Essays About Classic Literature

Classic novels and the Western Canon (Shakespeare, Swift, Cervantes, Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Melville, etc.) are sometimes used as synonyms. In this post, however, we apply a broader definition to the former, extending the concept to a certain category of written stories that may have originated in any part of the world, as long as they sustain the set of common characteristics we discuss here.

In his famous 1986 short essay, "Why Read the Classics?" Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino gives an all-encompassing and powerful definition of classic novels:

"A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."

We couldn’t agree more. In addition to that, we would argue that classic novels share the following traits:

1. Language: One of the main features of classic books is the careful use of the language they employ, which leans towards the innovative, the unique and the artistic (meaning: evocative, non-referential language that stands in its own right, for its beauty or unconventionality). The classics normally establish new standards of language use; they formalize in writing what was once only oral, for example. Classic writers create new linguistic facts: expressions, words, metaphors. They coin new lexicon.

2. Originality: Classics convey new perspectives and worldviews; they provide groundbreaking insights into the human experience. They change the way readers see the universe. When reading the classics, we sometimes discover where certain ideas came from, who first expressed them. We realize that people didn’t always have the same feelings their contemporaries share about things and that sometimes it’s possible to pinpoint the specific moment the innovative thought was introduced.

3. Freshness: Classics are books that can be reinterpreted over and over again. They adapt effortlessly to new eras and offer a lens through which different realities can be analyzed. Pride and Prejudice is not read today in the same way as was when first published in 1813. Modern readers add layers of new personal and communal meanings to their interpretation of the original text, experiencing it in completely novel but still relevant ways.

4. Seminal: Classics inform and influence innumerable artworks and ideas. Contemporary movies, TV series, and literature, for example, are constantly borrowing and repurposing the themes, characters, plots, and even the language of the classics. Who doubts that Jaws (both the book and movie versions) is a modern-day Moby Dick?

5. Longevity: They endure and remain in print. The strength of their plots, the charisma of their characters, and the essentiality of their ideas get handed down from one generation of readers to the next. They resonate with the reader in primeval and timeless ways. You will probably find an edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde in most bookstores you walk into around the globe.

6. Eternal truths and grand themes: Classics deal with what is essential to human beings. They identify universal feelings and behaviors, incorporating these archetypical entities into specific contexts, which make them more palpable and understandable.

7. Identity: Because classics tend to represent the zeitgeist of their times in such accurate and interesting ways, they become part of the very fabric of shared culture.

As you will have noticed, our criteria for identifying classic novels is flexible and can be rather subjective. Ultimately, given the extraordinary number of great books available today (from all kinds of times and regions), it’s necessary for the reader to establish their personal library of classics. Everyone has their own list of favorites: books that have changed their lives; books that helped them through difficult times; books that are relevant to them in unique ways; books that marked important moments. These are classics too - on an individual level.

Jorge Sette

Jorge Sette

Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. He represents the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners and ... Show More

Purists will object that none of this is in the original, composed sometime between the seventh and 10th centuries. Well, maybe not, but it should have been. Gaiman and Avary’s screenplay gives the poem’s monsters a fresh reading. Grendel and the dragon aren’t just primitive savages determined to thwart the Danes’ attempt at civilized living. They are literally their bastard children, born of unmanageable desire. The nicest mead hall and the best-looking wife in the world can’t keep Hrothgar and Beowulf away from Grendel’s mom.

Gaiman and Avary again part company with the original in the scenes in which Beowulf recounts his heroic exploits, falsely claiming to have killed Grendel’s mother when in fact he was seduced by her. The Beowulf of the poem, by contrast, is scrupulously honest. The change is ingenious, since it suggests the story is a deliberate invention — it’s a myth, in other words.

The poem treats the subject of mythmaking differently. In a passage toward the end, a harpist sings about Beowulf’s slaying the Grendel family, making up new details, changing the tale so listeners won’t get bored. In the film, Beowulf does the harpist’s work for him, inventing his own legend. This helps make sense of the fact that the Grendel of the poem hates the sound of stories. “It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet / every day in the hall, the harp being struck / and the clear song of a skilled poet,” to quote Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed 2000 translation, which sold more than 200,000 copies in hardback and helped lay the groundwork for a mass-market “Beowulf.”

Gaiman and Avary’s Beowulf wants to kill the monster mother, but he sleeps with her instead. And then he lies so the harpists will have something heroic to sing about. This version of Beowulf doesn’t give a good name to either poetry or civilization, though it reminds us that willful acts of self-creation lie at the root of both — which in turn helps explain the poem’s status as the official starting point of English literature.

Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” inverts the story of man’s fall as told in “Paradise Lost,” reversing the progress of Milton’s narrative and recasting it as an adventure story about a young girl battling the forces of evil. Witches fly on boughs of cloud-pine, armored polar bears fight paw to paw, and people are accompanied by “daemons,” animal companions reflecting their inner selves. But the strangest and best things in Pullman’s trilogy are the abstruse historical curios he plunders from Milton.

The oddest of Pullman’s ideas is Dust. Composed of animate, freely moving particles that gather on adults and avoid children, Dust turns out to be the stuff of consciousness itself, the matter that permits people free will and choice (and arouses the hostility of those in authority). Pullman gets it from “Paradise Lost,” where Milton describes the universe as composed of animate particles, originally the matter of chaos. In this, Milton builds on a philosophy called Vitalism, which holds that all animate things — including plants and insubstantial beings, like angels — are made from “thinking matter.”

Milton suggests that God extruded the matter of the universe — “his dark materials” — through a process of evacuation, the divine version of a bowel movement. He claims that angels eat and therefore defecate, a process Milton delicately calls “transpiring / ... with ease.” (One of the perks of being heavenly is that you don’t get constipated.) In “Paradise Lost,” Adam and Eve have amazing prelapsarian sex and the angels fool around too, their bodies merging erotically, “easier than air with air.”

Pullman, an outspoken atheist, has drawn fire for his attack on religion; in the novels, the forces of darkness are known as “the Church.” But here, he takes his cue directly from Milton. Though the stated purpose of “Paradise Lost” was to “justify the ways of God to men,” Milton in fact set out to change people’s understanding of the very nature of God. While official doctrine held all members of the Trinity equal and divine, Milton claimed that Father and Son were separate entities, with Son below the Father in the celestial pecking order. He refused to accept that God had created the world ex nihilo (again, Church doctrine), on the grounds that nobody, not even God, could make something out of nothing.

In 17th-century England, these ideas could cost you more than a three-movie deal. Milton, a radical Protestant dissenter, had to fold them into his poem so cunningly that most people would never notice. In plundering “Paradise Lost,” Pullman has made the heretical Milton visible again and resurrected the brilliance of Milton’s strange creative inventions, now blurred by the sheer difficulty of reading his poem. In “Paradise Lost,” “millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth / Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep,” just as Pullman’s characters unthinkingly pass their hands through thousands of invisible worlds.

Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” as a difficult poem because he wanted reading to involve active intellectual labor as much as pleasure. Now active, canny reading has produced two mass-market hits. That’s how literature works: the best books always need rewriting, and the best writers know they’re rewriters. “Beowulf” was rewritten by Gaiman and Avary. Homer was rewritten by Virgil, who was rewritten by Dante, who was rewritten by Milton, who was rewritten by Pullman. New Line Cinema rewrote Pullman (at a cost of $180 million). Except that it seems to have left all the sad bits and the heretical bits — everything that gives Pullman his bite — on the cutting room floor.

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