdemona, a privileged white woman whose father disapproves of the union.
The play’s performance history has been marked by racism. To see a real black man and a white woman kiss onstage was seen as so unacceptable to many viewers that even in early twentieth century America, Othello had to be played by a white man in blackface. When Paul Robeson, a black American and the son of a slave, played Othello on Broadway in the 1940s, the performances electrified a still segregated nation.”
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. According to Barnes and Noble, “When the body of John Harmon, the dust-heap’s expected heir, is found in the Thames, fortunes change hands surprisingly, raising to new heights “Noddy” Boffin, a low-born but kindly clerk who becomes “the Golden Dustman.” Charles Dicken’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend encompasses the great themes of his earlier works: the pretensions of the nouveaux riches, the ingenuousness of the aspiring poor, and the unfailing power of wealth to corrupt all who crave it.”
Our Town, Thornton Wilder. According to Schmoop, “Our Town is Thornton Wilder’s most celebrated play. It opened on Broadway in 1938, received aPulitzer Prize for Drama, and went on to become one of the most frequently performed American plays of the twentieth century. In Wilder’s day, it was fashionable for plays to expose the hypocrisy of American life. With its focus on the precious moments in everyday life, Our Town deliberately departs from this perspective. The play follows the lives of two young neighbors in a small town, Emily and George, who fall in love. Our Town’s production coincided with political problems in Europe that would eventually become World War II. For audiences, Wilder’s play was an escape from international conflict and a retreat to small town America.”
Out of Africa, Isaak Dinesen. According to Barnes and Noble, “In this book, the author of Seven Gothic Tales gives a true account of her life on her plantation in Kenya. She tells with classic simplicity of the ways of the country and the natives: of the beauty of the Ngong Hills and coffee trees in blossom: of her guests, from the Prince of Wales to Knudsen, the old charcoal burner, who visited her: of primitive festivals: of big game that were her near neighbors—lions, rhinos, elephants, zebras, buffaloes—and of Lulu, the little gazelle who came to live with her, unbelievably ladylike and beautiful.”
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. According to Barnes and Noble, “In Pale Fire Nabokov offers a cornucopia of deceptive pleasures: a 999-line poem by the reclusive genius John Shade; an adoring foreword and commentary by Shade’s self-styled Boswell, Dr. Charles Kinbote; a darkly comic novel of suspense, literary idolatry and one-upmanship, and political intrigue.
Published in 1962, Pale Fire is an experimental synthesis of poetry and prose that displays Nabokov’s mastery of unorthodox structure.”
Pamela, Samuel Richardson. According to Barnes and Noble, “Hailed as the world’s first novel, “Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded” by Samuel Richardson is a gripping tale about a beautiful young maidservant in mid-1700’s England. After her employer dies, the employer’s son begins making advances toward her. The virtuous girl tries to stave off his advances, but Mr. B’s desperation eventually causes him to kidnap her in a misguided attempt to try and make her understand how much he loves her. When he realizes that Pamela is truly a chaste and innocent girl, he begins to treat her in a new and more respectful manner. In return, Pamela forgives her oppressor and tries to show him how to lead a more virtuous life. “Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded” is a novel full of scandal and unease. During its original publication, it shocked audiences with its lurid plot, yet Richardson gathered a large and faithful following of readers. Also present in the novel are themes of virtuosity, morality, and class differences during the Georgian Era of England. In terms of gender biases, Richardson knew that men and women were held to much different standards in terms of ethics, and he used the shock value of Mr. B’s actions to call awareness to the hypocritical social environment. Whether one is reading Richardson’s “Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded” for pure pleasure or as an in-depth look at the public climate of 18th century England, it will most assuredly not be a disappointment.”
A Passage to India, E.M. Forster. According to Schmoop, “Take a deep breath and repeat after us:
A girl walks into a cave…and an empire trembles.
It might seem scandalous to reduce E.M. Forster ‘s A Passage to India, a complex and multi-faceted work considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, to such a concise formula. But we humbly offer up this mantra as our homage to Forster’s novel, as a passage into his Passage to India. Published in 1924 when the cracks in the British Empire were just emerging, the novel centers on the trial of an Indian doctor accused of raping an Englishwoman. The work was the last of Forster’s novels, and a thematic departure for him as well. Previous novels such as A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910) stayed in Europe, focusing on the familiar Edwardian theme of the individual’s struggle against the stifling conventions of society. Informed by Forster’s own travels to India in 1912-13 and 1921, A Passage to India has been lauded not only for its critique of the British Empire, but also for its stylistic innovation and philosophical density.
So, a girl walks into a cave…and an empire trembles. One of the reasons that Forster’s novel is so amazing is that it takes an individual case – a rape trial – and shows how it sets off network of social, political, and cultural forces that reverberates across the British Empire. Set in India in the early 20th century when it was still a British colony, the novel challenges the claim that British had a right to colonize India. Variously called Britain’s “civilizing mission” or, inRudyard Kipling ‘s famous line, the “white man’s burden,” British imperialism was motivated by the idea that the British were a superior, enlightened, and more advanced race than non-European peoples, and thus had a duty to “civilize” these people, by force if necessary (source).
British imperialism in India entailed a fundamentally racist set of beliefs about “Orientals,” a term which denoted anyone living east of western Europe, from North Africa to China. Orientals were considered passive, weak, illogical, and morally corrupt with a tendency toward despotism. A Passage to India turns this imperial ideology on its head through its scathing depiction of British colonial bureaucrats, its detailed and nuanced portrayal of Indian characters, and its invocation of India’s rich history and culture. But it also shows how difficult the path to Indian independence would be through exploration of the tensions between the Hindu and Muslim characters in the novel.
Despite its critique of the British Empire, Forster’s novel continues to draw controversy, particularly in the field of postcolonial studies, a field devoted to the study of literary, social, and political issues relating to former European colonies. (Read more about postcolonial studies here.) Some critics argue that A Passage to India is still bogged down by the Orientalist stereotypes that the novel condemns. Others take issue with Forster’s exclusion of women from the idealized, though fraught, friendships between men in the novel – this exclusion is seen as revealing how the British Empire was not only a racist system, but a patriarchal one as well.
The novel certainly resists easy answers to these daunting questions. As Forster himself said of his novel, “When I began the book I thought of it as a little bridge of sympathy between the East and West, but this conception has had to go, my sense of truth forbids anything so comfortable” (Childs 22). In its refusal of “comfortable” solutions to pressing political issues, Forster’s novel doesn’t give us a blueprint to a better, happier, world. Instead, A Passage to India offers a way of thinking critically about our relationship to the world, and our relationship to ourselves. So we invite you to bid farewell to our mantra, and let yourself get lost in the extraordinary passages of Forster’s A Passage to India.”
Paradise Lost, John Milton. According to Schmoop, “John Milton wasn’t just a poet; he was a wanted man. In the 1640s a civil war was raging in England. On one side were the Royalists, a group of people that supported King Charles I (royalty, Royalists). On the other side were the Parliamentarians, the men of Parliament (think: Congress) who represented different parts of Britain. As you can probably guess, the Parliamentarians were fed up with their king and wanted Parliament to play a more important role in English politics and government. The young John Milton was all about the Parliamentarians and wrote a lot of pamphlets supporting their positions. In one very famous pamphlet, he actually defended Parliament’s right to behead the king should the king be found inadequate. According to Milton, the king exists to serve the people and Parliament; if he doesn’t fulfill his end of the bargain, they should be allowed to kill him. Cheery, huh?
As it turns out, Charles I didn’t fulfill his end of the bargain (ruh-roh) and literally lost his head in 1649. There was no king until 1660. At that time, Parliament realized things weren’t working out so well, so they decided to bring back Charles’s exiled son, Charles II, and make him king. The return of Charles II from exile to assume the English throne is called the Restoration, because the English monarchy was restored.
As you might expect, Charles II wasn’t too happy about his dad’s death and he executed many of those responsible. While Milton wasn’t directly involved in the beheading, he was still a wanted man. He spent some time behind bars, and almost found his way to the chopping block, but, thankfully, he was eventually pardoned with the help of influential friends like fellow poet Andrew Marvell. (Check out Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress.”)
By this time Milton was totally blind as well, and the thing for which he passionately fought (a better English government) was in ruins. In many ways, he was in the perfect position to write a poem about the loss of Paradise, seeing as how his own aspirations for a brand new government had gone up in smoke. People have often commented on the fact that Milton himself resembles the Satan he creates in his poem; Satan (who, when the story begins, has just been crushed) attempted to launch a revolution to do away with God, because he thought God was a tyrant. The similarities between Milton and the Satan he creates are huge and worth pondering. But, at the end of the day, we should be careful about identifying Milton – a very serious Christian – too completely with Satan and his wingmen.
But Milton didn’t just write Paradise Lost because he was upset and felt that he had lost his own paradise; he had been planning the poem for quite some time. Actually, Milton always saw himself alongside the greatest poets of Western literature – Homer (Greek), Virgil (Roman), Dante (Italian), and Spenser(English), among others. Milton, being Milton, also realized that to be a full member of the Cool Writer Club he had to write an epic. But, whereas most of those other poets wrote epics celebrating martial heroism (i.e., being a good soldier, winning wars, etc.), Milton’s poem explores a more spiritual heroism.
If competing with the great poets of the past weren’t enough, Milton was completely blind! He couldn’t see. That means he had to dictate Paradise Lost to somebody (the person who transcribes a dictation is called an amanuensis, by the way; ten points if you can use that word in conversation today). Just try writing your next essay by dictation, and then imagine writing a poem that is several hundred pages long. Yikes!”
Passing, Nella Larsen. According to Barnes and Noble, “Married to a successful physician and prominently ensconced in Harlem’s vibrant society of the 1920s, Irene Redfield leads a charmed existence-until she is shaken out of it by a chance encounter with a childhood friend. Clare Kendry has been “passing for white,” hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. Clare and her dangerous secret pose an increasingly powerful threat to Irene’s security, forcing both women to confront the hazards of public and private deception. An important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Nella Larsen was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Her fictional portraits of women seeking their identities through a fog of racial confusion were informed by her own Danish-West Indian parentage, and Passing offers fascinating psychological insights into issues of race and gender.”
Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen. According to Barnes and Noble, “Among the masterpieces of world literature, this great verse drama by Norway’s famed playwright humorously yet profoundly explores the virtues, vices, and follies common to all humanity as it follows the roguish life of a charming but arrogant young man. A literary delight since it was first published in 1875.
Ibsen’s last work to use poetry as a medium of dramatic expression, Peer Gynt carries the marks of his later, prose plays.”
Pere Goriot, Honore de Balzac. According to Barnes and Noble, “A supreme observer and chronicler of nineteenth-century French society, Honoré de Balzac wrote a vast number of novels and short stories collectively known as The Human Comedy. These books were unsurpassed for their narrative drive and scope, their large casts of vibrant, diverse, and interesting characters, and their obsessive interest in and examination of virtually all spheres of life.
The greatest of these novels is Père Goriot, which opens in a dirty boarding-house where three of the novel’s main characters live. Goriot is a father who sacrifices his wealth and health so that his two daughters can gain access to Parisian high society. He pays off their debts, succumbs to their lavish demands, and receives nothing but scorn in return. His fellow boarder is the mysterious Vautrin, one of Balzac’s most remarkable creations. A criminal mastermind, Vautrin recognizes that the social contract is nothing but a fraud for those without money and power. Finally, there is Rastignac, who represents one of Balzac’s favorite themes—the ambitious young provincial fighting for advancement in the competitive world of Paris. With Goriot and Vautrin acting as surrogate fathers, Rastignac begins his climb up the social ladder—only to discover that there is a spiritual cost to be paid for life’s apparent prizes.”
Persuasion, Jane Austen. According to Schmoop, “Persuasion was the last novel Jane Austen completed, and it didn’t appear in print until 1818, after she had passed away. It’s also shorter than most of her other novels, and some critics think that, because she wrote the novel while she was sick with the disease that would eventually kill her, she didn’t expand and polish Persuasion as much as she would have if she had been in good health.
Because of Persuasion’s shorter length, it was published as a package with another novel that Austen hadn’t published during her lifetime – her first completed novel, Northanger Abbey. Publishing the two novels together does make sense as more than a marketing gimmick (two Austen novels for the price of one!) – both are set partly in Bath, both feature bookish heroines, and both have troublesome father figures.
But there are also major differences between the two books. While Northanger Abbey is a lighthearted send-up of Gothic novel clichés, the term scholars most often use to describe Persuasion is “autumnal” – the kind of feeling you get when there’s a chill in the air and dead leaves falling from the trees. Persuasion’s protagonist is an aristocratic woman named Anne Eliot. Anne is unmarried, having rejected her lover, a naval officer, after being persuaded by her friends and family that he was unsuitable. At 27 she’s the oldest of Austen’s heroines and, unlike the others, she’s already had, and lost, her chance at love. Anne lives on her memories of summer, but feels that only winter lies ahead.
Persuasion asks: are endings ever really endings? When is it worthwhile holding on to the past, and when should you let it go and move on to the next thing? And the novel asks that question on a much larger scale than just Anne’s romantic prospects. In setting up a face off between those who inherited their social status (the aristocracy) and those who worked for it (naval officers), Persuasion examines the pros and cons of the way power is distributed in society – and how that distribution is changing. The novel is set at a historical moment when society is in major flux: the Napoleonic Wars, which had been raging for over a decade, finally seem over, and the troops are at long last coming home to make new lives for themselves as civilians. They return to a nation that glorifies their military service but is ruled by an aristocracy that doesn’t always want to accept them as equals. Can the to-the-manor-born aristocrat and the self-made individual figure out how to get along? Should they even try? Is it time to turn off the life support on the old ways of living, or are there parts worth saving? Not only Anne but her whole society (and Austen’s too) have to figure out answers to these questions, or at least think through them well enough to find their way through winter into spring.”
Phaedre, Jean Racine. According to Barnes and Noble, “One of the greatest plays of all time.
Racine’s Phedre, which is printed here in the original French facing Rawling’s translation, is the supreme achievement of French neoclassic tragedy. In her amusing Foreword, Rawlings explains how this particular translation, made specifically from the actor’s point of view, evolved from the 1957 Campbell Allen production.
Containing both the French and English texts plus Racine’s own Preface and notes on his contemporary and classical references, this edition of Phedre is a favorite among modern readers and is of special value to students, amateur companies, and repertory theaters alike.
Racine’s most powerful drama in an entirely faithful English translation.”
The Piano Lesson, August Wilson. According to Barnes and Noble, “August Wilson has already given the American theater such spell-binding plays about the black experience in 20th-century America as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Fences. In his second Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Piano Lesson, Wilson has fashioned his most haunting and dramatic work yet. At the heart of the play stands the ornately carved upright piano which, as the Charles family’s prized, hard-won possession, has been gathering dust in the parlor of Berniece Charles’s Pittsburgh home. When Boy Willie, Berniece’s exuberant brother, bursts into her life with his dream of buying the same Mississippi land that his family had worked as slaves, he plans to sell their antique piano for the hard cash he needs to stake his future. But Berniece refuses to sell, clinging to the piano as a reminder of the history that is their family legacy. This dilemma is the real “piano lesson,” reminding us that blacks are often deprived both of the symbols of their past and of opportunity in the present.
Set in 1936, The Piano Lesson is a powerful new play from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A sister and brother fight over a piano that has been in the family for three generations, creating a remarkable drama that embodies the painful past and expectant future of black Americans.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde. According to Schmoop, “The Picture of Dorian Gray was Oscar Wilde‘s only novel (he’s mostly famous for his plays, poetry, and short stories), but what a novel it is! In the century or so since its initial publication in 1890, the fate of poor Dorian Gray has taken hold of the popular imagination. Dorian’s story plays upon the timeless theme of selling one’s soul in exchange for earthly pleasures (see other classics like Goethe’s Faust or the musical Damn Yankees), and the inevitable disaster that results. Wilde’s version of this narrative is particularly notable for its embrace of the hedonistic lifestyle of the Decadents, a late nineteenth century artistic movement that prized beauty and aesthetic experience over everything else. Dorian Gray and its protagonist have become synonymous with the pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its moral consequences.
The novel raised quite a blizzard of scandal in its day, and had critics denouncing Wilde for what they perceived to be his own innate immorality – and as a result, he responded with the famous “Preface” to the novel (published in its second edition) that explained his artistic beliefs. (Check out more discussion of the Preface in “What’s Up with the Epigraph?”) Altogether, The Picture of Dorian Gray reveals Wilde’s philosophy more than any of his other works; reading it is an essential key to understanding his artistic mission as a whole.”
The Plague, Albert Camus. According to Barnes and Noble, “A haunting tale of human resilience in the face of unrelieved horror, Camus’ novel about a bubonic plague ravaging the people of a North African coastal town is a classic of twentieth-century literature.
An epidemic serves a telling symbol for the Nazi occupation of France, and, by extension, for human existence as a whole.”
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov. According to Barnes and Noble, “Pnin is a professor of Russian at an American college who takes the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he cannot master. Pnin is a tireless lover who writes to his treacherous Liza: “A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do.” Pnin is the focal point of subtle academic conspiracies he cannot begin to comprehend, yet he stages a faculty party to end all faculty parties forever.
Readers meet one of Nabokov’s funniest and most heartrending characters: Timofey Pnin, a professor of Russian at an American college, who lectures in a language he cannot master.”
Pocho, Jose Antonio Villarreal. According to Barnes and Noble, “Villarreal illuminates here the world of “pochos,” Americans whose parents come to the United States from Mexico. Set in Depression-era California, the novel focuses on Richard, a young pocho who experiences the intense conflict between loyalty to the traditions of his family’s past and attraction to new ideas. Richard’s struggle to achieve adulthood as a young man influenced by two worlds reveals both the uniqueness of the Mexican-American experiences and its common ties with the struggles of all Americans — whatever their past.”
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver According to Barnes and Noble, “The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy.”
Portrait of a Lady, Henry James. According to Barnes and Noble, “One of Henry James’s most popular long novels (and widely regarded by critics as one of his finest), The Portrait of a Lady is the story of a spirited young American woman, Isabel Archer, who “affronts her destiny” and finds it overwhelming. She inherits a large amount of money and subsequently becomes the victim of Machiavellian scheming by two American expatriates. Like many of James’s novels, it is set mostly in Europe (mostly England and Italy) and reflects James’s continuing interest in the differences between the New World and the Old, often to the detriment of the former. It also treats in a profound way the themes of personal freedom, responsibility, betrayal, and sexuality.”
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce. According to Schmoop, “James Joyce certainly wrote some Very Important Books. Ulysses(1922), and Finnegan’s Wake (1939) are two of the most significant novels of the twentieth century, and if you talk to some grad students, they might argue quite convincingly that Ulysses is more important to our modern world than the Bible. Joyce is lauded for his total re-envisioning of the novel – and of the world in general. But before these two massively important and, let’s face it, incredibly difficult texts came into being, Joyce published his first major work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in 1916. This novel, the first in Joyce’s whopping hat-trick of great novels, is both shorter and more approachable than either of Joyce’s later masterpieces (for which we humbly thank him).
Portrait of the Artist really unleashed the massive power of Joyce’s innovation and unconventionality upon the literary world. Notably, the novel starts to make use of techniques that would make Joyce famous – and infamous – with Ulysses, such as stream of consciousness narration, interiority (a revealing view of the character’s inner workings), and a frank realism that shocked some readers of the time. The novel also introduces us to Stephen Dedalus, who would later be featured prominently in Ulysses. This book is definitely much loved and studied in its own right, however.
Portrait of the Artist is Joyce’s reworking of the classic coming of age story (the fancy German term is bildungsroman), and it mirrors the author’s life up to age 20, when he left Dublin for Paris. Its challenging attitude to family, homeland, and the Catholic Church all gave the novel (and Joyce himself) quite the reputation when it was published. Joyce treats youth with a directness and honesty that’s pretty remarkable. In short – great book then, great book now.”
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene. According to Barnes and Noble, “In a poor, remote section of southern Mexico, the Red Shirts have taken control. God has been outlawed, and the priests have been systematically hunted down and killed. Now, the last priest strives to overcome physical and moral cowardice in order to find redemption.”
Praisesong for the Widow, Paule Marshall. According to Barnes and Noble, “Praisesong for the Widow is a novel full of music and dancing; it describes the sickness that occurs when we disconnect from our heritage and the healing power that comes from reclaiming the music and rhythms of the ancestors. Its hero, Avatar “Avey” Johnson, was a new character in black literature: an affluent middle-aged black woman, a mother, a grandmother, and a widow. Avey and her late husband worked hard to climb from the slums of Harlem to the comforts of suburban White Plains. But that material comfort brought with it a spiritual disease—a hard-to-diagnose but impossible-to-ignore malaise that eventually erupted into violent illness during a Caribbean vacation. In this novel, Paule Marshall traces Avey’s journey from sickness to strength, from the soulless suburbs to the African roots of her identity.
The novel opens with a curious scene: a woman throwing clothes into a suitcase. Since her husband passed away, Avey had been going on cruises with her friends from work, Thomasina and Glance. It is on a Caribbean vacation that she finds herself in distress and decides to abandon the cruise. She finds herself dreaming of childhood summers spent in South Carolina with her Aunt Cuney. Aunt Cuney used to take her to Ibo Landing to do the Ring Shout, a ritual dance in honor of the Africans who were brought to the Landing to be sold as slaves. Later she dreams of her late husband who, in his drive for material success in a white world, shut their lives off from the passion and sense of community they had once shared.
The next day she runs into Lebert Joseph, an old man who listens to her concerns, diagnoses her problem, and prescribes cure: a trip to the island of Carricacou, where she undergoes a reunion with that part of her African heritage and traditions that she has allowed to lie dormant within her for so many years. On the island of Carricacou, Avey observes and eventually partici pates in rituals with the islanders. In one of their rituals, prayers and songs are followed by dances. Each nation is called on to dance, but Avey cannot join until they begin to dance the Carricacou Tramp, a dance she recognizes as the same Ring Shout she did as a child in South Carolina. With that, she is reunited with the roots of her own identity and that of her people. It is through the rituals on the island that she realizes the connective thread between the Ring Shout danced by church members, the neighborhood picnics and jazz music in Harlem, and the African origins of her people.
Praisesong for the Widow takes on a decidedly contemporary problem: the rootlessness of a generation of black women—and men—who forsook the traditions of the ancestors and the warmth of the community for a sterile and materialistic version of the American dream. In this novel, Marshall takes a character suffering from this modern dilemma and cures her by immersing her in a world of history, myth, and ritual. The novel is written so vividiy and lyrically, one can almost see Avey dancing the Ring Shout and hear the drums in tribute to the islander’s ancestors. The book won the American Book Award in 1984.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving. According to Barnes and Noble, “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn’t believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God’s instrument. What happens to Owen after that 1953 foul ball is extraordinary.
In the summer of 1953, during a Little League baseball game, 11-year-old Owen Meany hits a foul ball that kills his best friend’s mother. What happens to him after that fateful day makes A Prayer for Owen Meany extraordinary, terrifying, and unforgettable.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. According to Schmoop, “When Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, it was a big to-do for a woman to be so totally immodest and exhibitionist as to actually have strangers reading something she wrote for money. Oh, how shocking and taboo! Because of that, the novel came out anonymously (as had Sense and Sensibility only a year earlier). Yeah, it was kind of a different time back then. Imagine how those people would feel about sex bloggers.
Anyway, not only was it a big deal for women to be authors, but it was also kind of a foregone conclusion that everyone would think that their novels were automatically kind of lame and chic-lit – you know, not like man-novels, what with their deep thoughts and serious subjects. Austen knew this would happen to her, and made fun of the situation in a letter she wrote to her sister:
[Pride and Prejudice] is rather too light & bright & sparkling; – it wants shade; – it wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter […] about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Bonaparte – or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile. (Letter to Cassandra Austen, February 4, 1813)
How do we know she’s kidding around? Well, just imagine Mr. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth Bennet, and all of a sudden the novel takes a break and cuts to a long, dry essay about history. That’s not really anyone’s idea of a good time. Sadly, though, enough people took her at face value that, for a long time, this became the go-to Austen description: pretty cute, but totally small-time.
In reality, the novel deals with plenty of its own deep thoughts and serious subjects – even history. For one thing, it’s set at the turn of the 19th century, at a time when just across the English Channel all sorts of insanity had just gone down in France. We’re talking about a little thing called the French Revolutionand the whole guillotine-the-king situation. It was madness, baby. It set in motion all sort of chain reactions.
Historically, just as kings everywhere else in Europe were making sure their heads were still attached to their necks, up came Napoleon, rampaging through the continent and conquering stuff left and right. All those soldiers that are quartered in Meryton? They’re waiting to maybe ship out to fight that guy. When Mr. Wickham switches from being in the militia to being the regular army at the end? Oh, he’s definitely going to war ASAP.
Philosophically, at the turn of the century, the old debate between rationality and emotions was heating up again. The 18th century had been the Age of Enlightenment, with Voltaire and David Hume and Adam Smith totally making sense of life in a super-scientific, man-centered, non-religious way. It was all going along swimmingly, when, suddenly, Enlightenment ideas about the right of men and the value of individuals were taken up by revolutionaries in British colonies in America, and then in France, and, before you know it, they’re overthrowing monarchies and doing it up democracy-style across the Atlantic. Across the English Channel? Well, see the previous paragraph: chaos, mass murder, Napoleon. So, for every time in the novel the characters start debating if they’re supposed to be making decisions based on reason and rationality or feelings and impressions – boy, oh boy, is there a lot at stake in those conversations.
Economically, this is the first time – because of the Enlightenment and whole rights-of-man thing we just mentioned – that there were a lot of intelligent, newly-educated women, who suddenly looked around and said, “Hey, how come we don’t get to own property? How come earning our own money is somehow disreputable? How come we have no rights or political power? How come we’re supposed to be all quiet and not talk and not think?” If you think Pride and Prejudice isn’t very direct about all of these things, well, you’ve got to go back and read it again.”
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark. According to Barnes and Noble, “At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls, in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods, in her attraction to the married art master, Teddy Lloyd, in her affair with the bachelor music master, Gordon Lowther, and—most important—in her dedication to “her girls,” the students she selects to be her crème de la crème. Fanatically devoted, each member of the Brodie set—Eunice, Jenny, Mary, Monica, Rose, and Sandy—is “famous for something,” and Miss Brodie strives to bring out the best in each one. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”
And they do. But one of them will betray her.”
Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw. According to Schmoop, “Pygmalion, written in 1912 by George Bernard Shaw and first performed two years later, tells the story of Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics (speech), who bets his friend that he can pass off a poor flower girl with a Cockney accent as a duchess by teaching her to speak with an upper class accent.
In addition to being a playwright, Shaw was a theater critic, an essayist, a lifelong socialist and advocate for the working class, and, like Higgins, something of a phonetician. Given the scope of his interests, it should come as no surprise that he had a lot to say about a lot of things. Pygmalion, like most of Shaw’s plays, is didactic. That is, it’s meant to teach the audience about something. In this case, Shaw wants us to think about the problems caused by our “common” language, and how language can separate people from different places and classes, even different parts of the same town. In his preface to the play, entitled, “A Professor of Phonetics,” he writes, “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like” (source). Seems like he’s about ready to yell, “We have a failure to communicate!” Well, instead of screaming, he wrote Pygmalion. (He called for the creation of an “improved” system of spelling English, but, thankfully, it didn’t catch on. You can read more about it in “Trivia.”)
It’s easy to sympathize with Shaw, though. If you’ve ever had trouble understanding someone because his accent was different than yours, or had trouble pronouncing an unfamiliar word (why does “subtle” have a “b” in it anyway?), you probably know what Shaw’s talking about: sometimes English doesn’t really make much sense, even to native speakers. When you consider that Shaw was writing at a time when the British Empire was still around, when people from all over the globe were expected and sometimes forced to communicate in English, and the situation only becomes more complicated.
All this talk about language is only the beginning, though. Shaw uses it as a base to discuss other issues: problems about society, class, and gender. No need to get overwhelmed right off the bat, though. It’s best to take it slow and start with words. That’s where all literature begins, right?
Given that we can all relate to these problems, however, it’s no surprise that Pygmalion was and is extremely popular. Most people know the plot from My Fair Lady, the musical film adaptation of Shaw’s play (sorry to say, there’s no rain in Spain falling mainly on the plain in the original), and it’s been parodied by everyone from The Three Stooges to The Simpsons and Family Guy. Shaw also wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1938 film version, making him the only person ever to win both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Pretty good for a play about a grouchy professor and a poor flower girl, no?”
Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow. According to Barnes and Noble, “Published in 1975, Ragtime changed our very concept of what a novel could be. An extraordinary tapestry, Ragtime captures the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century and the First World War.
The story opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, at the home of an affluent American family. One lazy Sunday afternoon, the famous escape artist Harry Houdini swerves his car into a telephone pole outside their house. And almost magically, the line between fantasy and historical fact, between real and imaginary characters, disappears. Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, and Emiliano Zapata slip in and out of the tale, crossing paths with Doctorow’s imagined family and other fictional characters, including an immigrant peddler and a ragtime musician from Harlem whose insistence on a point of justice drives him to revolutionary violence.”
A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry. According to Schmoop, “A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry and produced on stage in 1959, marks a watershed moment in American theater. On the face of it, A Raisin in the Sun was not destined for success. With only one white cast member, an inexperienced director, and an untried playwright, Hansberry had difficulty finding financial backing for the play at a time when theater audiences were overwhelmingly white. It was an immediate success, however, and after several tours, it opened on Broadway, making it the first-ever Broadway play written by an African-American woman.
What makes Hansberry’s writing remarkable is not only her accuracy in capturing the racial dynamics of her time, but her foresight in predicting the direction black culture would take in subsequent years. The play’s setting covers a pivotal time period for race relations in America – after WWII and before 1959. When Americans fought in World War II, they were fighting to uphold equality for all…which exposed the hypocrisy of the very unequal conditions for blacks back home. Americans were only beginning to address these inequalities at the time Hansberry was writing, and she did a great job at capturing the mood of her time through only one family.
As discussed in the “What’s Up with the Epigraph?” section, the Younger family’s fulfillment/non-fulfillment of their dreams mirrors how black Americans as a whole had gained some concessions while still being oppressed in other respects. A character like Beneatha, however, is way ahead of her time. The play opened in 1959, remember, which is before all the feminists started demanding their rights, and before black Americans began embracing Africa as part of their identity. Beneatha embodies both movements before they ever existed.
One last note: A Raisin in the Sun is part of broader shift in black art towards depicting working-class, ordinary African-Africans. Previously, black intellectuals did not use literature, art, or the stage to portray working-class African-Americans for fear they would perpetuate undesirable stereotypes. Both poet Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry thought this was ridiculous; they felt that writing about lower class African-Americans would actually debunk the stereotypes. By focusing on the dreams and aspirations of one particular working-class black family, moreover, Hansberry was able to show audiences the universality of black aspirations while also demonstrating that their race posed a significant barrier to achieving those goals.”
The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope. According to Barnes and Noble, “A rare example of a literary work where text, typography, and illustration perfectly complement one another. Created during Beardsley’s Romantic period, the rich, textural contrasts of his drawings are a wonderful match for the delicate fancy of Pope’s poem. “These drawings . . . can scarcely be matched in English literature.”
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane. According to Barnes and Noble, “Small masterpiece set the pattern for the treatment of war in modern fiction. Amid the nightmarish chaos of a Civil War battle, a young soldier discovers courage, humility, and, perhaps, wisdom. Widely praised for uncanny re-creation of the sights, sounds, and sense of actual combat. An enduring landmark of American fiction.
In the spring of 1863, as he faces battle for the first time at Chancellorsville, Virginia, a young Union soldier matures to manhood and finds peace of mind as he comes to grips with his conflicting emotions about war.”
Redburn, Herman Melville. According to Barnes and Noble, “Redburn charts the coming-of-age of Wellingborough Redburn, a young innocent who embarks on a crossing to Liverpool together with a roguish crew. Once in Liverpool, Redburn encounters the squalid conditions of the city and meets Harry Bolton, a bereft and damaged soul, who takes him on a tour of London that includes a scene of rococo decadence unlike anything else in Melville’s fiction.”
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. According to Barnes and Noble, “A tragic, spiritual portrait of a perfect English butler and his reaction to his fading insular world in post-war England. A wonderful, wonderful book.”
Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie. According to Barnes and Noble, “Winner of the American Book Award and a critically acclaimed national best seller, Reservation Blues continues to find new and adoring readers in academic and popular circles alike. In 1931, Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil, receiving legendary blues skills in return. He went on to record only twenty-nine songs before being murdered on August 16, 1938. In 1992, however, Johnson suddenly reappears on the Spokane Indian Reservation and meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the misfit storyteller of the Spokane Tribe. When Johnson passes his enchanted instrument to Thomas – lead singer of the rock-and-roll band Coyote Springs – a magical odyssey begins that will take the band from reservation bars to small-town taverns, from the cement trails of Seattle to the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Sherman Alexie imaginatively mixes narrative, newspaper excerpts, songs, journal entries, visions, radio interviews, and dreams to explore the effects of Christianity on Native Americans in the late twentieth century. In addition, he examines the impact of cultural assimilation on the relationships between Indian women and Indian men. Reservation Blues is a painful, humorous, and ultimately redemptive symphony about God and indifference, faith and alcoholism, family and hunger, sex and death.”
The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy. According to Schmoop, “Thomas Hardy actually didn’t consider himself much of a novelist, even though he is now super famous for his novels. Instead, Hardy thought of himself as a poet who just wrote novels on the side to make some cash. Whatever his motives for writing them, his novels are what most people remember him for, and his novels brought him fame (and notoriety) in his own lifetime.
Hardy was born in 1840 and died in 1928 – so he lived to be crazy old. But he pretty much stopped publishing novels and prose by the end of the nineteenth century. What’s the deal? Well, Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure (1895) received such scathing reviews that he swore off the whole novel-writing business and decided to just go back to poetry for the rest of his life. And we can see some signs of things to come in Hardy’s reaction to the criticism The Return of the Native received.
The Return of the Native was Hardy’s sixth published and seventh completed novel – his first novel was apparently so crappy that he never published it, upon the advice of his friend and mentor George Meredith. This novel was published in a serial magazine called Belgravia in twelve installments during the year 1878. Belgravia was known for being highly sensational, or over-the-top, which may account for some of the more melodramatic elements in The Return of the Native. Overall, the novel got fairly mixed reviews. People generally were impressed with Hardy’s writing chops, his skills with language, and his characters. But they also found him somewhat off-putting for his depressing attitude.
The Spectator magazine’s 1879 review said that the book “treats tragedy itself as hardly more than a deeper tinge of the common leaden-colour of the human lot, and so makes it seem less than tragedy – dreariness, rather than tragedy.”
People had fairly mixed reactions to how much of a downer the book was. However, Hardy was also put-off by his own audience. The interesting thing about The Return of the Native is that its ending is not what Hardy had in mind (you can read the juicy details in the “What’s Up with the Ending?” section). Long story short, Hardy bowed to public pressure and demand for a happy ending and got rid of his original completely-and-utterly depressing ending. But he also added a rather snarky footnote that implies that his readers were too dumb to handle his original, and wildly depressing, ending. Hardy could be a bit elitist and wasn’t always a fan of the general reading public, who failed to “understand” his ideas.
As a result of the tensions between Hardy and his readers, The Return of the Native can come off as rather strange in places, like a puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together. It’s definitely interesting to see the different elements that make up the novel – a mixture of Hardy’s naturalistic interest in nature and the universe, and public demand for romance and drama. And that’s not all – we can also see Hardy’s decision to draw upon Greek and Shakespearean tragedies in this novel, the constraints of serial publishing (which turned chapters and volumes into mini TV-like episodes), and the odd historical position that Hardy occupied in the late Victorian era.
What was so odd about this historical position? Well, Hardy was sort of caught up between the Romantic movement (which was on its way out), Realism (which was on the rise), and Modernism (which would be coming down the pipeline in a few years). Hardy’s novel seems to veer back and forth between over-the-top romance, harsh realism, an interest in character drama, and a focus on mythology and nature.
This focus on nature is definitely worth noting in this novel. See, Hardy set nearly all of his novels in the fictional county of Wessex in Southwest England, which is where Hardy himself was born and raised (in the real county of Dorset – that would be cool if he were raised in an imaginary county, though). Wessex is sort of like Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha county.
In the fake county of Wessex, Hardy explored social issues, the impact of industrialization on the countryside, his own ideas on nature and fate, and so on. It was sort of a laboratory for Hardy’s ideas. The land and nature play a huge role in all of Hardy’s work, but perhaps none more so than The Return of the Native. It’s also worth noting that Hardy moved from London to a more rural area before beginning work on The Return of the Native, and Hardy’s own “return” to a more natural zone may have influenced the direction this novel took.
One last thing to consider: why did Hardy set the novel about 25 years in the past? Well, this was actually a rather common thing to do among Victorian realist authors – George Eliot set many of her (yes, George Eliot was actually Mary Anne Evans – no nineteenth-century trend to name girls George, Harry, Richard…) novels in the past, as did Charles Dickens. The past was a way for these authors to explore social issues and to examine how the current way of doing things came about in the first place. So for realist authors concerned with social themes, it made sense to go back in time to explore them. Hardy is no exception to this Victorian novel trend.”
Richard III, William Shakesp. According to Barnes and Noble, “Richard II dramatizes the downfall of, you guessed it, King Richard II (1367-1400), a lousy English king who gets bumped off the throne by Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. King Henry IV) and then tossed in the slammer, where he experiences an identity crisis bigger than King Lear‘s (and maybe even Hamlet‘s) before he’s finally put out of his misery (read: murdered).
Basically, it’s the story of a major power shift in 14th century England, which means the play is one giant political soap opera. There’s even a weird sex scandal (Act 3, Scene 1) that might give ex-US Congressman Anthony Weiner, former US Prez Bill Clinton, or the ex-“Governator” of California Arnold Schwarzenegger a run for their money.
Written around 1595, Richard II is the first play in Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare‘s “second tetralogy,” a group of four history plays that also include Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. These plays, often called “the Henriad,” are sometimes performed together as part of a “cycle” because they portray historical events in chronological order and contain a lot of the same characters.
Richard II was crazy popular in its day. We know this because it was published five times during Shakespeare’s own lifetime. That’s right – five times. Not too shabby considering how the printing press was basically the only means of publication that didn’t involve a bunch of scribes – guys who sat hunched over a text for hours and hours on end, copying it out by hand.”
A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean. According to Barnes and Noble, “Just as Norman Maclean writes at the end of “A River Runs through It” that he is “haunted by waters,” so have readers been haunted by his novella. A retired English professor who began writing fiction at the age of 70, Maclean produced what is now recognized as one of the classic American stories of the twentieth century. Originally published in 1976, A River Runs through It and Other Stories now celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, marked by this new edition that includes a foreword by Annie Proulx.
Maclean grew up in the western Rocky Mountains in the first decades of the twentieth century. As a young man he worked many summers in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service. The two novellas and short story in this collection are based on his own experiences—the experiences of a young man who found that life was only a step from art in its structures and beauty. The beauty he found was in reality, and so he leaves a careful record of what it was like to work in the woods when it was still a world of horse and hand and foot, without power saws, “cats,” or four-wheel drives. Populated with drunks, loggers, card sharks, and whores, and set in the small towns and surrounding trout streams and mountains of western Montana, the stories concern themselves with the complexities of fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, and a father.
By turns raunchy, poignant, caustic, and elegiac, these are superb tales which express, in Maclean’s own words, “a little of the love I have for the earth as it goes by.” A first offering from a 70-year-old writer, the basis of a top-grossing movie, and the first original fiction published by the University of Chicago Press, A River Runs through It and Other Stories has sold more than a million copies. As Proulx writes in her foreword to this new edition, “In 1990 Norman Maclean died in body, but for hundreds of thousands of readers he will live as long as fish swim and books are made.”
The Road, Cormac McCarthy. According to Barnes and Noble, “The searing, postapocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.”
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe. According to Schmoop, “The place? London. The year? 1719. The bestselling book that everyone’s reading? No, it’s not yet another vampire novel. (We said London, 1719, remember?) It’s an adventure novel about a castaway and his friend Friday: The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner.
Take note, literary time explorers: Just like Twilight, The Hunger Games, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe was a commercial blockbuster that captured the imagination of its early 18th-century readers. The book went through six editions in just its first four months on the market (source). Daniel Defoe even wrote a sequel to the novel that same year called The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In it, the daring Crusoe continues his journey by heading to spectacular locales in Asia and Siberia. Just like today’s Harry Potter fanatics, 18th-century readers just couldn’t get enough of Crusoe and his adventures. If the Internet had existed back then, there would have been Robinson Crusoe fan fiction galore.
But why, you might ask, was Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe so dang popular?
Well, fellow time travelers, there are obvious reasons, of course. Robinson Crusoe is, quite frankly, a very exciting story (yes, even centuries later). There are sailing ships and stormy seas and a desert island and guns and cannibals and, well, basically a whole bunch of rollicking action in exotic and faraway places. Who doesn’t like novels packed with excitement and adventure?
Oh, and get this. Robinson Crusoe may or may not have been based on the true story of a real-life castaway. Yeah. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and he was a Scottish sailor who got stranded on his own desert island off the coast of Chile for four very long years. Selkirk was eventually rescued in 1709 and his story appeared in print and periodicals in England. Did Defoe use him as the basis for his own Crusoe? It’s entirely possible.
But, of course, it’s not all about action, adventure, and real-life Scottish castaways. There are other reasons for the book’s popularity at the time. Robinson Crusoe deals with many of the Big Issues on the minds of people in 18th-century England.”
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf. According to Barnes and Noble, “In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister: a sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, equal in genius, but whose legacy is radically different. This imaginary woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed. But had she been allowed to create, urges Woolf, she would have reached the same heights as her immortal sibling. In this essay, Virginia Woolf takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give a voice to those who have none. Her message is simple: A woman must have an income and a room of her own in order to have the freedom to create.
A brilliant essay on the importance of financial and social independence to the creative process for women of genius.”
A Room with a View, E.M. Forster. According to Schmoop, “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away (that is, in movie theatres in the early nineties), E.M. Forster seemed like a pretty serious guy. A double whammy of Where Angels Fear to Tread and Howards End, two of his, shall we say, less hilarious works, emerged in cinemas, both with very serious British actors and very serious British plots. This made it easy to forget that an even longer time ago, in the mid-eighties, a frothy, lighthearted, and really quite charming film was made of A Room with a View (interestingly, Helena Bonham Carter, a fine actress who occasionally suffers from the same misattributed dire seriousness, appeared in all three films). While most of Forster’s other novels, particularly Howards End and A Passage to India, are most often praised for their social consciousness and clear-sighted critiques of Britishism at the beginning of the twentieth century, none of the other books manage to accomplish the latter with the same comic flair, light touch, and panache that Room possesses. In this novel, Forster gleefully skewers the institutions of upper-middle class English society, while simultaneously remaining sympathetic to the characters he creates.
A Room with a View was the first novel Forster started, but it was actually published in 1908, after he’d written and published two other books. One of them, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), is often paired with Room, since it also takes place in Italy and deals with some similar issues, such as the British tourist abroad, albeit in a more serious fashion. In comparison with the latter text and others, A Room with a View stands out as the author’s most lighthearted and optimistic work, and his dry wit and keen, observant eye make for the ultimate intelligent romantic comedy.”
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Before young William Shakespeare wrote his play about two poetry speaking, hormone-driven teenagers who defy their families’ long-standing feud and risk everything to be together, love wasn’t even considered a suitable subject for a “tragedy.” Written at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career as a playwright (around the time he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) is now considered to be the greatest love story of all time. According to famous literary critic Harold Bloom, Romeo and Juliet “is unmatched, in Shakespeare and in the world’s literature, as a vision of uncompromising mutual love that perishes of its own idealism and intensity” (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 197). The balcony scene alone (Act 2, Scene 2 in most editions of the play) is one of the most memorable and recognizable moments in all of Western literature – it’s right up there with Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull in the graveyard.
The play was wildly popular in its own time – it was published twice during Shakespeare’s life (1597 and 1599), which was kind of a big deal, given that the printing press was nothing like our current technology. Shakespeare adapted the storyline from Arthur Brookes’ popular Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), a looong English poem based on a story that dates back to a novella by Masuccio Salernitano called “Mariotto and Giannozza” (1476).
Despite its fancy pedigree, Romeo and Juliet is also considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works. Along with Julius Caesar, it’s typically one of the first Shakespeare plays studied by Western students, who are introduced to the conventions of Elizabethan theater and also get a healthy dose of love poetry, which Shakespeare peppers throughout Romeo and Juliet.
Some critics, like famous seventeenth-century journaler Samuel Pepys, have refused to take Romeo and Juliet seriously. (Let’s face it, the play is often dismissed as Shakespeare’s trashy blockbuster.) Despite Pepys’s assertion that Romeo and Juliet “is a play of itself the worst that ever [he] heard in [his] life, and the worst acted that ever [he] saw these people do” (source), Romeo and Juliet has been performed countless times by world renowned theater companies and remains an audience favorite. It is also one of the most adapted plays of all time – Franco Zeffirelli made it into an Oscar winning film in 1968and the play was also adapted into a Tony Award winning musical, West Side Story (1957). Romeo and Juliet has inspired countless pop lyrics, like Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet,” and The Reflections’ doo-wap style “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet.”
Of course, Romeo and Juliet is the template for all literary stories about socially “forbidden” love, including The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, and, more recently (and controversially), Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard. According to Schmoop, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was Tom Stoppard‘s breakthrough play. It was a huge critical and commercial success, making him famous practically overnight. Though written in 1964, the play was published in 1967, and it played on Broadway in 1968, where it won the Tony for best play.
The play cleverly re-interprets Shakespeare‘s Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Laurel-and-Hardy-like pair are totally incidental to the action of Hamlet, subject to the whims of the King Claudius – who gets them to betray Hamlet – and then tricked by Hamlet into delivering a letter that condemns them to death (check out the Shmoop’s guide to Hamlet; it’s useful to know the basic plot). Stoppard’s play turns Hamlet on its head by giving these two the main roles and reducing all of Shakespeare’s major characters (including Hamlet) to minor roles. Written around and in-between the lines of Shakespeare’s play, Stoppard brilliantly takes the main concerns of contemporary theater – absurdism, the inevitability of death, breakdown in communication and feeling – and inserts them into the text of a much earlier play.
The absurdist tradition that Stoppard is writing in suggests another enormous influence: Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot (1952). Beckett’s play is just as important to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as Hamlet is. Waiting for Godot consists of two tramps sitting on-stage bantering back and forth and waiting for someone named Godot, who never comes (check out Shmoop’s guide to Waiting for Godot for more detail).
Waiting for Godot changed theater by undermining many of its traditional values: plot, characterization, and dialogue that move the action of the play forward. By portraying the act of “waiting” on stage, Beckett’s play also opened up new ideas about meta-theatrics (plays that are about plays – how they’re made, how they’re seen, and/or how they interact with society). Since the characters in Godot are in the same position as the audience – waiting for something to happen – much of their dialogue works on multiple levels and seems to hint at awareness on the part of the tramps that they’re actually two characters in a play.”
Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw. According to Barnes and Noble, “With Saint Joan, Shaw reached the height of his fame as a dramatist. In this magnificent play he distilled many of the ideas he had been trying to express in earlier works on the subjects of politics, religion and creative evolution. Fascinated by the story of Joan of Arc, but unhappy with the way she had traditionally been depicted, Shaw wanted to remove ‘the whitewash which disfigures her beyond recognition’. He presents a realistic Joan: proud, intolerant, naive, foolhardy, always brave – a rebel who challenged the conventions and values of her day. As Imogen Stubbs writes, ‘All Joans are relevant but some Joans are more relevant than others – I think Shaw’s Saint Joan is the right one to be received by the twenty-first century’.”
The Sandbox, Edward Albee. According to Barnes and Noble, “THE SANDBOX. A man in a spotlight, clad in swimming trunks, is doing his exercises silently. A couple appears to remark, dryly, “Well, here we are; this is the beach.” The woman orders a clarinetist out onto the stage and commands him to play. The couple exits, then returns carrying the woman’s eighty-six-year-old mother and dumps her in a sandbox. Grandma begins to weave her history between the cool, indifferent patter of the people and the equally cool, but somehow more sympathetic, sounds from the clarinet. As Grandma covers herself with sand, it begins to dawn that the mysterious, cryptic athlete is much more than local color, and his conversation with Grandma is, in fact, prelude to his purpose. He is “after all, the Angel of Death.” (3 men, 2 women.) “
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne. According to Schmoop, “Passion, wild emotion, and forbidden love: is it the newest 50 Shades of Whatever? Or is it Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850 and set over a century earlier, amid those stuffy old Puritans with their funny hats and buckles?
Yep. It’s the second one. Nathaniel Hawthorne set the story of poor, persecuted Hester Prynne and her lover in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony, where his ancestors played a role in the persecution of Quaker women, as well as in the prosecution of women in the Salem Witch Trials. (Hey, you can’t choose your family.) In The Scarlet Letter’s preface, Hawthorne actually alludes to this history, taking blame for the actions of these ancestors and hoping that any curse brought about by their cruelty will be removed.
Before we set you loose upon the thrilling world of mid-17th century Boston, let’s do a quick recap: this was a society governed by Puritans, religious men and women who settled at Plymouth Rock, founded Boston, and began the experiment that grew into the US of A. The Puritans left the Church of England(the Christian church of, well, England) because they thought it was getting a little bit too relaxed about things, and they wanted the freedom to practice their own strict form of religion. Set in a deeply religious time and place, the novel is centered around the concept of man’s relationship to himself (or herself) and to a Christian God.
The novel itself came out of a difficult time in Hawthorne’s life. After graduating from Bowdoin College, where he hung around with the likes of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future United States President Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne found a government job at the Custom House in Salem. He lost the job in 1849, just before his beloved mother died. Instead of lying on the couch eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and playing Halo during his unemployment (ahem), Hawthorne decided to write a book. When he read the final words of the final chapter to his wife, she ran to bed crying.
At that point, Hawthorne knew he had a hit on his hands, and what a hit it was. Oh, sure, it was one of the first mass-produced books sold in America, and it received praise from no less than Henry James himself—but can that compare to being on almost every American literature reading list in the history of everywhere?”
Sent For You Yesterday, John Edgar Wideman. According to Barnes and Noble, “Reimagining the black neighborhood of his youth Homewood, Pittsburgh -Wideman creates a dazzling and evocative milieu. From the wild and uninhibited 1920s to the narcotized 1970s, “he establishes aamythological and symbolic link between character and landscape, language and plot, that in the hands of a less visionary writer might be little more than stale sociology” (New York Times Book Review).
A stunning novel. “Mr. Wideman returns to the ghetto where he was raised and transforms it into a magical location.”–New York Times Review of Books.”
A Separate Peace, John Knowles. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set at a boys’ school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.
Knowles’ classic story of two friends at boarding school during World War II–one of the most starkly moving parables ever written about the dark forces that brood over the tortured world of adolescence–has been a consistent seller for more than 20 years.”
Set This House on Fire, William Styron. According to Barnes and Noble, The narrator, Peter Leverett, a government employee returning to the U.S., stops in the Italian village of Sambuco to see his old schoolmate Mason Flagg. But the next morning Flagg is found dead at the base of a cliff, a peasant girl has been beaten to death and Cass Kinsolving, a drunken American painter, is gone.
Though the case has been written off as a murder followed by a suicide, Peter doesn’t believe it. His search takes him through the Mediterranean and back to America.
“This is not a book for the squeamish. For seldom in modern fiction have we had such a relentlessly powerful examination of human depravity.” (Chicago Daily News)”
The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx. According to Barnes and Noble, “When Quoyle’s two-timing wife meets her just desserts, he retreats with his two daughters to his ancestral home on the starkly beautiful Newfoundland coast, where a rich cast of local characters and family members all play a part in Quoyle’s struggle to reclaim his life. As Quoyle confronts his private demons — and the unpredictable forces of nature and society — he begins to see the possibility of love without pain or misery.
A vigorous, darkly comic, and at times magical portrait of the contemporary North American family, The Shipping News shows why Annie Proulx is recognized as one of the most gifted and original writers in America today.”
Winner of the 1993 National Book Award and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize.”
Silas Marner, George Eliot. According to Schmoop, “Do you have that otter video bookmarked? Do you listen to Christmas music all year round? (We won’t tell.) Do you just love Thomas Kinkade? Isn’t Shirley Temple about the cutest thing on two legs?
Meet your new favorite book.
The story of a crabby old miser who raises an orphan with honest-to-goodness dimples and “auburn hair” with “little ringlets” (2.16.4), George Eliot’s Silas Marner (1861) starts off by laying on the tragedy. Young Silas is betrayed, exiled, isolated, and then robbed. A baby is born to an opium-addled mom and a deadbeat dad and then abandoned at the side of the road. But by the last page, everyone’s living happily together in a quaint little cottage with a quaint little garden in a quaint little village full of quaint local characters. It even ends with a wedding. Broadway, are you listening?
Not so fast. “George Eliot” is actually the pen name of radical chick Mary Ann Evans, who rejected Christianity, ran off with a married man, edited one of the most important literary journals of the day, and capped it all off by marrying a man twenty years her junior. Along the way, she wrote some of the most important works of English literature.
This woman—who translated philosopher Spinoza’s Ethics and wrote an essay condemning “silly lady novelists”—wouldn’t have had much patience for that kind of treacle-y book we just described. Sure, you can read Silas Marner for the warm fuzzies. But Eliot raises a lot of Big Issues about religion, history, industrialization, community, and even the nature of literature. (No wonder it became an opera instead of a musical.)
At the beginning of the 1860s, England was smack in the middle of a series of cultural and technological changes that had taken the tiny island kingdom from rustic backwater to an imperial force (minor loss of the United States aside). The British Empire stretched across the globe, shipping home goods from India to Japan. At home, great manufacturing towns poured soot into the air. Telegraphs crisscrossed the countryside. Railroads connected London to small country villages, creating the first suburbs.
Over the previous half-century, these changes had wreaked havoc on the traditional British countryside. Agriculture lost ground (ha!) to industry, and people cleared out of the villages to find work in the cities. Traditional crafts, like weaving, died out as factories produced more cloth in less time. Families separated.
But as local communities died out, a larger community—the nation—gained strength. Silas Marner explores this question (among others) of Britishness, but it does so by going back in time before the villages had lost their local identities.
Why? Partly so Eliot could play with her theories about realism, working out ways to represent, in the words of one novel critic, “particular people in particular circumstances” (and at particular times). But more, maybe, so she could explore exactly this big issue: what did communities look like before Britain went global?”
Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser. According to Barnes and Noble, “SISTER CARRIE is the story of a woman who flees country life for Chicago and falls into a wayward life of sin in the corrupt city. SISTER CARRIE ruthlessly exposes the hypocrisy and meanness of middle-class standards, and establishes a new tradition in literary realism.”
Sister of My Heart, Chitra Banergee Divakaruni. According to Barnes and Noble, “From the award-winning author of Mistress of Spices, the bestselling novel about the extraordinary bond between two women, and the family secrets and romantic jealousies that threaten to tear them apart.
Anju is the daughter of an upper-caste Calcutta family of distinction. Her cousin Sudha is the daughter of the black sheep of that same family. Sudha is startlingly beautiful; Anju is not. Despite those differences, since the day on which the two girls were born, the same day their fathers died—mysteriously and violently—Sudha and Anju have been sisters of the heart. Bonded in ways even their mothers cannot comprehend, the two girls grow into womanhood as if their fates as well as their hearts were merged.
But, when Sudha learns a dark family secret, that connection is shattered. For the first time in their lives, the girls know what it is to feel suspicion and distrust. Urged into arranged marriages, Sudha and Anju’s lives take opposite turns. Sudha becomes the dutiful daughter-in-law of a rigid small-town household. Anju goes to America with her new husband and learns to live her own life of secrets. When tragedy strikes each of them, however, they discover that despite distance and marriage, they have only each other to turn to.
Set in the two worlds of San Francisco and India, this exceptionally moving novel tells a story at once familiar and exotic, seducing readers from the first page with the lush prose we have come to expect from Divakaruni. Sister of My Heart is a novel destined to become as widely beloved as it is acclaimed.”
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut. According to Schmoop, “Kurt Vonnegut is probably most associated with the 1960s and its crazy experimental fiction. But before he became popular with Bohemians and hippies, Vonnegut was a soldier, fighting in World War II as an American advance infantry scout in the 106th Division. His first deployment in Europe was to fight back the last major German offensive of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and brought to Dresden, where he was kept in relatively decent conditions in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
If you think this is all building up to something awful, you’re right. On February 13, 1945, while Vonnegut was in Dresden as an American POW (prisoner of war), Allied bombers dropped a huge wave of “incendiary devices” on the city – bombs made of super explosive materials like phosphorus and jellied petroleum (a.k.a. napalm for you Vietnam War buffs out there). Dresden went up in flames and pretty much the entire city was destroyed. This single firebombing had a death toll, the novel tells us, of 135,000 people, though there is some debate about actual numbers. (Read more about Dresden here.)
Even now, the jury is out about whether the Dresden firebombing, with its high number of civilian deaths, was militarily necessary. Whatever historians may think about the deaths at Dresden, Vonnegut certainly felt that he had witnessed “the largest single massacre in military history,” worse even than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombings (source: Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990. Pg. 4).
It took a while before Vonnegut could really write about his experiences during the Dresden firebombing, and not just because it was so personally painful. The firebombing was classified top-secret for years. Vonnegut explicitly points out the troubles he had getting information on the bombing from the Air Force in Chapter 1, Section 7.
Slaughterhouse-Five finally came out in 1969, 25 years after the Dresden firebombing, but only one year after the hugely unpopular Vietnam War Tet Offensive, just as the anti-war movement really started to intensify in the U.S. In the middle of growing demands to end the war in Vietnam, Slaughterhouse-Five seemed to express the emerging popular horror at the idea of war. With its hugely successful publication, Vonnegut cemented his reputation as the spokesman for America’s 1960s and 1970s counterculture.”
Snow, Orhan Pamuk. According to Barnes and Noble, “Following years of lonely political exile in Western Europe, Ka, a middle-aged poet, returns to Istanbul to attend his mother’s funeral. Only partly recognizing this place of his cultured, middle-class youth, he is even more disoriented by news of strange events in the wider country: a wave of suicides among girls forbidden to wear their headscarves at school. An apparent thaw of his writer’s curiosity – a frozen sea these many years – leads him to Kars, a far-off town near the Russian border and the epicenter of the suicides.” No sooner has he arrived, however, than we discover that Ka’s motivations are not purely journalistic; for in Kars, once a province of Ottoman and then Russian glory, now a cultural gray-zone of poverty and paralysis, there is also Ipek, a radiant friend of Ka’s youth, lately divorced, whom he has never forgotten. As a snowstorm, the fiercest in memory, descends on the town and seals it off from the modern, westernized world that has always been Ka’s frame of reference, he finds himself drawn in unexpected directions: not only headlong toward the unknowable Ipek and the desperate hope for love – or at least a wife – that she embodies, but also into the maelstrom of a military coup staged to restrain the local Islamist radicals, and even toward God, whose existence Ka has never before allowed himself to contemplate. In this surreal confluence of emotion and spectacle, Ka begins to tap his dormant creative powers, producing poem after poem in untimely, irresistible bursts of inspiration. But not until the snows have melted and the political violence has run its bloody course will Ka discover the fate of his bid to seize a last chance for happiness.”
Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson. According to Barnes and Noble, “San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies. But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder. In the course of the ensuing trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than a man’s guilt. For on San Pedro, memory grows as thickly as cedar trees and the fields of ripe strawberries—memories of a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo’s wife; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched. Gripping, tragic, and densely atmospheric, Snow Falling on Cedars is a masterpiece of suspense— one that leaves us shaken and changed.”
A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller. According to Barnes and Noble, “A black sergeant cries out in the night, “They still hate you,” then is shot twice and falls dead. Set in 1944 at Fort Neal, a segregated army camp in Louisiana, Charles Fuller’s forceful drama—which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and has been regularly seen in both its original stage and its later screen version—tracks the investigation of this murder. A Soldier’s Play is more than a detective story: it is a tough, incisive exploration of racial tensions and ambiguities among blacks and between blacks and whites that gives no easy answers and assigns no simple blame.”
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1977, Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon focuses on the African-American experience in the United States over four generations. The novel examines the legends and folklore that tell the story of slaves who flew off to Africa. It also deals with the Great Migration (the movement of Southern blacks into other parts of the country) that took place following the Civil War and the uber individualistic mindset that was beginning to characterize urban America in the 1960s (hello iPod nation).
The novel has been popular for being able to zoom in telescopically on the black experience in America, but to also embrace and discuss universal themes, ideas, and concepts that affect every human. Themes like love, loss, friendship, and the search for identity. Toni Morrison has written that she wants her readers (that means us) to take part in the creation of the story, so she leaves some stones unturned in the hopes that we will kick our imaginations into turbo gear. It takes two to tango, says she.
In fact, Morrison says, “I want [the reader] to respond on the same plane as an illiterate or preliterate reader would. I want to subvert his traditional comfort so that he may experience an unorthodox one: that of being in the company of his own solitary imagination.” Oh man, this book just keeps getting better and better. When was the last time you heard a Nobel Prize-winning author say to you, “Oh, don’t mind me! Those are just words on a page – I’m much more interested in what you have to say in response to this little universe I’ve created.” Um, never.
Toni Morrison was used to writing from the female perspective, but decided to challenge herself by following and capturing the male voice. You could say she did a pretty good job, because she earned the National Book Critics Award for this novel. Song of Solomon was also monumental in garnering Morrison the Nobel Prize in literature, awarded in 1993, and she was the first black American to be presented with this honor.”
Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence. According to Barnes and Noble, “Sons and Lovers is one of the landmark novels of the twentieth century. It was immediately recognized as the first great modern restatement of the oedipal drama when it appeared in 1913 and is widely considered the major work of D. H. Lawrence’s early period. This intensely autobiographical novel recounts the story of Paul Morel, a young artist growing to manhood in a British working-class family rife with conflict. The author’s vivid evocation of life in a Nottingham mining village in the years before the First World War and his depiction of the all-consuming nature of possessive love and sexual attraction make this one of his most powerful novels.
‘Of all Lawrence’s work, Sons and Lovers, tells us most about the emotional source of his ideas,’ observed Diana Trilling. ‘The famous Lawrence theme of the struggle for sexual power–and he is sure that all the struggles of civilized life have their root in this primary contest–is the constantly elaborated statement of the fierce battle which tore Lawrence’s family.’ For Kate Millett, ‘Sons and Lovers is a great novel because it has the ring of something written from deeply felt experience. The past remembered, it conveys more of Lawrence’s own knowledge of life than anything else he wrote. His other novels appear somehow artificial beside it.”
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron. According to Barnes and Noble, “Three stories are told: a young Southerner wants to become a writer; a turbulent love-hate affair between a brilliant Jew and a beautiful Polish woman; and of an awful wound in that woman’s past—one that impels both Sophie and Nathan toward destruction.”
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner. According to Schmoop, “The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner may just be the greatest Southern novel ever written. It may also be the most searing discussion of race in a modernist novel. It may also be the greatest family drama ever composed. Heck, it may just be the Great American Novel. We don’t mean to toot Faulkner’s horn here, but lots of folks have been saying things a lot like these ever since The Sound and the Fury burst onto the scene in 1929. It was Faulkner’s first critically-acclaimed novel, and it immediately launched the young author from Mississippi into the literary limelight. That’s a fancy way of saying that The Sound and the Fury made Faulkner famous – fast.
Of course, the funny part of this story is that Faulkner didn’t gain a wide readership until 1931, when he published Sanctuary. It’s a potboiler of a novel, one with lots of alcohol and sex and violence. Once Sanctuary made it big, folks started realizing that Faulkner’s other work was actually technically (and emotionally) brilliant. His work was so brilliant, in fact, that the good folks at the Nobel Foundation awarded him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949.
The Sound and the Fury wasn’t a flash in the pan, either. Seventy years later, it’s being read and taught on a regular basis. Even Oprah loves it.
The novel traces the decaying values of the Southern society in which it’s based, while also tracking the desperation and hopelessness of individuals (the three brothers of the Compson family) as they each try, in their own way, to mourn the loss of their sister, Caddy. Caddy’s sexuality, her early pregnancy, and her quick and unhappy marriage are the obscured heart of this novel: everything else happens after (and as a response to) the actions of Caddy.
Ironically, Caddy is the one Compson who’s not given a section of the novel in which to explore her own story. Instead, Faulkner allows the center of the novel to exist as a gaping hole, one which various narrators attempt to fill with their own memories of the past.
In a very famous essay on Faulkner called “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner,” Jean-Paul Sartre argued that this negotiation of the past makes Faulkner’s novel a brilliant example of modern technique and existential philosophy. Here’s what he has to say:
The past takes on a sort of super-reality; its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable. The present, nameless and fleeting, is helpless before it. It is full of gaps, and, through these gaps, things of the past, fixed, motionless and silent as judges or glances, come to invade it. Faulkner’s monologues remind one of aeroplane trips full of air-pockets. At each pocket, the hero’s consciousness “sinks back into the past” and rises only to sink back again. The present is not; it becomes. Everything was. In Sartoris, the past was called “the stories” because it was a matter of family memories that had been constructed, because Faulkner had not yet found his technique.
In The Sound and the Fury he is more individual and more undecided. But it is so strong an obsession that he is sometimes apt to disguise the present, and the present moves along in the shadow, like an underground river, and reappears only when it itself is past.
OK, so we’ve got to admit that Sartre’s a whole lot smarter than we are. And he’s a pretty good writer, too. We won’t try to outdo him: we’ll just point out that, for Sartre, the sort of playing with time that Faulkner employs in The Sound and the Fury becomes a hallmark of a new literary form. It’s also a fine example of modernist aesthetics, which foreground the difficulty of understanding a character (or a person) completely. See, for the modernists, language itself is a tricky medium. It never completely conveys what you want it to convey. It’s sort of like when you try to explain something to one of your friends: you’re sure that you’ve told the whole story clearly, but they look at you like you’re crazy. As another famous modernist once wrote, you’re left thinking, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” (That’s T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by the way.)
If you’ve ever felt that way, congratulations. You’re beginning to understand the modernists. See, modernists decided to play with the difficulty of language – to make the reader HAVE to experience how difficult language can be. We know, we know, it can be super-frustrating. But it’s also sort of cool. And for Faulkner, playing with language allows him to explore the psychological depth of his characters and the deep emotional resonance of the South in his characters’ lives.”
The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence. According to Barnes and Noble, “n The Stone Angel, Hagar Shipley, age ninety, tells the story of her life, and in doing so tries to come to terms with how the very qualities which sustained her have deprived her of joy. Mingling past and present, she maintains pride in the face of senility, while recalling the life she led as a rebellious young bride, and later as a grieving mother. Laurence gives us in Hagar a woman who is funny, infuriating, and heartbreakingly poignant.”
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski. According to Barnes and Noble, “Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles’ once peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm – and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.” Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires – spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.”
The Stranger, Albert Camus. According to Schmoop, “1942 was a big year. It was that year that…
- the US really entered into World War II to fight Germany, Japan, and Italy;
- the Manhattan Project began;
- Bing Crosby recorded his famous album White Christmas;
- Disney released Bambi;
- the movie Casablanca came to theaters;
- Jimi Hendrix was born;
- and Albert Camus published The Stranger.
The Stranger – or L’Étranger, if you prefer to go with the original French title – is a novel about an odd fellow named Meursault. (Don’t know how to pronounce that one? Click here.) In a heated moment, Meursault shoots and kills another man on a beach. Camus uses the events leading up to the shooting, and Meursault’s subsequent legal trial and incarceration, to explore issues of meaning and meaninglessness in life. In other words, Camus’s book is about BIG IDEAS.
Camus was a famous French thinker known for his philosophy of the absurd, a close cousin to existentialism. (BTW, throughout his life Camus swore that he was not an existentialist. He was a bit touchy on the subject, actually.) Today, Camus is most famous for three big novels: The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956). The Stranger is a great introduction to Camus, because his later novels kept getting more complex.
Through The Stranger, Camus explores his own pet philosophy: the absurd. In short, absurdism says the world is devoid of rational meaning. But you can read more about that in our discussion of “Themes: Philosophical Viewpoints.” The Nobel Prize Committee quite rationally thought Camus should win some money, so they gave him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, not for The Stranger per se, but for his generally “important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams. According to Schmoop, “Tennessee Williams is an American playwright famous for three big plays:Glass Menagerie in 1944, A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955. If The Glass Menagerie propelled Williams to fame, Streetcar ensured that his name would never leave the ranks of the playwright elite. The play, which tells the story of an aging Southern belle’s difficult relationship with her aggressive brother-in-law, was successful both commercially and critically. It opened in December of 1947 on Broadway and ran for over two full years, earning two Tony awards for the stage production and the 1948 Pulitzer Prize.
The initial Broadway cast is almost as famous as the play for one big reason: Marlon Brando. (Whom you know as the Godfather, but who was the Brad Pitt of his day when he was younger.) Virtually an unknown at the time of the play’s casting, Streetcar propelled this young star to big-time fame after the Broadway production (and cast) was converted to a blockbuster movie in 1951. The only change from the Broadway cast was the role of protagonist Blanche DuBois, given in the film to then-famous Vivian Leigh (Scarlett from Gone with the Wind), so the movie would have some star-power.
Streetcar really pushed the envelope of what was acceptable sexually in the 1940s, and Brando took the role of aggressive, macho Stanley Kowalski to the very edge (critic Arthur Miller aptly called him “a sexual terrorist, a tiger on the loose”). His performance was so memorable that many theaters to this day refuse to produce the play on the grounds that any actor trying to portray Stanley Kowalski would inevitably be written off as a lesser version of Brando.
Speaking of sexuality, Streetcar was censored when it was converted to film, like another Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both plays include a gay man who, restricted by social boundaries in the 1940s and 50s, marries a woman. While this is a central part of Cat, it is a minor part of Streetcar. Streetcar also shares similarities with Williams’s first big play, Glass Menagerie. Streetcar’s Blanche Dubois resembles Amanda Wingfield in Glass Menagerie; both are Southern belles who have difficulty moving past their outdated social ideals.
These common themes appear to be autobiographical for Williams, who was raised in Tennessee (hence the nickname) and grew up gay in a homophobic society. In fact, some believe that Williams based the character of Stanley Kowalski on a man named Pancho Rodriguez Gonzalez whom he was dating at the time (source).”
The Street, Ann Petry. According to Barnes and Noble, “THE STREET tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.
As much a historical document as it is a novel, this 1946 winner of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship is the poignant and unblinkingly honest story of a young black woman’s struggle to live and raise her son by herself amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s.”
Sula, Toni Morrison. According to Schmoop, “Although Beloved may be Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison‘s most famous work (it won the Pulitzer Prize and Oprah made a movie of it), Sula also received critical acclaim and popular attention. Parts of the novel appeared in Redbook, and it was nominated for a National Book Award.
Sula was Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973 while Morrison was working at Random House. The novel tells the story of a friendship between two African-American women. They suffer some normal and not-so-normal ups and downs, and we see them grow from young girls to middle-aged adults. Like much of her other work, Sula offers some fascinating commentary on the lives of African-Americans and the hardships they face, on issues of gender, on the relationships between mothers and daughters, and on the ways men and women relate to each other. Morrison has said that she is invested in recording the history of African-Americans, and while Sula mostly focuses on the two central female characters, we also get a look at the African-American community of which they are a part, of the customs and traditions they share, and of the ways they deal with pain, fear, love, sex, and death.”
Surfacing, Margaret Atwood. According to Barnes and Noble, “Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices. Surfacing is a work permeated with an aura of suspense, complex with layered meanings, and written in brilliant, diamond-sharp prose. Here is a rich mine of ideas from an extraordinary writer about contemporary life and nature, families and marriage, and about women fragmented…and becoming whole.”
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. According to Schmoop, “Originally published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises was Ernest Hemingway’s first big hit. Less than ten years after the end of World War I, the novel helped define his generation: disillusioned young people whose lives were profoundly affected by the war. Hemingway himself wasn’t a soldier (his vision wasn’t good enough to enlist in the army), but he saw plenty of action through his exploits as an ambulance driver in Italy, where he was wounded and was actually awarded a medal from the Italian government for his valor. Hemingway bore the physical and emotional scars of the war for the rest of his life, just like the troubled characters he created in The Sun Also Rises, and the novel expresses the uncertainty and aimlessness of this “Lost Generation” (see What’s Up With the Epigraph? for a full explanation of this term).
The Sun Also Rises endures as one of the most popular and significant books to emerge from American literature of the 1920s – along with Hemingway’s friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (published only a year earlier in 1925), which examines postwar life stateside, The Sun Also Rises is generally regarded as a definitive guide to life in the hedonistic, confusing, and fascinating post-WWI era.”
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust. According to Barnes and Noble, “Swann’s Way is the first novel of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume magnum opus À la rechercheé du temps perdu, or Remembrance of Things Past. Following Charles Swann’s opening ruminations about the nature of sleep is one of twentieth-century literature’s most famous and influential scenes: the eating of the madeleine soaked in a “decoction of lime-flowers,” the associative act from which the remainder of the narrative unfurls. After elaborate reminiscences about Swann’s childhood in Paris and rural Combray, Proust describes his protagonist’s exploits in nineteenth-century privileged Parisian society and his obsessive love for young socialite Odette de Crécy.
Filled with searing, insightful, and humorous criticisms of French society, this novel showcases Proust’s innovative prose style, characterized by lengthy, intricate sentences that elongate, stop, and reverse time. With narration that alternates between first and third person, Swann’s Way unconventionally introduces Proust’s recurring themes of memory, love, art, and the human experience—and for nearly a century readers have deliciously savored each moment.”
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens. According to Schmoop, “When you watch a movie or read an article about the French Revolution, chances are it’s been influenced by A Tale of Two Cities. Together with Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, Charles Dickens’s novel has helped to shape generations of readers’ understanding of one of the most pivotal events in modern history. Interestingly, both of these texts are fictionalized accounts of the events leading up to and following the birth of the new French Republic. Like Carlyle, Dickens put faces to the triumphs and struggles of the revolution. Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton may not have gone down in the history books, but they’re stamped in our cultural memory as key figures in the French Revolution. It turns out that good fiction can be as influential as history itself.
Written in 1859, A Tale of Two Cities was published in weekly installments in Dickens’s own journal, All The Year Round. It was an instant hit. Families read it by the firelight, crowds waited for the next edition to be released. Of course, the fact that Dickens was by this time one of the most prominent writers and editors in England didn’t hurt its selling powers.
Because it’s a bit more straight-forward plot-wise than many other Dickens novels, A Tale of Two Cities is also one of the most frequently-taught of Dickens’s novels today. Chances are you’re encountering it for the first time (or the second time, or the twenty-third time) in a classroom. That’s part of why we here at Shmoop are so taken with this novel: it’s an enduring testimony to the best and a searing critique of the worst of human nature. Dickens set out to make the French Revolution live in the hearts and minds of his readers. Take it from us, he’s done a pretty good job.”
Tartuffe, Moliere. According to Schmoop, “Moliere wrote Tartuffe, originally entitled Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur (Tartuffe the Imposter) in 1664. In the play, Orgon, a wealthy Parisian patriarch (male head of household) falls under the influence of a self-righteous hypocrite named Tartuffe. Orgon becomes obsessed with Tartuffe and the religious ideals the trickster supposedly stands for. Molière was apparently very fond of plot lines where a guy becomes obsessed with something. Many of his plays have similar plots. In Tartuffe, it’s religion; in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), it’s social status; in L’Avare (The Miser), it’s money; in Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac), it’s doctors, etc. In each case, the main character’s obsession interferes with his daughter’s marriage plans – in Le Malade Imaginaire, for instance, he wants his daughter to marry a doctor instead of her lover – which forces his family to intervene. If you’ve already read Tartuffe, this should sound pretty familiar.
We’ve spent all this time talking about how typical Tartuffe is by Molière standards, so it may surprise you to find out that it’s (quite possibly) his best-known play. The reasons behind the play’s fame are simple: it was scandalous. By 1664, Molière was already a big name in French theater. That same year,King Louis XIV had agreed to be the godfather of Molière’s first son. Molière’s theater troupe was called the Troupe du Roi. That’s The King’s Troupe. Yeah, let’s just say he’d hit the big time. As you probably know from VH1 Behind the Music, major success seems to always cause lots of problems. In Molière’s case, the problems came in the form of critics, many of them religious, who thought his plays were irreverent, irreligious, and just plain naughty.
Tartuffe riled up Molière’s critics even more than his previous plays. At the time, the Catholic Church was a major political power in France. As you might imagine, a play about a hypocritical criminal masquerading as a holy man didn’t go over too well. The dévots, a group of ultra-conservative Catholic nobility, were especially offended. Oh, and it didn’t help that Orgon, a member of the upper class, was portrayed as a total fool. All of this “offensive” material, caused the play to be banned.
As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity; and Tartuffe has certainly benefited from its notoriety. “Tartuffe” (along with the noun tartuffery) has entered into the dictionary in both English and French. A tartuffe, as you might expect, is a hypocrite, religious or otherwise; tartuffery is, well, acting like Tartuffe. The play has been filmed, broadcast on TV, brought to Broadway (and, quite probably, a high school near you!). It’s pretty much the classic French play for English speakers. Now it’s your turn enjoy it.”
The Tempest, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Written between 1610 and 1611, The Tempest is William Shakespeare‘s final play. (OK. If you’re nitpicky, it’s the last play he wrote entirely by himself.) In it, Shakespeare portrays an aging magician who has been living in exile with his young daughter on a remote island for the past twelve years. Over the course of a single day, Prospero uses his magic to whip up a tempest to shipwreck the men responsible for his banishment. He then proceeds to dazzle and dismay the survivors (and the audience) with his art as he orchestrates his triumphant return home where he plans to retire in peace.
For a lot of audiences and literary scholars, Prospero seems like a stand-in in for Shakespeare, who spent a lifetime dazzling audiences before retiring in 1611, shortly after The Tempest was completed. Not only is the play chock-full of self conscious references to the workings of the theater, its epilogue seems to be a final and fond farewell to the stage. When Prospero (after giving up the art of magic he’s spent a lifetime perfecting) appears alone before the audience he confesses, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,” we can’t help but wonder of Shakespeare is speaking through this character here.
Regardless of whether or not our boy Shakespeare intended for us to understand the epilogue as a big adios to his own art, the play does seem to be a nice capstone to a brilliant career because The Tempest revisits some of the most important issues and themes to have emerged from Shakespeare’s previous plays. Literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt, who calls the play an “echo-chamber of Shakespearean motifs,” points out that The Tempest resonates “with issues that haunted Shakespeare’s imagination throughout his career.” Of course, you’ll be wanting some examples, so be sure to check out “Allusions” and “Themes.”
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy. According to Schmoop, “Thomas Hardy was an English novelist and poet writing at the end of the 19th century, but for today’s readers, his novels often seem more modern than Victorian in nature. People usually associate the Victorian period (i.e., the period during the reign of Queen Victoria, or 1837-1901) with sexual repression and general prudishness. Thomas Hardy’s willingness to challenge contemporary views of sexual morality and marriage made many of his novels very controversial when they first appeared. In fact, the last novel he published, Jude the Obscure, was criticized so scathingly that Hardy resolved not to write any more novels. He switched entirely to writing poetry.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles appeared five years earlier, in 1890, and was just as controversial. The novel is about a young country girl, Tess, whose father discovers that their family is descended from one of the oldest, most aristocratic families in England. But the discovery has tragic consequences for Tess. She is sent off to the wealthy branch of the family to “claim kin” (i.e., to borrow money), and ends up being raped by the son of that branch of the family. Hardy’s willingness to describe the rape, and his defiant insistence that Tess herself remains pure in spite of it, made the novel controversial.
Tess was published in 1891, but Hardy had been working on it in some form or other since about 1887. The manuscript went through a lot of different versions, and the controversial bits made it difficult for him to find a publisher. The publishers who rejected the novel put it more or less bluntly, but the consensus was basically that Tess (both the character and the novel) was too sexy to be put in print. The sexiness made it immoral in their eyes. (See the “What’s Up with the Title?” for more on the objections of the publishers).
In 1890, Hardy finally found a magazine willing to publish Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but only on condition that he censor some of the more controversial scenes. Basically, it’s like when NBC started showing reruns of Sex and the City – because it’s a network station, they had to censor some entire scenes, as well as all the swearing. But Tess of the D’Urbervilles was produced in the reverse order – first in a censored version, and only later in its original form.
Later in 1891, Hardy was given the opportunity to publish Tess in book form, which meant that he’d be able to include the scenes that were censored out of the Graphic magazine. He jumped at the chance – he wanted to “[piece] the trunk and limbs of the novel together” after the Graphic magazine had forced him to “dismember” it (quoted in the Penguin edition’s “History of the Text”, p. liv). In the 1891 version, he added the subtitle (“A Pure Woman”), defiantly defending the purity of the heroine in spite of her rape.
Hardy also revised later editions of Tess of the D’Urbervilles himself, but pressure from contemporary critics forced him to change or even delete some of the controversial scenes. Most modern critics agree that the 1891 version is the closest to his original vision of the novel, so that’s the version that we use in this module.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zorah Neale Hurston. According to Schmoop, “Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God over seven weeks in Haiti. The novel was published in 1937. Though the novel was written while abroad, Hurston’s home base was actually New York, where she played a prominent role in what we now call the Harlem Renaissance – a time of immense literary, musical, and artistic creativity in the black community ofHarlem. Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston’s most famous novel. The storyline follows the life of Janie Crawford, a black woman in search of true love and her true self. Both the novel and Hurston were not very well known until 1975, when another African American female writer, Alice Walker, wrote an article entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” This piece resulted in a renewed interest in Hurston and her writing.”
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. According to Schmoop, “Originally written in English and published in 1958, Things Fall Apart was one of the first novels by an African author to garner worldwide acclaim. Though mostly fictional, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe claims that the book documents Africa’s spiritual history – the civilized and rich life the Igbo lived before the arrival of Europeans and the ruinous social and cultural consequences that the arrival of European missionaries brought. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a sharp criticism of imperialism, or the European colonization of countries outside of the European continent (especially Africa and the Americas). The novel also critiques Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, Heart of Darkness, which documented the African natives from an imperialist’s (or white colonizer’s) point of view. Achebe followed Things Fall Apart with two other novels, No Longer At Ease andArrow of God, both of which also depict the African experience with Europeans.”
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien. According to Schmoop, “The Things They Carried is a set of connected short pieces that tell the stories of the men of the Alpha Company (foot soldiers in Vietnam) before, during, and after the Vietnam War. Among other things, it deals with the surreal and ambiguous nature of this war, the inadequacy of plain facts in communicating certain essential truths, and the alienation of the Vietnam War vet.
Tim O’Brien, the author, served in Vietnam as a foot soldier from 1968 to 1970 in between getting his B.A. in Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and doing graduate work at Harvard University. The vast majority of his books deal with the Vietnam War in one way or another, and The Things They Carried is probably his most famous work. It was published in 1990 and became a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.
Before you read it, we want you to look at something, though. Turn to the title page. What does it say right after the title, and right before the author’s name? That’s right: “a work of fiction.” Right now we’re not going to tell you any more than that O’Brien’s versions of truth and fiction have been making readers’ brains explode since this book was first published in 1990. And those explosions, if anything, encapsulate the book in a nutshell.”
A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley. According to Barnes and Noble, “A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.
The author of The Age of Grief and Ordinary Love and Good Will has written a breakthrough novel–winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. When an Iowa patriarch decides to turn over his thriving farm to his three daugters, he sets off a series of tragic events that will eventually rip apart his family.”
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini. According to Barnes and Noble, “After 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and with four million copies of The Kite Runner shipped, Khaled Hosseini returns with a beautiful, riveting, and haunting novel that confirms his place as one of the most important literary writers today.
Propelled by the same superb instinct for storytelling that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Suns is at once an incredible chronicle of thirty years of Afghan history and a deeply moving story of family, friendship, faith, and the salvation to be found in love.
Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them-in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman’s love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.
A stunning accomplishment, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a haunting, heartbreaking, compelling story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship, and an indestructible love.”
The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas. According to Schmoop, “Alexandre Dumas originally published The Three Musketeers in serials, appearing one chapter at a time in the Parisian newspaper Le Siècle from March 14, 1844 to July 1, 1844. The serial form was a popular way for newspaper publishers to boost readership: think of it as today’s weekly TV shows, which keep the audience in suspense from one episode to the next. Dumas’s story of four young heroes battling for glory and women was even more popular when it was written than it is today. It is safe to say that this book has reached canonical status: it has been continuously in print ever since its release, cementing its reputation as a well-loved swashbuckling adventure novel.
Being forced to publish The Three Musketeers as a series meant that each new installment had a certain number of page or line requirements. This, in part, explains why the novel is dialogue-heavy. Dumas was trying to meet his line quota, and dialogue provides ample opportunity for line breaks. The author was particularly suited to this style of writing since he previously worked as a dramatist. This helps explain the theatrical nature of some of the scenes, particularly the chapters towards the end. The serial nature of the novel also explains why most chapters end with a cliffhanger of some sort. By today’s standards, The Three Musketeers a “real page-turner,” but, back in Dumas’s day, this suspenseful style simply ensured that customers would continue buying newspapers.
Part of what made Dumas’s novel so popular is his use of historical events and characters. Queen Anne of Austria was real, as was her husband (Louis XIII), Cardinal Richelieu, and others. Also, a man named John Felton really did assassinate the Duke of Buckingham.
You should also keep in mind that, although Dumas inserts history into The Three Musketeers, it’s his own particular version of history. Suggesting that the Duke of Buckingham went to war for the love of Queen Anne, or that John Felton assassinated the Duke for love of Milady is a bit farfetched. Those events did happen, but for different reasons. Even though it’s not always historically accurate, Dumas’s version sure does make for great fiction.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. According to Schmoop, “If you’re going to write a one-hit wonder, you couldn’t do much better than To Kill a Mockingbird. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, it’s never been out of print, it leads at least one list of top-whatever books, and it’s been a staple of middle- and high-school English classes for generations.
In fact, we’re guessing that might be what brought you here.
The story of a young girl confronting deep-seated prejudice, it pits a six-year-old Scout Finch and her (relatively) anti-racist family against the segregation of an American South in the grip of Jim Crow. Author Harper Lee drew on her own childhood experience for the events of To Kill a Mockingbird. More than one critic has noticed some similarities between Scout and Lee herself—and between Scout’s friend Dill and Lee’s own childhood friend, Truman Capote. Like Scout, Lee’s father was an attorney who defended black men accused of crimes; like Scout, Lee had a brother four years older.
But Lee has said that the novel wasn’t intended to be autobiography—she was just trying to write what she knew. Full of historical detail from the pre-Civil Rights Movement era, the novel may even have been influenced by the Scottsboro Trials of the 1930s, in which two poor white women accused nine young black men of rape. Makes sense: that’s exactly the accusation Scout’s father Atticus ends up defending.
It’s hard to argue with To Kill a Mockingbird’s message of standing up for what’s right even when the costs are high. But not everyone agrees that the book holds the moral high ground. While the main reason it frequently appears on lists of banned books is its use of profanity, it’s also been challenged for its one-dimensional representation of African-Americans as docile, simple folk who need whites to protect them. Some people see the novel as taking a powerful stand against racism. Others just see it as promoting a kinder, gentler form of racism.
So, which is it? You’ll just have to read it and decide for yourself.”
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf. According to Barnes and Noble, “Radiant as [To the Lighthouse] is in its beauty, there could never be a mistake about it: here is a novel to the last degree severe and uncompromising. I think that beyond being about the very nature of reality, it is itself a vision of reality.”—Eudora Welty, from the Introduction
The serene and maternal Mrs. Ramsay, the tragic yet absurd Mr. Ramsay, and their children and assorted guests are on holiday on the Isle of Skye. From the seemingly trivial postponement of a visit to a nearby lighthouse, Woolf constructs a remarkable, moving examination of the complex tensions and allegiances of family life and the conflict between men and women.
A landmark of modern fiction and Virginia Woolf’s most popular novel, first published in 1927. To the Lighthouse explores the subjective reality of the everyday life of the Ramsay family of the British Hebrides islands. A ‘feminine’ book, filled with irony, sadness, and doubts about life.”
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding. According to Barnes and Noble, “Reacting against the sentimentality and moralism of the earliest English novels, Henry Fielding chose to create a work whose main character contains all the complexities of a real human being: the foundling Tom Jones. Tom has been raised by the Squire Allworthy to love virtue, and he truly wants to do good. But Tom’s inability to control his temper and his hearty appetite for food, drink, and the opposite sex get him kicked out of Allworthy’s estate – and separated from his one real love, Sophia Western. So he begins a journey from the English countryside to the teeming city of London. Along the way he meets a parade of colorful characters, enjoys a series of bawdy, comic adventures, eventually discovers his true parentage, triumphs over the villainous Blifil, and rejoins the beautiful Sophia.
Soon after its 1749 publication, Tom Jones was condemned for being “lewd,” and even blamed for several earthquakes. But what really riled its critics was its supremely funny satirical attack on eighteenth-century British society and its follies and hypocrisies – which, of course, are very much like our own.”
Tracks, Louise Erdrich. According to Barnes and Noble, “Set in North Dakota at a time in the past century when Indian tribes were struggling to keep what little remained of their lands, Tracks is a tale of passion and deep unrest. Over the course of ten crucial years, as tribal land and trust between people erode ceaselessly, men and women are pushed to the brink of their endurance—yet their pride and humor prohibit surrender. The reader will experience shock and pleasure in encountering characters that are compelling and rich in their vigor, clarity, and indomitable vitality.”
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson. According to Schmoop, “Picture this: it’s the late 19th century and you’re Robert Louis Stevenson, a struggling Scottish author who’s written a number of books about traveling through Europe and the United States. Your parents kind of hate you because, in this conservative day and age (the late 1870s), you’ve fallen in love with a married woman who is ten years older than you. Her name is Fanny Osbourne, and you are carrying on an adulterous relationship in her hometown of San Francisco. Not only are your folks shocked and horrified by your behavior, but you are sick (you’ve had a severe lung disease, tuberculosis, for most of your life) and really, really poor. So you need a miracle. That miracle comes in the form of one terrific idea: you decide to write a book about pirates. And fortunately, your girlfriend’s son can help you with it.
The idea for Treasure Island came from a map of an imaginary island Stevenson drew with Fanny’s son, Lloyd Osbourne. Stevenson took this map and decided to write “a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing” (source). Stevenson focuses almost entirely on plot in this book, with very little direct exploration of character’s psychology or motivations. We don’t know what makes Long John Silver a pirate, we just know that he is one – a darned good one – and that’s enough to keep the book going.
This lack of psychological depth makes Treasure Island really different from another of Stevenson’s famous books, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . But it’s also a sign of the audience Stevenson is looking for. He’s aiming Treasure Island at kids, who are more interested in cool stuff happening than in intense descriptions of characters’ inner selves. Still, even if Stevenson is trying to avoid “fine writing,” Treasure Island remains full of observations about human nature and interaction that keep the reader interested in the characters as well as in the story’s many twists and turns.
Stevenson originally published Treasure Island under the title The Sea-Cook (referring, of course, to that fabulously tricky pirate Long John Silver) in the magazine Young Folks over a period of several months from 1881 to 1882. It didn’t do that well as a series of episodes, possibly because the title is so boring (seriously, who wants to read about a chef on the ocean?). But then Stevenson repackaged the story as a book, Treasure Island, in 1883, and it became a bestseller (source). Stevenson still wasn’t exactly a lucky guy (he died young of tuberculosis), but Treasure Island made him famous in both his lifetime and long after his death – not bad for a book that developed out of an idle afternoon’s sketching with his girlfriend’s son.”
The Trial, Franz Kafka. According to Schmoop, “In a letter to his friend Oskar Pollack, Franz Kafka wrote, “What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us” (source).
Kafka’s Trial has to be up there as one of the biggest literary ice axes of all time. The Trial follows the incredible ill fortune of one Josef K., who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s been arrested on unnamed charges. Throughout the novel, K. struggles futilely against a secretive and tyrannical court system, only to be abruptly executed at the end with a knife to the heart.
If The Trial lands like an ice axe, it’s because K.’s story is so believable and relatable, despite the utter absurdity and sheer terror of his situation. It is our own ill fortune that the decades following the posthumous publication of the novel in 1924 have given us so many historical examples that correlate far too closely with K.’s legal nightmare. For many, The Trial is read as a spot-on critique of totalitarian governments such as Joseph Stalin‘s Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, where civil rights were suspended and individuals persecuted on the barest suggestion of civil disobedience. The Trial can also be read as a critique of the unwieldy bureaucratic systems that characterize any modern government, both totalitarian and democratic.
For other readers, The Trial isn’t just a political critique, but a religious allegory about man’s relationship to divine will. By leaving character and place names unspecified, many elements of The Trial are just general and mysteriously significant enough to have an allegorical quality reminiscent of Biblical parables, including, naturally, the parable of the Law in the penultimate chapter of The Trial.
It is perhaps this allegorical quality that also makes The Trial resonate with many twentieth century philosophical movements, from Frankfurt School philosophers such as Walter Benjamin to the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida. The Trial’s ironic attitude toward traditional systems of value, including religious and moral ones, as well as its display of interpretive fireworks, resonates well with these contemporary philosophies.
Perhaps the final irony is that The Trial comes to us via an actual death, the early death of Kafka himself. Kafka had asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished novels, including The Trial, but Brod just couldn’t bring himself to fulfill his friend’s last wish. (That, by the way, is why there are two different English translations of the novel circulating around. We’ve based our discussion on the most recent translation by Breon Mitchell, which is based on the most authoritative German edition of the text.) Readers today can be grateful to Brod for having the sense to hold on to Kafka’s work, but the fact of the matter is that The Trial exists because of a betrayal, an irony that the main character of the novel would surely appreciate.”
Trifles, Susan Glaspell. According to eNotes, “Susan Glaspell’s one-act play, Trifles, is based on actual events that occurred in Iowa at the turn of the century. From 1899-1901 Glaspell worked as a reporter for the Des Moines News, where she covered the murder trial of a farmer’s wife, Margaret Hossack, in Indianola, Iowa. Hossack was accused of killing her husband, John, by striking him twice in the head with an ax while he slept.
Initially it was assumed that burglars had murdered the farmer, but a subsequent sheriff’s investigation turned up evidence suggesting Mrs. Hossack was unhappy in her marriage. Ultimately, she was charged with and found guilty of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
Over the course of sixteen months, Glaspell wrote twenty-six articles covering the case, from the announcement of the murder until Hossack’s conviction. The author found herself feeling more and more sympathy for the accused, in spite of the grisly nature of the crime.
Years later, Glaspell and her husband, George Cook, along with some friends, founded the Provincetown Players, an amateur theatrical company on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1916 the group presented a summertime series of plays that included Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff. In need of a new play to end the season, Cook suggested Glaspell should write a one-act for the company. Her memory of the Hossack trial inspired Trifles.
Trifles is a murder mystery that explores gender relationships, power between the sexes, and the nature of truth. In the play, the farmer and his wife never actually appear; instead, the story focuses on the prosecutor, George Henderson, who has been called in to investigate the murder; Henry Peters, the local sheriff; Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer who discovered Wright’s body; and Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, wives to the two local men.
While the men bluster and tramp around the farmhouse searching for clues, the women discover bits of evidence in the ‘‘trifles’’ of a farmer’s wife—her baking, cleaning and sewing. Because the men virtually ignore the women’s world, they remain blind to the truth before their eyes.”
Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne. According to Barnes and Noble, “Tristram Shandy is an ironic masterpiece, a work of extraordinary originality, wit and learning. It is a work of considerable philosophical complexity but at the same time it is just a piece of flim-flam: it has been called the longest shaggy dog story in English Literature. It is both a classic novel and an anti-novel. It includes passages of seemingly-serious theology – but it can also be read as an elaborate bawdy joke.”
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James. According to Schmoop, “The Turn of the Screw is easily one of the most influential ghost stories of all time. Not only does it appeal to those of us who like a good thrill, it is also a model for any aspiring writer of suspense. Henry James‘s text is famous for its lasting mysterious qualities; though the story originally appeared over a hundred years ago in 1898, it still stumps readers everywhere to this day. Its many confusing twists and turns have sparked debates between critics since its publication, and the story has been examined from all kinds of different angles – from psychoanalysis to literary criticism. Part of what’s so fascinating about it is the fact that James himself never clearly came out and told readers what he intended them to believe, and it’s this ambiguity that makes it one of this prolific author’s most famous, talked about short stories.”
Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will is a comedy about a cross-dressing, ship-wreck surviving, poetry-loving girl who finds herself at the center of a not-so-average love triangle.
Written between 1601 and 1602 (right around the same time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida), the play is most famous today for being a so-called “Transvestite Comedy” (which just means it’s a comedy with one or more cross-dressing characters). In Elizabethan London, all stage plays were performed by male actors who cross-dressed in order to play the parts of women. Twelfth Night is particularly provocative and interesting, since the role of its heroine, Viola, would have been played by a boy actor, who was cross-dressed as a female character, who cross-dresses as a boy. The story line has inspired plenty of remakes and adaptations, including the popular teen flick She’s the Man, starring Amanda Bynes.
Viola’s cross-dressing may be no big moral whoop for audiences today, but, for 16th century Puritans, it was a big no-no. Theater critics argued that cross-dressing was sinful, “wicked,” and “monstrous.” They argued that it promoted sexual “deviance” and turned women into hermaphrodites. Today, however, Twelfth Night is one of the most popular and beloved of Shakespeare comedies perhaps because of its rebellious portrayal of gender ambiguity.
It was popular back in Shakespeare’s day, too, but perhaps for different reasons. We know from 17th-century law student John Manningham’s diary that Twelfth Night was performed at the Middle Temple (a London law school) on February 2, 1602. Check out what he had to say:
At our feast we had a play called “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” much like “The Comedy of Errors” […] A good practice in it to make a Steward believe his Lady Widow was in love with him, by counterfeiting a letter […]
It’s interesting that Manningham’s diary entry focuses on the Malvolio sub-plot, which isn’t necessarily what contemporary readers think of when they reflect on the play. Manningham’s entry suggests that, at least for him, the play’s ridicule of the social-climbing Puritan figure, Malvolio, was the most interesting and entertaining part of the performance. Several decades later, King Charles I (b. 1600-1649) may have thought the same thing. In his copy of Shakespeare’s works, he crossed out the title Twelfth Night and wrote in Malvolio! as a replacement. Guess old Charlie didn’t like social climbers and Puritans either.
Of course, Queen Elizabeth I sat on the throne when Twelfth Night was penned. We wonder what she thought of the play. If she ever saw it, that is. Critics aren’t sure. Check out “What’s Up with the Title?” for more on the debate.”
Typical American, Gish Jen. According to Barnes and Noble, “From the beloved author of Mona in the Promised Land and The Love Wife comes this comic masterpiece, an insightful novel of immigrants experiencing the triumphs and trials of American life.
Gish Jen reinvents the American immigrant story through the Chang family, who first come to the United States with no intention of staying. When the Communists assume control of China in 1949, though, Ralph Chang, his sister Theresa, and his wife Helen, find themselves in a crisis. At first, they cling to their old-world ideas of themselves. But as they begin to dream the American dream of self-invention, they move poignantly and ironically from people who disparage all that is “typical American” to people who might be seen as typically American themselves. With droll humor and a deep empathy for her characters, Gish Jen creates here a superbly engrossing story that resonates with wit and wisdom even as it challenges the reader to reconsider what a typical American might be today.
This wonderful, bittersweet novel of misadventure and creeping assimilation begins in 1947, when the Shanghai-based Changs send young Ralph halfway around the world to study in New York. He sets off with two goals in mind–to master engineering and to avoid girls at any cost.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. According to Schmoop, “Harriet Beecher Stowe inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made aiding or assisting runaway slaves a crime in free states. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was first published in 1852, is thus a deliberate and carefully written anti-slavery argument. Sure, it’s a novel, but don’t forget that it’s also a sermon intended to convince a Christian audience that slavery is an evil institution and must be destroyed. And by sermon, we do mean sermon. Stowe’s weapon of choice for destroying the institution of slavery was Christian love.
Controversial from the start, Uncle Tom’s Cabin relies on racial stereotypes to get Stowe’s point across. But Stowe’s novel had a profound effect on the American public by exacerbating the tensions between the North and South that led to the Civil War. In a much repeated legend, President Abraham Lincolnis rumored to have said, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war,” when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel was a bestseller in the 19th century, selling over 300,000 copies in its first year, and has been translated into over 60 languages.”
U.S.A. (trilogy), John Dos Passos. According to Barnes and Noble, “First Volume-The 42nd Parallel: With his U.S.A. trilogy, comprising THE 42nd PARALLEL, 1919, and THE BIG MONEY, John Dos Passos is said by many to have written the great American novel. While Fitzgerald and Hemingway were cultivating what Edmund Wilson once called their “own little corners,” John Dos Passos was taking on the world. Counted as one of the best novels of the twentieth century by the Modern Library and by some of the finest writers working today, U.S.A. is a grand, kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation, buzzing with history and life on every page.
The trilogy opens with THE 42nd PARALLEL, where we find a young country at the dawn of the twentieth century. Slowly, in stories artfully spliced together, the lives and fortunes of five characters unfold. Mac, Janey, Eleanor, Ward, and Charley are caught on the storm track of this parallel and blown New Yorkward. As their lives cross and double back again, the likes of Eugene Debs, Thomas Edison, and Andrew Carnegie make cameo appearances.
Second Volume-1919: With 1919, the second volume of his U.S.A. trilogy, John Dos Passos continues his “vigorous and sweeping panorama of twentieth-century America” (Forum), lauded on publication of the first volume not only for its scope, but also for its groundbreaking style. Again, employing a host of experimental devices that would inspire a whole new generation of writers to follow, Dos Passos captures the many textures, flavors, and background noises of modern life with a cinematic touch and unparalleled nerve.
1919 opens to find America and the world at war, and Dos Passos’s characters, many of whom we met in the first volume, are thrown into the snarl. We follow the daughter of a Chicago minister, a wide-eyed Texas girl, a young poet, a radical Jew, and we glimpse Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Unknown Soldier.
Third Volume-The Big Money: THE BIG MONEY completes John Dos Passos’s three-volume “fable of America’s materialistic success and moral decline” (American Heritage) and marks the end of “one of the most ambitious projects that an American novelist has ever undertaken” (Time). Here we come back to America after the war and find a nation on the upswing. Industrialism booms. The stock market surges. Lindbergh takes his solo flight. Henry Ford makes automobiles. From New York to Hollywood, love affairs to business deals, it is a country taking the turns too fast, speeding toward the crash of 1929.
Ultimately, whether the novels are read together or separately, they paint a sweeping portrait of collective America and showcase the brilliance and bravery of one of its most enduring and admired writers.”
Vanity Fair, William Thackeray. According to Schmoop, “Before 1847, William Makepeace Thackeray was a guy mostly known for writing short satirical articles for the funny magazine Punch. After 1848, he became the superstar author of the hilariously mean Vanity Fair, a long satirical novel that made fun of the aristocracy and the middle classes: their greed, corruption, and – ahem – vanity. Actually, he got the fame and fortune way before the novel’s ending was written. How on earth? Well, the first time around, Vanity Fair was serialized in Punch – each month, a new section of the novel would come out. Readers would sit on pins and needles waiting for the next set of chapters to see what part of life Thackeray would make fun of and what would happen to the characters. Basically, it was a 19th century version of the Daily Show, with each month bringing a new episode.
Vanity Fair is so broad and sprawling that trying to summarize its plot is almost impossible. Still, let’s give it a try. It’s the story of two young women whose lives take them in and out of every segment of English society, each of which can be mocked and displayed for laughs in turn. But what’s more important than plot is the style of the novel – its bitter and caustic humor. This genre of satire is called “picaresque” and it’s part of a pretty long tradition that goes all the way back to Don Quixote in the 16th century and weaves through the awesome Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th century. The idea is to start with a character (a picaro) who is young or looking for a place to settle down, then to lead this character around all the types of people and situations that the author wants to ridicule. And this novel really does have something for everyone to laugh at: snobby merchants, greedy social climbers, illiterate aristocrats, nosy servants, evil nobles, macho soldiers, bossy women, bumbling men, British people, German people, Belgian people, and every other kind of group of humans that can be crammed in.
What Thackeray does in Vanity Fair is bring this genre out of the 18th century and into his own time. This requires a little prudish cleaning up, since the 18th century guys weren’t nearly so straight-laced and uptight as the Victorians about sex and the human body. But, even after all of that, the novel still has to be even further removed from Thackeray’s own time to seem decent – and to avoid getting him sued! Although he is writing in the 1840s, he sets the novel 30 years earlier, during the reign of George IV and the second invasion of Napoleon. Hang on, hang on – the who now?
George IV took over the rule of Britain, acting as the Prince Regent, while his father George III was a few cards short of a full deck. George IV was a fun king who was the total opposite of sour-faced, prissy Queen Victoria. His Court was all about eating, drinking, and general wastefulness and debauchery. In fact, he was so into the good life that he ended up dying from it.
And Napoleon? After the French Revolution, when the king was dethroned and Marie Antoinette beheaded all in the name of democracy, Napoleon rose to power and eventually got himself named Emperor (so much for democracy, right?). After trying and almost succeeding to conquer all of Europe, he made the mistake of invading Russia in the middle of winter. He lost, got captured, and was imprisoned on the tiny island of Elba. After about a year, he escaped, gathered the remains of his army, and invaded Europe once again, until he was beaten at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by that English stud, the Duke of Wellington.
So, that’s the basic background on when Vanity Fair is set. Now you can dig in and enjoy all of Thackeray’s snarky humor.”
The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith. According to Barnes and Noble, “Rich with wisdom and gentle irony, Oliver Goldsmith’s only novel is a charming comedy that tells of an unworldly and generous vicar who lives contentedly with his large family until disaster strikes. When his idyllic life is brutally interrupted by bankruptcy and his daughter’s abduction, he lands in prison. Yet these misfortunes fail to dampen the vicar’s spirit or cause him to lose sight of Christian morality.
A delightful lampoon of such literary conventions of the day as pastoral scenes, artificial romance, and the hero’s stoic bravery, The Vicar of Wakefield has remained a classic since it was first published in 1766.”
Victory, Joseph Conrad. According to Barnes and Noble, “Victory was the last of Conrad’s novels to be set in the Malay Archipelago. It tells the story of Axel Heyst who, damaged by his dead father’s nihilistic philosophy, has retreated from the world of commerce and colonial exploration to live alone on the island of Samburan. But Heyst’s solitary existence ends when he rescues an English girl from her rapacious patron and brings her back to the island. She in turn recalls him to love and life, until the world breaks in on them once more with tragic consequences. In this love story Conrad created two of his psychologically most complex and compelling characters in a narrative of great erotic power.”
Volpone, Ben Jonson. According to Barnes and Noble, “Victory was the last of Conrad’s novels to be set in the Malay Archipelago. It tells the story of Axel Heyst who, damaged by his dead father’s nihilistic philosophy, has retreated from the world of commerce and colonial exploration to live alone on the island of Samburan. But Heyst’s solitary existence ends when he rescues an English girl from her rapacious patron and brings her back to the island. She in turn recalls him to love and life, until the world breaks in on them once more with tragic consequences. In this love story Conrad created two of his psychologically most complex and compelling characters in a narrative of great erotic power.”
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett. According to Barnes and Noble, “A seminal work of twentieth-century drama, Waiting for Godot was Samuel Beckett’s first professionally produced play. It opened in Paris in 1953 at the tiny Left Bank Theatre de Babylone, and has since become a cornerstone of twentieth-century theater. The story line revolves around two seemingly homeless men waiting for someone—or something—named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree on a barren stretch of road, inhabiting a drama spun from their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as a somber summation of mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning. Beckett’s language pioneered an expressionistic minimalism that captured the existentialism of post-World War II Europe. His play remains one of the most magical and beautiful allegories of our time.
A classic of modern theatre and perennial favorite of colleges and high schools. “One of the most noble and moving plays of our generation . . . suffused with tenderness for the whole human perplexity . . . like a sharp stab of beauty and pain.”–The London Times.”
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. According to Schmoop, “Picture yourself as a writer in the middle of the 19th century. You’re wearing wool underwear (cause you can’t really afford the nice silk ones), sitting in your dark little room, the candlelight is flickering (still waiting on that Thomas Edison guy), and you’re holding a quill pen in your hand thinking about the blank page in front of you. Mostly, though, you’re really, really stressed out.
Why? Well, if you’re like pretty much every other writer in the 19th century, you’re totally doing it for the money – fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, people gotta eat, and all that. And as we all know from the summer blockbusters we pay to see, if you’re trying to make bank from providing entertainment to the masses, you need to stick to some tried and true formulas: go big, stay away from anything too complicated…and then rinse and repeat for as long as you can. Transformers 5? Here we come.
But what if you didn’t have to worry about what your audience thought, or at least didn’t stress about whether your big work was going to pay for your kids’ schools and whatnot? Well, then you’d be Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was from a wealthy, aristocratic family (that’s Count Tolstoy, thank you very much), so he could basically write whatever he wanted without worrying too much about how many copies he was going to sell. And so, from 1865 to 1869, he indulged his inner history buff by digging deeper and deeper into Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia in 1812. When he was done, he ended up with what is pretty much the most impressive-sounding book to ever brag about reading: War and Peace.
And with good reason. Tolstoy’s research didn’t just involve reading some history books and calling it a day. No, he dove into the archives, getting his hands on actual letters sent by Napoleon and the Russian and French generals and figuring out the personalities involved from the way they wrote about their activities. Even more impressive, he traveled to the actual battlefields, compass and surveying tools in hand, to map out for himself where the troops were stationed and how they attacked and defended. Now that’s dedication. Tolstoy combined all this research with firsthand knowledge about the ways wars were really fought (he had been an embedded journalist during the Crimean War in 1857). He became angry about the crazy inaccuracies in the historical accounts being published and decided to correct historians once and for all by laying it all out in his own book.
It wasn’t just the small mistakes that made him mad, either – it was the whole system of historical writing. Back then, the “great man” theory of history reigned supreme. Basically, whenever something big happened, you were supposed to look around for the most awesome leader and give all the credit or blame to him. Tolstoy thought that was just idiotic, since leaders don’t just materialize out of thin air but are the products of their time. Events are necessarily very much the result of all the other events that lead up to them.
Tolstoy’s two major points are: 1) historians should think not just about the big names like Napoleon, but also about the forces that shaped them and the events that allowed them to take power; and 2) even the most seemingly insignificant people can affect history, by following or not following orders, for example, or delivering or not delivering a message. And that’s actually how modern historians conceive of history, so Tolstoy was ahead of his time.
OK, now before we go finish, everyone gather round as Shmoop spills a secret. Have you noticed how we’ve been going out of our way not to call War and Peace a novel? You haven’t? Well, trust us, it’s been happening. That’s because Tolstoy packed the thing so full of stuff (like, say, military history, complete with detailed maps) that it really isn’t a novel. Even Tolstoy said so a few years after it got published. Instead, it’s a work that’s crammed with every possible kind of writing that you can use to tell a story, and even the parts that do recognizably belong to one genre or another are twisted and transformed to the point where it’s hard to identify them. Want to know more? Check out the “Genre” section.”
Walden, Henry David Thoreau. According to Schmoop, “Henry David Thoreau was a pretty brilliant guy, but he didn’t feel the need to answer to anyone. When The Advancement of Society asked him what kind of scientist he was, he refused to give a clear response. In his Journal, he writes, “I am a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot” (source). To boot!
Thoreau’s refusal to be buttonholed is characteristic of this “wild child” of the American Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists – proto-hippies, you might say – were a group of writers and thinkers based in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-19th century. The leader of the pack was actually Thoreau’s pal Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happened to loan him the land by Walden Pond where Thoreau would ultimately commence his personal experiment. Emerson expressed his Transcendentalist philosophy in famous essays like Nature (1836) and “Self-Reliance” (1841), where he promoted such values as individualism, freedom from conformity, and nature as a source of spiritual renewal for mankind.
So what distinguishes Thoreau from Emerson? Well, for the Walden author, it is nature, not man, that takes center stage. Thoreau is often known as the first environmentalist or ecologist. Sure, there were already nature conservationist movements at the time, but Thoreau’s Walden (first published as Walden; or Life in the Woods in 1854) was one of the earliest attempts to present these ideas as a coherent philosophy. He embraces the wildness of nature for its own sake and argues that man is obligated to conserve nature – total tree hugger.
Covering the years 1845-1847, Walden explores Thoreau’s life in an isolated cabin, with the barest of necessities. (“Bare Necessities” – go ahead and sing it. We’ll wait… Okay, ready?) In the book, Thoreau does a lot of observing, watching, and ruminating on nature and its seasonal changes. But he also takes it one step further. He uses his vast knowledge of philosophical and religious texts to turn these observations into answers. In particular, he answers the most universal of questions: what is a good life, and how should we live?
Walden’s exquisite descriptions of natural life, with an attention to species-specific detail (and boy, do we mean detail), show us a richness of natural diversity that corresponds to the varieties of human experience. If we could just break out of our habits of conformity and prejudice, Thoreau thinks, the possibilities for living would be endless.”
The Warden, Anthony Trollope. According to Schmoop, “One of the most topical of his books, it tells the story of Mr Harding, an elderly clergyman, warden of an almshouse for old men, who faces a major crisis when his Church sinecure becomes the centre of public controversy. In it Trollope reveals his special genius for satirizing the Church of England. Yet while he wishes to expose an abuse of privilege, he is also vehement in his attack on the reformers – zealous John Bold, Dr Pessimist Anticant and Mr Popular Sentiment. But at the heart of the novel is Mr Harding’s private drama of conscience, and in contrasting Harding’s moral honesty with the worldliness of his fellow cleric, Archdeacon Grantly, and the hypocrisy of Tom Towers, editor of the crusading Jupiter, Trollope illustates his belief in the value of individual integrity.”
Washington Square, Henry James. According to Barnes and Noble, “Back when New York was still young, so was heiress Catherine Sloper. A simple, plain girl, she grew up in opulence with a disappointed father and a fluttery aunt in a grand house on Washington Square.
Enter Morris Townsend, a handsome charmer who assures Catherine he loves her for herself and not for her money. But Catherine’s revered father sees in Townsend what she cannot. Now, with her tearful aunt Penniman as his amusingly melodramatic ally, Townsend will present Catherine with the hardest choice of her young life.”
The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot. According to Schmoop, “No seriously. T.S. Eliot‘s “The Waste Land” has been called “one of the most important poems of the 20th Century” and it might actually be one of the most important poems ever. Like, ever.
In its original draft, the poem was almost twice as long as the published version. That’s because T.S. handed the thing over to his buddy, Ezra Pound, who slashed a ton of material and made extensive editing suggestions. Eliot pretty much used every one of these suggestions, and even dedicated the poem to Pound, calling him “il miglior fabbro” in the inscription, which is Italian for “the better craftsman.” So yeah, even though T.S. wrote the poem to end all poems in 1922, he still had some confidence issues.
Maybe what Eliot should have been concerned about was penning a poem that’s considered incomprehensible by many first-time readers the world over. Yep, there’s no getting around it: “The Waste Land” can be one tough cookie to read. The poem constantly shifts between different speakers without warning, and it’s chock full of references to classic literature from cultures all over the world, many of which are more than a little obscure.
Which raises the question, why oh why would Eliot want his poem to be so hard to read? Well, like many writers of his time (so-called modernists), he felt that Western culture was headed to hell in a handbasket, and that people were getting dumber and dumber (it’s a good thing he didn’t live to see the days ofConveyor Belt of Love). So basically, his message to readers was: “Hey, if you don’t understand what I’m talking about in this poem, go to a library!” And now that we live in the age of Google, we really don’t have any excuse for not understanding his references.
Apart from its obscure allusions, “The Waste Land” can be difficult to read because it constantly shifts between different speakers and scenes, often without warning. At one moment, you’re a woman reminiscing about riding on a sled when you were young; at another, you’re staring at a dead sailor who’s decaying at the bottom of the ocean. But no matter how weird things get, make no mistake: this is a very, very serious poem about a very serious subject: the decline of western culture and the beauty that this culture once possessed, back in the good ol’ days of classic times.”
We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates. According to Barnes and Noble, “Moving away from the dark tone of her more recent masterpieces, Joyce Carol Oates turns the tale of a family struggling to cope with its fall from grace into a deeply moving and unforgettable account of the vigor of hope and the power of love to prevail over suffering. The Mulvaneys of High Point Farm in Mt. Ephraim, New York, are a large and fortunate clan, blessed with good looks, abundant charisma, and boundless promise. But over the twenty-five year span of this ambitious novel, the Mulvaneys will slide, almost imperceptibly at first, from the pinnacle of happiness, transformed by the vagaries of fate into a scattered collection of lost and lonely souls. It is the youngest son, Judd, now an adult, who attempts to piece together the fragments of the Mulvaneys’ former glory, seeking to uncover and understand the secret violation that occasioned the family’s tragic downfall. Each of the Mulvaneys endures some form of exile—physical or spiritual—but in the end they find a way to bridge the chasms that have opened up among them, reuniting in the spirit of love and healing. Profoundly cathartic, Oates’ acclaimed novel unfolds as if, in the darkness of the human spirit, she has come upon a source of light at its core. Rarely has a writer made such a startling and inspiring statement about the value of hope and compassion.”
Who Has Seen the Wind, W.O. Mitchell. According to Barnes and Noble, “When W.O. Mitchell died in 1998 he was described as “Canada’s best-loved writer.” Every commentator agreed that his best – and his best-loved – book was Who Has Seen the Wind. Since it was first published in 1947, this book has sold almost a million copies in Canada.
As we enter the world of four-year-old Brian O’Connal, his father the druggist, his Uncle Sean, his mother, and his formidable Scotch grandmother (“she belshes…a lot”), it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary book. As we watch Brian grow up, the prairie and its surprising inhabitants like the Ben and Saint Sammy – and the rich variety of small-town characters – become unforgettable. This book will be a delightful surprise for all those who are aware of it, but have never quite got around to reading it, till now.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee. According to Schmoop, “Edward Albee was born in Washington, DC. At two weeks old, he was adopted by Reed and Frances Albee of New York. His name was changed from Edward Harvey to Edward Franklin Albee III. Little Edward’s new name came from his adopted grandfather, E. F. Albee, who was a big time vaudeville producer. The family was very wealthy as a result of E. F. Albee’s exploits. Edward was raised in Westchester, New York in the lap of luxury. His adopted mother, Frances, did her best to groom him into a respectable member of the upper class. Edward, however, had other plans. From a young age he resisted the upper class social circle he’d been brought up in. Eventually he dropped out of school and went to live the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. After working a bunch of odd jobs to stay afloat, he eventually scored big on Off Broadway with his first one act play The Zoo Story.
With the Broadway premiere of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962, Albee went from promising young playwright to great American dramatist, and was perceived by many as having joined the ranks of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? didn’t go off without controversy, though. Some audience members were shocked by its strong language and taboo sexual references. If you put the play on HBO today, it would probably seem tame, but in the early ’60s it was accused of being perverse and dirty minded. The script won the vote for the Pulitzer Prize, but some thought it was just too controversial to be given the prestigious award. It was said that the play didn’t present a wholesome image of America. As a result of the controversy, no one received the Pulitzer for Drama that year. This struck half of the Pulitzer panel as being so wrong that they resigned in protest.
No need to feel sorry for Mr. Albee, however. The play was a gigantic commercial success. Even though the play didn’t receive its well-deserved Pulitzer, it was awarded the NY Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for best play. In later years, Albee went on to win three Pulitzers: A Delicate Balance (1967), Seascape (1975), and Three Tall Women (1994). Thus, Edward Albee has the distinction of winning more Pulitzer Prizes than any other playwright besides Eugene O’Neill. In 1996 Albee received the Kennedy Center‘s National Medal of Arts, and is considered by many to be America’s greatest living playwright.”
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys. According to Schmoop, “Zombies! Black magic! Riots! Rum-soaked Caribbean honeymoon! Squishy bugs! Monkeys!
OK, so we were kidding about the monkeys, but all that other stuff? It’s all in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and it’s widely considered a literary classic. How could this be, you ask?
Jean Rhys first read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in 1907, when she arrived in England as a teenager. As a native of the Caribbean herself, she was “shocked” by Brontë’s portrayal of Bertha Mason, Rochester‘s Creole wife who was locked up in the attic (Rhys 1999: 144). Nearly fifty years later, Rhys turned the story of Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic” into a full-length novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which pretty much established Rhys as one of the greatest novelists in the twentieth century.
Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t just a prequel, but a significant re-writing of one of the classics of Victorian fiction. Instead of a shrieking specter, we get a psychologically nuanced portrayal of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, a young white Creole girl coming of age in Jamaica while it was still a British colony. The Caribbean is no longer an exotic afterthought, but a vibrant locale described with an eye trained on its dense social, cultural, and historical landscape. The marriage of Antoinette and Rochester is no longer just a painful back-story, but a stage on which the sexes battle it out for emotional and economic control.
Wide Sargasso Sea also alters the historical setting of Jane Eyre by pushing the chronology up almost thirty years later in order to take advantage of another foundational moment in Jamaican history, the abolition of slavery in 1834. Setting the novel during this tumultuous period enables Rhys to situate the figure of the white Creole woman in the complex of shifting race relations under British colonial rule.
No wonder, then, that Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t just a fascinating and entertaining story, but a work that has profoundly impacted the way that readers approach the “great books” of Western literature. The novel challenges us to read these texts critically for the untold stories of characters who are marginalized because they don’t fit into the dominant paradigm of what a hero or heroine ought to be.
(Oh, and can you “get” Wide Sargasso Sea without having any idea what Jane Eyre is about? Absolutely. Can you love Jane Eyre and be seduced by Wide Sargasso Sea at the same time? Of course – many people do. The beauty of Wide Sargasso Sea is that it lets you have it both ways.)”
The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen. According to Barnes and Noble, “Should the truth be pursued whatever the cost? The idealistic son of a wealthy businessman seeks to expose his father’s duplicity and to free his childhood friend from the lies on which his happy home life is based.” The Wild Duck with its innovatory symbolism and its touching portrait of a fourteen-year-old girl held in thrall by her feckless father is one of Ibsen’s most frequently staged plays.”
Winter in the Blood, James Welch. According to Barnes and Noble, “During his life, James Welch came to be regarded as a master of American prose, and his first novel, Winter in the Blood, is one of his most enduring works. The narrator of this beautiful, often disquieting novel is a young Native American man living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. Sensitive and self-destructive, he searches for something that will bind him to the lands of his ancestors but is haunted by personal tragedy, the dissolution of his once proud heritage, and Montana’s vast emptiness. Winter in the Blood is an evocative and unforgettable work of literature that will continue to move and inspire anyone who encounters it.”
Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare. According to Schmoop, “Written toward the end of William Shakespeare’s theatrical career, The Winter’s Tale (1609-1611) is a story of loss and redemption. In a fit of wild and unfounded jealousy, Leontes, the King of Sicily, convinces himself that his pregnant wife is carrying his best friend’s love child. Leontes’s jealousy turns to tyranny as the king proceeds to destroy his entire family and a lifelong friendship. Sixteen long years pass, and we witness one of the most astonishing endings in English literature.
The play is famous for its two-part structure, which makes The Winter’s Tale seem like two entirely different plays that are joined together at the end. The first three acts enact a mini-tragedy and occur in wintery Sicily, while the second half of the play occurs in Bohemia during the summer months and features the kind of restorative ending typical of Shakespeare’s “comedies.”
Because of its mixed genre, the play is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (a group that also includes Pericles, Cymbeline, andThe Tempest). To complicate matters, these works are also referred to as Shakespeare’s “romances,” which you can read more about in “Genre.”
Aside from its unique structure and Shakespeare’s experiments in genre, The Winter’s Tale is also famous for its flagrant disregard for the “classical unities” (of time, place, and action), literary rules that say all plays should have the following features: 1) the action should take place within a 24 hour time span; 2) the action should take place in one geographical place/setting; 3) the play should have one main plot and no sub-plots. Most of Shakespeare’s plays ignore the “classical unities,” but The Winter’s Tale takes it a step further by having the figure Time appear on stage at the beginning of Act 4 to announce that Shakespeare is fast-forwarding sixteen years and changing the location from Sicily to Bohemia – if anyone has a problem, they should just get over it, please.
Much of The Winter’s Tale is based on Robert Greene’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time (published 1588), a pastoral romance about a jealous king who banishes his infant daughter and drives away his friend. Shakespeare also draws from the story of Pygmalion in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Over the years, there’s been some speculation that The Winter’s Tale is really about King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded after being (unfairly) accused and convicted of adultery in 1536.”
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor. According to Barnes and Noble, “Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s astonishing and haunting first novel, is a classic of twentieth-century literature. It is the story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate faith. He falls under the spell of a “blind” street preacher names Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Lily Sabbath. In an ironic, malicious gesture of his own non-faith, and to prove himself a greater cynic than Hawks, Hazel Motes founds the The Church Without Christ, but is still thwarted in his efforts to lose God. He meets Enoch Emery, a young man with “wise blood,” who leads him to a mummified holy child, and whose crazy maneuvers are a manifestation of Hazel’s existential struggles. This tale of redemption, retribution, false prophets, blindness, blindings, and wisdom gives us one of the most consuming characters in modern fiction.
Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes of Eastrod, Tennessee. He returns from World War II and back at home falls under the spell of street preacher Asa Hawks and his daughter, Lily Sabbath Hawks.
Motes sets about preaching his own ‘word’: a new religion called The Church Without Christ. Of course he runs into conflict with Hawks. The beauty and power of the book come out of O’Connor’s brutal depiction of the characters you love to hate who turn up unexpectedly.”
Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston. According to Barnes and Noble, “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is Kingston’s disturbing and fiercely beautiful account of growing up Chinese-American in California. The young Kingston lives in two worlds: the America to which her parents have emigrated, a place inhabited by white “ghosts,” and the China of her mother’s “talk stories,” a place haunted by the ghosts of the past. Her mother, who had been a doctor in China but in the United States is reduced to running a laundry, tells her daughter traditional tales of strong, wily women warriorstales–that clash puzzlingly with the real oppression of Chinese women. Kingston learns to fill in the mystifying spaces in her mother’s stories with stories of her own, engaging her family’s past and her own present with anger, imagination, and dazzling passion.”
The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor. According to Barnes and Noble, “Once the home of poor Irish and Italian immigrants, Brewster Place, a rotting tenement on a dead-end street, now shelters black families. This novel portrays the courage, the fear, and the anguish of some of the women there who hold their families together, trying to make a home. Among them are: Mattie Michael, the matriarch who loses her son to prison; Etta Mae Johnson who tries to trade the ‘high life’ for marriage with a local preacher; Kiswana Browne who leaves her middle-class family to organize a tenant’s union.”
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. According to Schmoop, “Published in 1847, Wuthering Heights was the only novel Emily Brontë published, and she died the year after it came out. It is the story of Heathcliff, a dark outsider who falls in love with the feisty Catherine and rages and revenges against every obstacle that prevents him from being with her.
Wuthering Heights is violent even by today’s standards and is not only full of references to demons, imps of Satan, and ghouls, but also depicts some pretty disturbing scenes of domestic violence. The supernatural plays a large part: ghosts appear, and Heathcliff, characterized more than once as a vampire, refers to drinking blood, haunting, and all manner of paranormal acts. All of this drama means that the book has recently become very popular again with interest in the Twilight saga, whose characters refer to the novel (and are, in some ways, quite similar the characters found in Brontë’s novel).
Though Wuthering Heights is considered a classic, the book wasn’t always so popular. In fact, when it first came out there was all sorts of confusion about the author, because Brontë published the book under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Readers thought the book was by the same author who wrote Jane Eyre – which was more immediately embraced by the public because the characters are a lot more likable. Actually Emily’s sister Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell.
To set the record straight, Charlotte wrote the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and also took the opportunity to address some of the bad press the book had received. Critics basically thought the book was a downer, and some even characterized it as immoral (oh my!). One reviewer wrote that, “Wuthering Heights casts a gloom over the mind not easily to be dispelled.” (Read this review and other early reviews of Brontë’s novel here.) In other words, with all of its spirits and gripping obsessions, Wuthering Heights ends up possessing the reader, too. So be careful!
Numerous movie adaptations have been made of the book. The one in 1939 starring Lawrence Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It has also inspired several creative adaptations such as operas, musicals, theatrical adaptations, and even a song by Death Cab for Cutie (“Cath“). Artists love of all the novel’s Gothic elements, and the scholarly interpretations are endless. Wuthering Heights appeared after England’s craze for Gothic novels had ended, and the book changes all of the rules, taking your standard haunted house performance and turning it into a sinister psychological thriller.”
Zoot Suit, Luis Valdez. According to Barnes and Noble, “Drama. Latino American Studies. Luis Valdez is a leading figure in Hispanic theater with outstanding achievements from a variety of venues from flatbed truck and conventional stages to the silver and small screens. With his many successes Valdez has remained a rebel and an innovator, as well as the re-creator of Hispanic traditions. This book contains three of the most important and critically acclaimed Valdez plays. “Zoot Suit” is a play that deals with the infamous “Pachuco Riots” in Los Angeles during World War II, Bandido! explores the life and legend of the nineteenth-century California social rebel Tiburcio Vasquez, and I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges! explores media images of Hispanic through a staged recreation of the TV situation comedy genre.”