19 Must Read Classic Books Before You Die
There are some must read classic books I have spent most of my life reading only non-fiction.
In high school of course, I had to read fiction and I very much enjoyed the books, but when left on my own, I gravitate towards non-fiction. Until now.
I’ve decided it’s time to take a break and relax into some of the great fiction I’ve missed out on. The books to read before you die. The classics.
I’ve made a list of a few classics I’ll read with in the next year. When I say read, I most likely mean, listen to.
With three kids and lots of hobbies, I don’t prioritize much time for sitting down with a book. Maybe one day.
In the mean time, most libraries now offer free audiobooks and many of these classics below are available on YouTube.
Here is my list and an overview of each book.
I’ll try to include the YouTube audiobooks so you can listen free online, if I can find one and a link to the book on Amazon if you would like to own your own copy.
Please note that any Amazon links will be affiliate links, meaning I will make a small commission if you purchase anything, at no cost to you, but greatly appreciated in helping to cover my blogging costs.
I hope you enjoy.
A Tale of Two Cities
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A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens, is literally a tale of Paris and London at the beginning of the French Revolution. The two cities are tangled together by a group of characters whose lives cross over each other for many years. The story was published originally in weekly installments in 1859, and is thought to reflect an affair between Dickens and an eighteen-year-old actress. Dickens was certainly one of the most popular Victorian-era writers and his novels continue to be widely read today.
The story involves a young woman who has been raised an orphan. She believes that her father is dead and then finds that he is indeed alive. Lucie Manette’s father, a doctor, is imprisoned in the Bastille. He has gone insane from his imprisonment and sees himself as a shoemaker, a skill he learned while incarcerated. Jarvis Lorry is commissioned to recover Dr. Manette and throughout most of the novel, the doctor’s crime remains a mystery to the reader.
Dickens uses the book as a platform to display the horrors of the aristocracy in France at the time of the French Revolution. He shows the violence that the peasantry displays toward the aristocrats and highlights the corresponding difficulties in England at the same time. The disregard that the upper class French noblemen display toward the peasant class is almost unsettling in its unfairness.
In the book, Sydney Carton is one of the most important characters. He begins his tale as a drunk and slovenly attorney and slowly transforms himself into a hero. Lucie and her father follow the trial of Charles Darnay. Darnay is an aristocrat of good character who is framed by British spies. He is acquitted at his trial because Carton resembles him closely and a witness is unable to differentiate between the two people. Darnay’s uncle runs over a peasant child with his carriage and proceeds home with no regard for the murder. He is a cruel and terrible man and Darnay disowns his family because of this incident.
Darnay and Lucie are wed while Sydney Carton confesses to loving Lucie, as well. Carton understands that Lucie does not love him, but professes to make her wishes his most important honor. The story becomes more tangled as the Marquis, Darnay’s uncle, is murdered. Darnay is later imprisoned, released and imprisoned again. Carton is allowed to make a sacrifice of himself to save Lucie’s happiness by replacing Darnay in his death sentence.
The story is both tragic and beautiful. The lives of the characters cross each other in such complex ways that the reader is forced to pay particular attention. The plot moves at a surprising pace, and the reader is swept along at top speed. The desperation of the poverty-stricken peasant class in France is so palpable that the world seems perfectly real.
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Anna Karenina is considered by many authors to be one of the finest novels ever written. Published in installments between 1873 and 1877, the book is one of the first by novelist Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was a Russian writer whose realistic fiction is among the most revered in the world. He is considered a genius of expression and description. Tolstoy was eight-two years old when he died of pneumonia.
Anna Karenina, the novel, begins in Moscow with a family that is ripped apart by adultery. Dolly Oblonskaya has caught her husband having an affair with their children’s former governess. Stiva Oblonskaya’s sister comes to mediate the argument between husband and wife. Anna Karenina is Stiva’s beautiful and brilliant sister who is married to a government official. She settles the fight between the Dolly and Stiva and plans to return to her home.
Dolly’s sister, Kitty, is courted by several gentlemen. She turns her sights on a man named Alexei Vronsky. Vronsky then meets Anna Karenina and falls madly in love with her. Kitty is ill and depressed because of Vronsky’s rejection. Anna dismisses his love as a crush and returns to St. Petersburg. Vronsky follows her there. Anna becomes friends with Vronsky, spending more and more time with him. Anna’s husband notices her interest in the man. He accuses her of an affair, and she admits that she loves Vronsky. Anna’s husband will not allow her to divorce him and forces her to move to their country estate.
Anna continues her affair with Vronsky but becomes pregnant with a child from her husband. She begs her husband for forgiveness during the birth of their child. He grants her forgiveness and states that he will allow her a divorce. She does not divorce him but runs away with Vronsky. She is ostracized by society and withdraws into seclusion. Anna becomes increasingly paranoid and depressed regarding her situation in life.
Vronsky joins the Slavic cause and goes to Serbia to assist the militia. Anna desperately tries to call him back to her with telegrams. She becomes distraught and decides to meet Vronsky at the train station when he returns. She is filled with despair regarding her lot in life and angry that she is not allowed in society, while her lover continues to do as he pleases. Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.
The novel, Anna Karenina, is known mainly for its theme of adultery. The role of society in the punishment of an adulterer is explored in detail. Anna’s husband reminds her several times that an adulteress is not permitted to socialize with moral families. The idea of enjoying the love of a family is also prominent in the novel. Although Anna Karenina is the central character in the book, her life and her choices are not the ones that are valued by the reader.
Crime and Punishment
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Crime and Punishment, a novel written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and published in 1865 is a classic of Russian literature. The novel and its author are both significantly influenced by the political climate of the time, including the radical and nihilist movements.
Dostoyevsky, who had spent time in prison, had had extreme changes in his political views and an increased respect for authority and order. At the time of the writing of the novel, he was deeply in debt and working solely to climb out of the hole dug by his gambling.
Crime and Punishment is a novel of ideas written about the lives of a poor student, a prostitute and a policeman. Dostoyevsky explores the idea that crime or murder, though considered an evil act, could allow the murderer to be a positive influence on the world.
The journey of this novel begins with a disturbed man. His name is Rodion Raskolnikov and seems as if he could be almost any man. Raskolnikov is often ill, filled with odd phobias and his thoughts are easily scattered. He is not an unkind person but his thinking becomes extremely convoluted.
He believes that he is an exceptional person and that because of this, he should be able to live by different rules than the rest of society. He believes firmly that extraordinary men have their own limits in life and that these are different from limits for ordinary people.
Raskolnikov eventually murders a pawnbroker and her half-sister. He does not confess to these murders immediately, but he creates an idea in his mind that the crime is justified. He believes that all great men must sacrifice others in order to bring their contributions to the world.
He justifies the murder by calling himself a Napoleon, a brilliant man who sacrificed others to help himself and his family. Raskolnikov goes on to commit several selfless acts and befriends a prostitute, leaving all of his money to her. He is interviewed several times by Porfiry, the policeman, and finally confesses to the murders. Raskolnikov is prosecuted for the murder and receives a sentence of eight years in a Siberian prison.
The interesting part about the punishment is that punishment that Raskolnikov inflicts on himself is much more severe than the prison sentence. In reading the novel, the character is so pitiful and confused that the reader feels that he has suffered enough. This suffering is a central theme to Dostooyevsky’s writings and is one of the reasons that Crime and Punishment is so compelling.
The idea that man can expel sins through great suffering is explored throughout the novel. Crime and Punishment is an incredible example of a psychologically thrilling novel which is still relevant in today’s culture. Dostoyevsky holds a place as a master of realistic literature, a large change from popular romance novels of the time.
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Charles Dickens published his novel, David Copperfield, in 1850. Dickens is considered the most popular and well-known of all English novelists. His books include a realism and social commentary of the time, which are prized to this day. Dickens’ father spent time in a debtor’s prison and worked in a warehouse which influenced his ideas about the working class conditions in London.
David Copperfield is the story of a young man’s life. It follows David from his childhood home with his mother and his nurse to the beginning of his successful writing career. Copperfield begins the tale as a young boy who cherishes his widowed mother and Peggotty, his nurse. His mother marries a terrible man named Mr. Murdstone. This new husband and his sister treat David extraordinarily badly. He is eventually sent away to get an education. Murdstone has a daughter named Agnes who waits patiently for David to see that she loves him.
Peggotty takes David from school to visit her family. There, he meets her brother and his family of adopted children. David returns to school and befriends several young men, including Tommy Traddles. David’s mother and her new child die and David returns home. He works for Mr. Murdstone and then leaves to find his only remaining relative, Betsey Trotwood. During this time, he takes a rambling journey, crossing paths with old friends and meeting new ones.
David eventually becomes a proctor and falls in love with a woman named Dora. He wishes to marry her, but her family objects. Dora is sent to live with her distant aunts, but she and David remain close. They later marry and Dora makes David extremely happy. He begins to create an exceptional life where he helps his friends to gain happiness, as well. Dora falls ill and dies after a miscarriage, leaving David to travel alone. He does find love again, with Agnes. Agnes and David find true happiness because of her faith and gentle nature. David and Agnes have several children and David becomes a successful writer.
Charles Dickens uses the life of David Copperfield to highlight the essence of marriage and the relationships between men and women. He explores good and bad marriages by showing how equality in marriage creates a strong bond between husband and wife. These ideas were quite new at the time of the book’s release and many women were still considered property. The theme of an equal marriage is shared in many of the novels that Dickens wrote.
David Copperfield feels like a journey to the reader. In following the entire life of one character, it is almost as if he becomes a friend to the reader. The journey from an abusive home to a happy one is both long and difficult. Mothers and women are shown as central to a family, and the disparity between the upper and lower classes is also explored. David Copperfield is both a beautiful story and a strong social commentary.
Gone with the Wind
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Gone with the Wind is a novel written by Margaret Mitchell and published in 1936. The novel centers on two characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Over the course of a lifetime, Scarlett and Rhett fall in and out of love and survive a many struggles. The story is long, but encompasses a passion for the beauty and culture of the historic South. Set in Civil War era, Georgia, amidst the moss-covered oak trees and gigantic plantations, Gone with the Wind is a classic in American Literature.
Scarlett O’Hara is a young and beautiful southern belle who grows up in a wealthy plantation called Tara. She struggles with her strong will, selfish ways and vanity. She professes her love of Ashley, a man who is bound to marry his cousin Melanie, and is refused. She is overheard by the rakish scoundrel, Rhett Butler. Butler knows that Scarlett is embarrassed by this unrequited love and he mocks her. This sends Scarlett into a rage. Her temper and her strength are central to the development of her story.
Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother, Charles Hamilton, out of spite for Melanie and Ashley. Charles joins the military and dies of measles. Scarlett is left to raise their son, Wade, alone. She moves to Atlanta, to live with Melanie and her aunt, where she and Melanie agonize over Ashley’s fate in the Civil War. She again meets Rhett Butler who continues to mock her and causes her to act in ways not becoming to a southern widow. Eventually, the Yankees set fire to Atlanta and Scarlett, Melanie and Melanie’s son Beau are rescued by Rhett. They return to Tara and find Scarlett’s mother dead. Her father is insane and the plantation is in ruins. Scarlett becomes the strength of Tara and rebuilds the aging plantation. She courts Butler to try to raise money to pay taxes for the home, but finds Butler in jail. Scarlett uses her determination to save the plantation as a reason to seduce her sister’s beau. She marries him and she and Frank have a child. This marriage creates a stir in Atlanta society and Scarlett is considered a tainted woman.
Scarlett borrows money from Rhett to purchase a sawmill and shortly after, her husband is killed. She then marries Rhett Butler. They join Atlanta society, but Scarlett is always considered an outcast because of her past marriages and temperament. They have a child together and this child then dies in an accident. Rhett becomes distant and says that he no longer loves Scarlett. She returns to Tara again, and vows to try to win back the one man that she has truly loved.
The story meanders through the war and carries the reader along with its detailed characters and beautiful settings. It is a tale of love that is lost and then found and it is a tale of friendship that endures through life’s trials. Gone with the Wind is a classic because it speaks to generations of women and men who have been touched by tragedy and have become something stronger because of it.
The Grapes of Wrath
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John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath to illustrate the struggles and hardships survived by migrant workers during the Depression. The novel was originally published in 1939 and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. The story centers on the Joad family; sharecroppers who are cast off of their farm due to drought and increasing taxation. Steinbeck won an immense following of working-class readers with his calls for justice against the large corporations accused of ruining small farming families.
The Joad family is a typical Oklahoma farming family and the story begins with Tom Joad’s parole from prison for homicide. Tom is traveling to his family’s farm when he meets a childhood friend, Jim Casy. Casy is a preacher who has lost his calling. He and Tom travel together to the farm where they find that Tom’s family has left. They are told that the family is heading toward California to look for work because they have been kicked off of the farm. Tom and Casy eventually catch up with Tom’s family at Uncle John Joad’s home. The two men join the family and travel along Route 66, west toward California.
Along this road, they meet many other families in the same situation. The drought and economic hardships have caused vast numbers of small farmers to lose their farms to foreclosure. They travel together and camp in large settlements along the road. They all travel to California, following handbills that claim that jobs and wealth await them. On the way, both grandparents die and several family members split from the main group. When the Joads and Casy finally arrive in California, they find that the jobs are filled with thousands of other displaced farmers. There is no work available and food and shelter are nonexistent.
Under these conditions, border patrol police and California deputies harass the new arrivals. The camps become a refugee situation and the misery is tangible. Casy and several other people begin to try to form labor unions to organize the workers. They speak often about the exploitation of migrant laborers and become enemies of the large farming corporations. Casy becomes involved in a strike which becomes violent. Tom Joad witnesses Casy’s murder and kills the attacker. Tom becomes a fugitive and must leave his family in order to remain free. He promises to become a tireless advocate of the oppressed.
Tragedy follows tragedy in this novel, but the reality of the human suffering is so beautiful that the story is difficult to put down. The settings and characters are so well defined that the smell of the Oklahoma dust-bowl and the heat of the highway remain with the reader long after the book is closed. The Grapes of Wrath is a novel of hardship and the reality of suffering, but carries with it the endlessly hopeful human spirit.
In Search of Lost Time
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In Search of Lost Time, a novel by Marcel Proust, is one of the longest novels in the entire history of literature. The book is broken into seven parts and contains over a million words. Proust began the novel in 1909 and continued to add to it until his death in 1922. Marcel Proust was a French critic and writer of essays and novels. In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, as it is sometimes known, is his most well-known work.
Proust was homosexual and is believed to be one of the first European novelists to include a homosexual character in his book. At the time that In Search of Lost Time was written, homosexuality was very rarely mentioned. This creates an interest in the novel that might not have been there had it not been written in the early 1900s. Proust himself paid for the publishing of the first volume.
The story seems to be a memoir or narrative. The identity of the narrator is never clearly explained. The novel encompasses a lifetime of memories of people with whom the narrator is involved. It begins in a town called Combray where the narrator lives with his family. He is a child and recalls his parents entertaining a man named Charles Swann.
The story continues as the narrator describes his fascination with Swann’s family. He befriends Gilberte Swann and admires Mme Swann while walking past their home in his travels. He has an infatuation with Gilberte and learns that Mr. Swann treats his wife badly. He sees the false faces that people use in order to hide their true selves from others. Eventually, Gilberte and the narrator part ways and he becomes indifferent toward her.
The scenes then moves to a beach. The narrator travels with his grandmother to a seaside resort where he meets and is attracted to several women. The narrator sees Charles Swann at a party and notices his homosexual behavior. The narrator reflects on the meaning of this behavior and on the passing of time. The novel continues through the narrator’s life and his changing opinions regarding relationships and time.
There are several themes that run throughout the story, but the role of memory is a key to the entire novel. There are many smells, sounds and scenes which trigger memories for the narrator. These memory triggers lead to descriptive sequences which allow the reader a glimpse into the past or the future of the narrator. Homosexuality is also a major theme of the later books. It is explored through Charles Swann and Charlus, along with several lesbian encounters between female characters.
In Search of Lost Time is considered a definitive modern novel. It has found more acclaim with other authors than it has with the general public. When writers choose their favorite novelists, Proust is generally among them.
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Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, is a Gothic coming-of-age novel. Charlotte Bronte published the novel in 1847 under a pseudonym. She did this mainly to escape prejudices against female novelists at the time. Bronte had four sisters, two of whom died of tuberculosis in 1825 while the remaining two also published books. Jane Eyre was the second of Charlotte Bronte’s novels, although it was the first which was widely accepted as a literary work of art.
Jane Eyre is a very poor orphan living at Gateshead with her Uncle’s widow and her children. She is mistreated and berated at every corner. Jane is considered ugly, skinny and sneaky by her guardian. She is sent to a boarding school where the conditions are even more terrible than they were at home. She is starved and accused of being a thief and eventually leaves the school when she is hired to be a governess for a Mrs. Fairfax. Only after living for several months in her new employer’s home, does she realize that Mrs. Fairfax is only a housekeeper. She is actually employed by a man named Mr. Rochester.
Edward Rochester has a secret that he keeps from everyone except his trusted employees. His wife, Bertha Mason is completely insane and is kept locked in the attic of Thornfield Manor. She is guarded by a nurse and can be heard laughing and shrieking in the night. Jane hears these noises and eventually helps to extinguish a fire that Bertha lights in a fit of rage and jealousy. Jane comes to love Mr. Rochester, even though she does not consider him handsome. She is only slightly aware that he loves her, as well.
Jane believes that Mr. Rochester can never marry her because she is a servant and because he is already married to a mad woman. She eventually leaves Thornfield, sorrowful and destitute, to work for a charity school. Jane finds that the clergyman who is the head of the school is actually her missing cousin. She is given money which was left to her by her uncle, and she shares this wealth with the clergyman’s family. With her newly-gained wealth, Jane seeks out Mr. Rochester to see what has become of her love. She finds Thornfield burned to the ground, and Mr. Rochester blinded from the fire. His mad wife is dead, and Jane is free to marry Edward Rochester.
The novel is daring in that the heroine of the story is so different from what was expected at the time. She is not the beautiful and rich heroine; she is poor and thin. The hero, Edward Rochester, is filled with all of the flaws that make a person human while still having something indefinable, which is endearing. Jane Eyre’s characters are full and rich. The novel contains a story which is gripping for today’s audience even after all of this time.
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Madame Bovary, a novel written by Gustave Flaubert, was first published as a serial novel in several parts around 1845. The novel was so notorious in its time, that it raised an outcry within the government. Flaubert was put on trial for publishing obscenities. He was eventually acquitted and the book became a best-seller. Many historians believe that the trial and acquittal probably increased public fascination with Flaubert’s writings. Madame Bovary is regarded as one of the most influential of the French novels.
Madame Bovary begins with Charles Bovary, a stupid and boring young man who grows up to become an inadequate country doctor. He is ostracized at school for his inability to fit in, and he barely completes his examinations in medical school. Charles is married to a woman chosen by his mother. The woman dies and leaves him very little money. He moves to the country and begins treating patients.
Charles meets Emma, the daughter of a patient and falls in love with her. She is quite beautiful but so miserable in her country life that she marries Charles just to get away from her boredom. Emma is immediately disappointed with married life. She feels bored and becomes pregnant. Emma is ill during her pregnancy and Charles moves her to a new town hoping to help her to regain her health.
In this town, Emma meets Leon. The two become friends quickly, but Leon wishes to marry Emma. Knowing that he cannot marry her, Leon moves away from town. Emma is devastated with the loss of her friend and begins an affair with Rudolphe. Rudolphe is wealthy but indiscreet and soon the town knows of the affair. Everyone except Charles is aware of Emma’s infidelity. As her husband makes several mistakes in his career, Emma becomes more disappointed with him. She throws herself into her relationship with Rudolphe. She buys him lavish gifts and becomes more and more in debt to a moneylender.
Rudolphe becomes bored with Emma and leaves her. She is, once again, devastated. She becomes very ill and Charles gets further into debt trying to heal her. Emma recovers and begins an affair with Leon, who is living in a neighboring town. Her property is seized to pay her debts. She becomes so desperate to hide her money woes from her husband that she tries to prostitute herself to Rudolphe in exchange for money.
Madame Bovary is a novel which explores the lack of power given to women, especially during the early and mid 1800s. Rather than feeling disgusted with Emma’s choices, the reader is shown that she really had no choices. Her beauty is both the essence of her life and the thing that destroys her life. Watching the way she is forced to request help from men at every turn, creates a feeling that Emma Bovary’s destiny lies completely in their hands.
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The novel, Moby Dick, was first published in 1851. It was written by Herman Melville and is considered a spectacular example of early American literature. The novel was inspired by the sinking of a ship called the Essex which was rammed by a sperm whale. Melville used this incident, along with his experiences on the whaling ship Acushnet, to bring the public a glimpse of the whaling industry. Most of the public during this time period had no contact with this world and Melville wanted a way to share with them, the beauty and majesty of the ocean and the whaling ships.
The story begins with Ishmael, the narrator, seeking a career on a whaling ship. He becomes friends with a strange tattooed man called Queequeg, who at first disturbs and then fascinates him. Queequeg has strange habits and looks odd but is very kind and generous. Both Ishmael and Queequeg join the crew of a ship called Pequod. The ship leaves from Nantucket harbor under the control of Captain Ahab.
Ahab is a disturbed man and he is on a mission to capture and kill the whale that he calls Moby Dick. This whale is the epitome of evil according to Ahab, who has lost his leg to the creature. Ahab offers a reward to the first man to sight the whale and begins a hunt. The ship sails around Africa and enters the Indian Ocean where it crosses paths with the Samuel Enderby. This ship’s captain has also lost a limb to the mighty Moby Dick, but the captain is confused by Ahab’s intention to avenge himself.
Ahab’s ship carries a crew of harpooners who are headed by a man named Fedallah. The Pequod travels the oceans in search of the white whale, encountering several ships along the way. Each of these ships has a story about Moby Dick and their deadly attacks. Ahab becomes increasingly excited and desperate to kill the whale. He has a harpoon forged with the intention of using it to kill the whale. Finally, the boat is attacked by Moby Dick once again, and a harpoon is launched. The harpoon strikes the whale, but Fedallah is pulled overboard by the trailing rope. The imagery is striking as Fedallah’s body reappears, lashed to the mighty whale.
The fury of the whale is matched only by Ahab’s single-minded intent attempt at vengeance. The reader is dragged through the novel and can breathe the ocean air and hear the crashing waves. The unfamiliarity of Queegeg’s person and the steady narrative voice of Ishmael combine to create a brilliant tale which carries the reader to the end and leaves a feeling of conquered adventure. Moby Dick is a masterpiece of American literature which is valued as much today as it was when published, over one hundred and fifty years ago.
Pride and Prejudice
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Written in the early part of the 19th century, Pride and Prejudice is one of the most-loved novels of all time. The author, Jane Austen, was an English novelist who used her unique writing style to create stories of historical importance. Her books are enjoyed for their portrayal of women and their relationships. This time period, and the writings of Jane Austen, highlights the importance that women placed on arranging a profitable marriage. Women at this time were often unable to own property and were dependent on men for their very existence.
The tale follows the lives of the Bennet sisters. There are five girls belonging to a family whose property is destined to be passed on only to a male relative. Because of this property clause, the Bennet parents are desperate to find husbands for their daughters. The search for a husband is difficult and often hilarious, creating a comic background for a serious subject.
A new gentleman, Mr. Bingley, rents the estate just a short distance away from the Bennet home. He is accompanied by his friend, Mr. Darcy, and his sister. Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley begin growing close. Elizabeth Bennet has a friendship with Wickham, a local militia officer who has been a friend of Darcy’s for many years. Wickham turns Elizabeth against Darcy, who has already gained a reputation for being haughty and cold. Elizabeth believes that Darcy cares for no one but himself and his own pride.
Elizabeth and Darcy have several occasions to meet and each time exchange conversation that is filled with tension and a genuine interest in each other. The reader is invited to feel the connection between the two characters as they are both articulate and strong-willed. Each meeting raises the connection and the tension between Elizabeth and Darcy until it is almost unbearable. The reader wishes for the two characters to either fall in love or finally decide to hate each other.
The story continues with the marriage of Wickham to Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia. In this time, Darcy and Elizabeth continue through a series of misunderstandings which push them apart. Darcy’s prejudice against the Bennet family’s lower class standing and Elizabeth’s pride are finally overcome toward the end of the novel. The two characters find that the very attributes that forced them apart are the same attributes that they admire in each other. Elizabeth enjoys Darcy’s manners and upper class connections and Darcy admires Elizabeth’s pride.
Pride and Prejudice is one of those novels that readers enjoy over and over. Jane Austen’s reputation for her witty commentary on society has only grown over the centuries. The love story in Pride and Prejudice is timeless, but the book stands well on conversation alone. The realism of the interactions between the characters allows the reader to share their lives, if only briefly.
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Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe, was originally published in 1719. It is written as a biography of a fictional character, Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe is one of the founding fathers of the novel as a form of literature. He wrote hundreds of books and pamphlets on a variety of subjects including the occult, marriage and religion. Defoe was born in London and is buried in London. He was almost completely penniless when he died in 1731. For such a prolific writer, his career did not create enormous wealth.
Robinson Crusoe disobeys his father’s wishes and decides to go to sea. Crusoe survives a storm at sea and becomes a merchant. He travels from London to North Africa where he is captured by Moorish pirates. He frees himself and then travels to Brazil, where he buys and runs a plantation. Crusoe earns money easily and decides that he requires slave labor for his ventures. He takes a ship to West Africa and becomes shipwrecked. He is the only survivor of this wreck and finds himself alone on an island.
Crusoe salvages what he can use from the wrecked ship. He returns to the wreck many times to gather guns and food. Crusoe has goats for meat and builds a shelter for warmth. He marks the days on a cross which he places to mark the day of his arrival.
In the time spent on the island, Crusoe discovers that a tribe of cannibals shares the land. The cannibals find another shipwreck and kill many of the survivors. Crusoe saves a man and names him, Friday. He is a dark Caribbean man and possibly a cannibal, as well. Friday learns to speak English and explains the workings of the cannibal tribes to Crusoe. Crusoe is surprised that the cannibals do not eat everyone, only their enemies. Several other contacts with the cannibals are made, and eventually Crusoe and Friday are joined by other shipwreck victims.
An English ship is sighted off-shore of the island and Crusoe and his band take the ship. In all, Robinson Crusoe has spent almost twenty-eight years on the island. He returns home to find that many things have changed. He sells his Brazilian plantations and begins a new life.
Daniel Defoe turns the tale of Robinson Crusoe into a thrilling adventure. Pirates, cannibals and parrots combine to create a colorful tale of shipwreck and survival. The story moves quickly and the reader is drawn into it in the same way that a terrific movie draws the audience. Defoe’s characters are full and exciting. His story marked the beginning of realism in fictional literature and is considered a shining example of early fictional writing.
An interesting thing about Robinson Crusoe is that Friday is believed to be the first person of color portrayed in a realistic manner in a European novel. This novel, published several hundred years ago, remains an incredible tale of adventure.
The Great Gatsby
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The Great Gatsby is a novel published in 1925 and written by an American author named F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book has become a standard text in high school classrooms and is widely acclaimed for its presentation of American culture during the 1920s.
The story begins with a young man named Nick Carraway. He moves from Minnesota to New York in the summer of 1922, to learn about the bond business. He rents a home on Long Island, which happens to be next door to an oddly mysterious man named Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is young and handsome and is known for throwing lavish parties. Nick travels to East Egg to have dinner with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom. During this meeting, Nick is introduced to Jordan Baker, who becomes his lover. She explains to Nick that Tom has been having an affair with a woman named Myrtle. Tom invites Nick to parties that are hosted in his apartment, which is reserved for meetings with Myrtle. These are vulgar and bawdy parties and often Tom and Myrtle fight.
Later in the summer, Nick gets an invitation from Gatsby and attends one of his parties. Here, he finds that Gatsby is deeply in love with Nick’s cousin, Daisy. Gatsby explains that he has known Daisy for years and purchased his home in West Egg just to be close to her. He stares longingly across the lake at the light on her dock. Gatsby urges Nick to set up a meeting between him and Daisy, and the two begin an affair. Tom becomes suspicious of the affair, and outraged, even though he is unfaithful, as well.
Eventually, Myrtle is struck and killed in a car accident, with Daisy at the wheel. Gatsby takes the blame for the accident and Tom attacks him for the death of his mistress. As Nick watches the people that he has loved or admired, slowly destroy themselves and their friends, he mourns the death of the American Dream. Nick eventually returns to his hometown, changed forever by his association with Gatsby.
The story takes place in one tragic summer, but the reader feels the emotions of each character as if they were close friends. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing brings to life all of the opulence and vulgarity of the lives of the newly-rich in post World War I, America. The reader becomes sympathetic to the lonely and idealistic Gatsby. The story portrays the 1920s as an era responsible for the corruption of the American Dream. The decay of social values and relaxation of morals leading to the destruction of lives is presented as the lives of Gatsby and Daisy unwind. The distinctions between the classes, the newly rich and the aristocracy, are evident in the lack of grace and restraint attributed to the former. The story has both a beauty and an air of tragedy that is unmatched in modern American literature.
The Old Man and the Sea
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Ernest Hemmingway’s novella, The Old Man and the Sea, was the last and most famous of his works. The book was published in 1951 and received a Pulitzer Prize, which is not often bestowed on short works of fiction.
Hemmingway was an enigmatic character, traveling often between his homes in Key West and in Cuba. He was a journalist and an author with a very distinctive writing style. He is considered one of the most influential of the modern American writers and his works include seven novels.
Hemmingway was involved in a plane crash while on safari in Africa in 1952, and was injured severely. He lived in pain for most of the rest of his life and eventually committed suicide in 1961.
The Old Man and the Sea is a simple tale. It involves a struggle between an aged man and a giant fish, played out over the course of several days. The man is named Santiago and he has fished for several months without catching anything worthy of sale. He is considered unlucky by his village and even his helper, Manolin, is encouraged to stay away for fear of receiving the bad luck. Manolin continues to help the old man unload his boat, but no longer fishes with him.
Santiago takes his boat out into the Gulf Stream, further than he has ever gone before. He finally catches a giant marlin, but the fish is so large that he cannot pull it toward the boat. The fish drags the skiff and the man along the ocean for two days. Santiago struggles to hold onto the marlin and is exhausted when the fish is finally close enough to kill with a harpoon. He straps the fish to the boat and turns for home.
As Santiago journeys toward his village, sharks begin to attack the marlin which is attached to the boat. The old man battles the first shark and succeeds in killing it, but many more sharks follow it. The carcass of the marlin is stripped clean when the boat finally reaches the shore. With the skeleton of the marlin attached to his boat, Santiago anchors his boat and proceeds to his home. Here, he sleeps heavily until morning. The villagers and fisherman find the skeleton attached to the boat in the morning and are amazed, believing the bones to belong to a giant shark.
The Old Man and the Sea is a tale of an epic struggle between a man and a fish, but it is also a tale filled with determination. The reader is shown the how deeply a man can reach inside of himself in order to achieve his goals. The novella is filled with vivid imagery and offers the hope that an ordinary man can transcend what nature has prescribed. Although Santiago returns from his battle without his marlin, he has still won his war.
The Red Badge of Courage
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The Red Badge of Courage is a novel depicting the Civil War. It was written by Stephen Crane at the age of twenty-four, and published in full in 1895. The story was originally a serial novel which was placed in the newspapers in short segments. The Red Badge of Courage became a best-selling book and received critical acclaim for its realistic battle scenes. This praise came in spite of the fact that Crane had never actually been in the Civil War.
The novel explores the themes of courage and of manhood through the eyes of a single soldier. In the Naturalistic style of the book, a man named Henry Fleming is followed through his own war. He is a young man who has joined the military for romantic reasons. He imagined the glory of the battle and had little understanding of the reality of death. He immediately begins to question his own courage and considers a battle-wound a “red badge of courage.”
Fleming is afraid and believes he might run away during a battle. He survives his first conflict with the enemy because he is surrounded by his fellow soldiers. His second conflict unnerves him even more, and he finally does flee. He tries to justify his desertion by telling himself that the battle was futile and no one will survive. As he runs, he hears the commander stating that the enemy is held back and the company is doing well. Fleming feels that he is a coward and his shame overwhelms him.
Fleming joins a column of wounded soldiers. He meets several combat veterans with actual wounds and is annoyed when he is asked about his own wound, since he has none. He continues to wander until he meets a group of fleeing soldiers, one of whom hits Fleming and causes a wound. Fleming rejoins his regiment and is cared for as if he were wounded in battle.
On the battlefield, Fleming fights the enemy with all of his strength. He becomes a brilliant soldier and is complimented for his honor. He battles within himself over his previous cowardice. His bravery is shadowed by his earlier desertion and he struggles to redeem himself, if only to himself.
The novel moves quickly and is noted for its accurate battle scenes. The story is told from the Henry Fleming’s point of view but allows the reader to hear his inner-most thoughts. It is filled with color imagery and reflects on the changes that allow a boy to become a man. The themes of self-preservation, manhood and courage are explored in great detail throughout the book. The reader is given a glimpse of the horror of the Civil War, through the eyes of a man who is both intensely human and wonderfully brave. It is a journey that ends with the creation of a man.
The Sound and the Fury
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William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is written in a style which is very rarely seen. The book is broken into four chapters, each relating a similar story, each told from a different character’s point of view. This style makes the book oddly hard to summarize but brilliantly intelligent. Faulkner is considered immensely important as a Southern writer and his fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, is described as one of the top English-language novels ever written. He received a Nobel Prize in literature in 1949, approximately twenty years after this novel was published.
The story begins with Benjy Compson, a thirty-three year old autistic man. He is an embarrassment to his family and is cared for by mainly by his sister, Caddy. Benjy’s tale is disjointed and sometimes difficult to follow due to time shifts, but his character gives great insight into the motivations of the family. Benjy sees and describes his world including Caddy’s marriage and divorce, his own castration and the knowledge of his disability.
The second chapter of the novel is told in Quentin Compson’s voice. He is the smartest of the three Compson boys and is attending Harvard. Quentin is obsessed with his sister’s purity and has often argued with his father regarding her virginity. Caddy becomes pregnant and Quentin fights with the father of the child. Caddy vows never to speak to the father again and marries a man named Herbert Head. Head finds out that the child is not his and disowns both Caddy and the baby. Quentin becomes increasingly depressed and his narrative is more difficult to follow as it progresses.
The third chapter of the book follows Jason Compson, the third son. He is materialistic and literal and is the rock of the family. He offers financial support for his mother, Caroline, Caddy and the baby after his father’s death. He becomes more cynical and angry as time progresses and even steals from his sister.
The final chapter of the novel focuses on the African American servant of the Compson family. Her name is Dilsey and she is the powerful and proud person among her self-destructive employers. Quentin’s suicide and Jason’s malevolence only cause her to become stronger and more loyal to the family. She and her grandson care for Benjy and are the stability in an otherwise tumultuous story.
Faulkner chose the title to his book from a poem written by William Shakespeare. In this poem, a Scottish general returns from a battle, and finds that his beautiful wife has committed suicide. The general feels that his life is turned to chaos and is crumbling apart. It is this general feeling of crumbling chaos that follows the reader throughout The Sound and the Fury. While the book is a difficult one to read and understand immediately, it is well worth the effort.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
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Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is probably the most influential book of its time. Abraham Lincoln, is quoted as saying that Stowe’s book “started the great war,” meaning the Civil War. Stowe was a teacher and an abolitionist whose book reached an audience of millions. It was the best-selling work of fiction of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of the century, just behind the Bible. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited with mobilizing anti-slavery groups in northern America and angering southern slave-owners.
The novel is a sentimental tale of a southern slave owner whose relationship with his slaves is kind. The family falls on hard times and must sell several slaves to raise money. He sells Uncle Tom and the son of Eliza, his wife’s maid, to Mr. Haley. Haley is a terrible slave trader with a bad reputation. Eliza overhears the conversation between the owner and his wife and decides to flee to the north with her son, Harry.
Uncle Tom is taken on a riverboat where he meets and saves a young white girl named Eva. Eva’s father is grateful and purchases Tom from Haley. Eva and Tom become close and share a devotion to God. Tom has a gentle soul and sees goodness in all he meets. Eva becomes ill and dies, but her father promises to free Uncle Tom. He dies before he can keep this promise. His wife sells Tom to an evil plantation owner named Simon Legree. Legree beats his slaves and forces Tom to beat them, as well. Tom refuses to follow these orders and the hatred between Tom and Legree grows.
Through all of this horror, Uncle Tom keeps his faith in God and councils other slaves to remain faithful, as well. He encourages other slaves to escape from Legree. The plantation owner is enraged at Tom’s refusal to give up his faith and betray the other slaves. He orders his employees to kill Uncle Tom. They follow these orders but in doing so, see the goodness and piety in Tom. They vow to become Christians and change their evil ways.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel explores the issue of slavery in several different modes. The kind owner, the abusive owner and the slave trader are all represented in the book. She also shows the reader how Christian values and slavery are unable to exist together because they are completely incompatible. Stowe also implies a sort of parallel between the treatment of blacks in society and the treatment of women. She has a feminist trend in her writing which was not present in most writings of this time.
The combination of Christian values and imagery flows throughout the novel. In the end, although Uncle Tom is dead, his grace and faith survive. The lives that he had touched continue and his memory becomes a moral to them.
War and Peace
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Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, is famous for his epic stories. War and Peace is not the longest novel ever published, but it is famously large. Printed in 1869, the book is divided into four volumes with a large number of chapters in each volume. Tolstoy was known for his incorporation of vast historical research and this novel is considered historical fiction. Interestingly enough, there are over one hundred actual historical figures referred to or characterized within the book.
War and Peace is the story of five families of aristocratic origin. It is set mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, in Russia. It begins with the feelings of fear in Russia which come from Napoleon’s crusade in Europe. The Russian armies are mobilized and sent to stand with Austria against Napoleon’s army. Several members of the five families are in the military and are sent to the front lines. Pierre Buzukhov and Andrew Bolkonski survive the battles and return home to vastly different situations.
Pierre becomes the sole heir of his father’s vast fortune and marries a woman named Helene. She cheats on Pierre and he is dissatisfied with married life. Andrew’s wife dies in childbirth, leaving Andrew’s sister to raise the child. Nicholas Rostov is also introduced at this time. He is another son from the five families, but his problem is gambling. His debts have devastated his family’s fortune, and he is encouraged to marry a wealthy heiress.
Napoleon invaded Russia and Andrew returns to the military service. Pierre becomes increasingly obsessed with assassinating Napoleon and watches as Moscow is unable to respond to Napoleon’s increasing aggression. Pierre is captured and forced to march with the Russian prisoners of war. He becomes friends with a peasant who is later shot and killed. Pierre fights Helene when she tries to divorce him, and she later dies from an unknown cause.
The story has a very large cast of characters and is difficult to follow at times. Pierre marries a woman named Natasha who was at one time engaged to a prince. The novel follows Pierre’s marriage after the war and the continuing struggles of the Rostov family. Because the volumes were written in Russian but included quite a bit of French dialogue, translations do vary a bit. War and Peace focuses mainly on how irrational the motives of humans can be. Each family has a similar background and yet they are separated by circumstances and individual personalities.
Tolstoy is descriptive in both his scenes and his dialogue. The novel moves relatively slowly, but the detail in the scenery and the battles is enlightening. The author is known to have interviewed many survivors of the French invasion of Moscow and had taken incidents from journals and letters written at that time. His accuracy and style give the book a stunning panoramic vision. Huge is a word that accurately describes both the story and the scope of War and Peace.
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The Bronte sisters, including Emily Bronte, are known for their skills as writers. Charlotte Bronte, Emily’s older sister, wrote a novel called Jane Eyre. This novel is widely considered to be the best of the published works of the Bronte sisters. Emily Bronte’s book, Wuthering Heights, was edited by Charlotte Bronte. It was published in 1847 under a pseudonym.
Emily Bronte was a teacher, a pianist, a poet and a novelist. She was the second eldest of five children and the middle of the surviving Bronte girls. She attended several schools and died at home of prolonged illness.
Wuthering Heights is a favorite among readers of romantic fiction. It begins in 1801 with the arrival of a man named Lockwood. He rents a home, Thrushcross Grange which is owned by Healthcliff. Lockwood is intrigued by the story of Heathcliff and his strange family. He asks his maid to explain their history to him. The novel then moves back in time to the arrival of Heathcliff.
Mr. Earnshaw is the original owner of Heathcliff’s home. He and his family resided there years ago. He went one day to Liverpool and returned with a dark-haired orphan boy. His family was then forced to accept this orphan, named Heathcliff, as their brother. Earnshaw’s daughter, Catherine, loves Heathcliff’s company and they are never apart. The son of Earnshaw, Hindley, detests Heathcliff and makes this extremely clear. Mr. Earnshaw dies and Hindley becomes the head of the household. He marries a woman named Frances and forces Heathcliff to work like a servant. Frances dies in childbirth and Hindley descends into an abyss of anger and alcohol. He becomes more and more abusive toward Heathcliff.
Catherine, though she loves Heathcliff, chooses to marry a man with wealth and privilege. Heathcliff is devastated and leaves for several years. Catherine dies in childbirth, leaving a beautiful and headstrong daughter. Heathcliff begs Catherine’s spirit to stay with him. He becomes angry and bitter. He loans money to Hindley, knowing that the man’s alcoholism will get him further and further into debt. He inherits Wuthering Heights from Hindley as the only surviving heir. He marries a woman named Isabelle and treats her very badly. She bears a son, names him Linton and keeps him separated from Heathcliff. She takes the boy to her family home at Thrushcross Grange.
Toward the end of the novel, Catherine’s daughter falls in love with Linton. Heathcliff abuses both his own son and the young Catherine, locking her in Wuthering Heights and treating her as a servant. Heathcliff spirals tragically downward. He becomes a monster bent on owning both Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange by any means. He forces others to bend to his will and stops at nothing to get his wish.
Emily Bronte’s characters are so well defined that even the confusion between Catherine and her daughter, young Catherine, is acceptable. The story moves at a beautiful pace and the reader is awed by the slow and the steady fall of a once bright and sweet young man named Heathcliff.