The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)

Part II. Reading: JUMPING INTO THE GREAT CONVERSATION

Chapter 5. The Story of People: Reading through History with the Novel

In a certain village in La Mancha, which I do not wish to name, there lived not long ago a gentleman.

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

Call me Ishmael.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

READING THE FIRST words of a novel is like glimpsing the first crack of light along the edge of an opening door. What’s inside that invisible room? The reader leans forward, waiting for each detail to take its proper place in the whole. The puzzling pattern just inside the door turns out to be the edge of a screen; the odd dark shape on the floor develops into the shadow of an end table. Finally the door swings open. The reader steps over the threshold, into another world.

Some doors open quickly. That soberly clad throng of bearded men and hooded women are clustered around a Boston jail, waiting for Hester Prynne—the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 tale of festering guilt, The Scarlet Letter—to walk out with her baby in her arms. The summer grass is already warm. The bright sunlight falls incongruously over the iron-banded, rust-streaked boards of the prison. A wild rosebush grows at the front gate, pink blossoms startling against the weathered wood.

The resting army of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) will soon rise and shake itself. Soldiers in blue coats quarrel, wash their shirts, huddle over campfires. The roads of liquid mud begin to dry under the morning sun. A young private lies on his bed, the smoke from his badly tended fire wreathing around him. Sunlight turns the canvas roof of his tent a bright, diffuse yellow.

Both of these scenes are as clear and immediate as a painting: Read the first paragraphs of either book, and you’ll find yourself already over the threshold. But other doors creak open more slowly. The narrator of Albert Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger doesn’t know exactly when his mother died. The telegram from the Home for the Aged isn’t specific. But the matter doesn’t occupy his mind for more than a moment or two. His preparations for the funeral are sketchy; he almost misses his bus; when he arrives at the Home for the Aged, the warden shows him into the room where his mother’s body lies—but he doesn’t bother to look at her face. Why? What’s happening? The reader has to suspend these questions, accepting each new bit of information as it drops carelessly from the narrator’s thoughts, waiting for the jagged pieces to assemble themselves—late in the book—into a recognizable scene. And Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is even more leisurely, leaping from the colonel’s imminent death by firing squad back to the village of Macondo and its unhurried patterns of daily life, back in a distant time when the “world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” When will we get back to the colonel’s execution? Eventually. (Maybe.) Have patience.

In earlier novels, the doors swing wide almost at once; as the twenty-first century draws nearer, the doors begin to stick, drag open more slowly, a thin millimeter at a time. Even so, you might notice an odd resemblance between the first line—the famous opening words from Don Quixote, initially published in Spanish in 1604—and the opening lines from a much later novel, Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.1

All of the opening lines draw you into a new world. But only Cervantes and Calvino remind you, as you step over the threshold, that the other world, the one behind you, has never gone away; only Cervantes and Calvino remind you as soon as you begin reading, “This is a book. Only make-believe. Remember?”

Between 1604 and 1972, we have come full circle. This, in a nutshell, is the history of the novel.

Every novel is governed by conventions—those expectations which the reader brings to a book. Some conventions are visual. If you pick up a paperback with a pink cover and a half-naked hero on the cover, you expect to read something along the lines of “Evangeline paused at the top of the stairs, gathering the folds of her cream muslin gown around her slim ankles,” not “On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, toward K. bridge.” 2

But novels are also governed by conventions of language. A novel that begins “My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years” is telling you, the reader: This is a serious and trustworthy account. See how many careful details I’m giving you? On the other hand, a book that starts out, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” is giving you a completely different verbal cue: This book is not about the world as we know it.

The well-trained reader shouldn’t assume that writers will always use those conventions with a straight face. That serious and trustworthy narrator who tells you that his father “had a small estate in Nottinghamshire” is named Gulliver; next, he’s going to tell you about his voyages to Lilliput, where he’s captured by people who are six inches tall, and to Laputa, where the natives are so absorbed in thought that visitors have to smack them on the head in order to begin a conversation. In Gullivers Travels, Jonathan Swift uses the conventions of an earlier form of literature, the travelogue, to mock the conventions of his own society. But you won’t be able to appreciate Swift’s deliberate misuse of careful, verifying detail unless you already know what a travelogue is. This brief (and selective) history of the novel will give you a basic framework of novelistic conventions—so that you can spot them when writers use and change them.

A TEN-MINUTE HISTORY OF THE NOVEL

Cleopatra and Caesar didn’t amuse themselves with novels in their spare time, because the long story written in prose didn’t exist in ancient times. The novel as we know it today emerged in the eighteenth century, in the hands of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. Defoe borrowed the conventions of the traveler’s tale and produced Robinson Crusoe; Richardson used the traditional “epistolary” form (a set of letters written by a character) and turned it into Pamela. Fielding, a playwright, found his style cramped by the severe new laws against on-stage obscenity; he wrote Joseph Andrews instead. (The “lewd passages” of Joseph Andrews are practically invisible to modern eyes, but the story certainly couldn’t have been staged in eighteenth-century London.)

These three stories used old conventions but filled them with something new: a glance into the internal life of an individual person. Before the eighteenth century, long stories written in prose featured entire chessboards full of static characters, shuffled through series of events in order to tell the story of a nation, explain an idea, or illustrate a set of virtues (as in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). But Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding produced a new kind of book: the Book of the Person.

They weren’t the first. Over in Spain, a century and a half before Defoe, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra had already written the first Book of the Person: the story of Don Quixote, the gentleman of La Mancha who decided to become a knight errant. But Cervantes was a lone genius. Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson together began a literary movement that flowered, full-blown, into a new kind of literature: the prose narrative that explores the interior life of a character.

This new form, the “novel,” had to compete with another, less respectable literary form, the “romance.” The romance was roughly equivalent to the modern soap opera. Romances, in the words of one eighteenth-century critic, involved “exalted personages” in “improbable or impossible situations.” Romances were light and escapist, and were thus reading suitable only for women. (Conventional wisdom held that women’s brains weren’t up to grappling with “real life” anyway, so they might as well read fantasies.) Romance reading was not a manly and respectable pastime.

Novelists, on the other hand, wanted to be taken very seriously indeed. Novels dealt with real people in familiar situations; as Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750, novelists tried to “exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.”3 But eighteenth-century readers were a little confused by this distinction between the tawdry “romance” and the noble “novel”—and novelists such as Swift, who insisted on trotting his hero through fantastic landscapes, didn’t improve matters. For decades, novels came in for a large share of the general disdain that educated readers felt for romances. Eighteenth-century intellectuals moaned about the corrupting influence of novels in much the same way that organic-food zealots trumpet the dangers of refined sugar. Clergy warned their flocks that novel reading would produce an increase in prostitution, adultery, and (according to the bishop of London in 1789) earthquakes.

Yet the novel prospered. Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding had produced their innovations during a time when the individual self, with all its traumas and dilemmas, was of great interest to the public at large. Thanks in large part to the Protestant Reformation, the soul (at least in England and America, the sources of all the eighteenth-century and most of the nineteenth-century novels on our list) was imagined as a lone entity, making its solitary way through a vast and confusing landscape. John Bunyan’s Christian, called by Evangelist to forsake his doomed city and find the wicker gate, is called alone. He has to put his fingers in his ears and run away from his wife and children to find salvation, separating himself from every human tie in order to unite himself with God.

Interest in the private self was on the upswing, impelled not only by Protestantism but by capitalism, which encouraged each person to think of himself (or herself) as an individual, able to rise up through society’s levels toward wealth and leisure. The self was no longer part of a rigid, unshifting feudal system, with responsibilities beginning at birth and never changing thereafter. The self was free.

Reams have been written on this subject, but for our purposes it’s enough to know that this sense of an individual self with a private internal life was central to all the major developments of modern Western life: Enlightenment thought, the Protestant religion, the development of capitalism, and (of course) the novel. Novelists celebrated the individual: Charlotte Brontë’s tortured and passionate heroes; Jane Austen’s heroines, maneuvering through a society that both protects and hampers them; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tortured, adulterous clergyman. And the public bought, and read.

Popularity is always a double-edged sword, though. The intellectual elite had already been suspicious of the novel, because of its identification with the “romance.” Now they were doubly suspicious. After all, books that everyone reads can’t really be worthy of attention by the most educated. (Call it the Oprah effect.) To make things worse, this public readership was mostly female, since middle-class women had the money to buy novels and the leisure to read them, but not the Latin and Greek necessary to appreciate the sterner, more manly “classics.” Novels, sniffed the scholar Charles Lamb were the “scanty intellectual viands of the whole female reading public.” (Lamb is now primarily remembered as a reteller of Shakespeare for children, which serves him right.)

How did novelists fight back? By playing up their connection with real life. Fantastic tales were scorned. Stories about reality gained critical acclaim.

Fantastic tales didn’t disappear, but they were relegated to the scorned realm of the popular. In the nineteenth century, the soap opera of choice was the “Gothic novel,” a story of mystery and vague supernatural threat, set in fantastic and menacing places (or in central Europe, which, for most readers, amounted to the same thing). Gothic heroines languished in ruined castles, threatened by ancient spells, insane wives, and mysterious noblemen who avoid sunlight and mirrors. Here is Emily of the wildly popular The Mysteries of Udolpho: plucky but not too bright, wandering through the strange echoing castle of Count Morano. Since she’s all alone in the dark, she decides that this would be a good time to peer beneath the black veil that covers a mysterious picture in a deserted room. “She paused again,” the narrator tells us breathlessly, “and then, with a timid hand, lifted the veil; but instantly let it fall—perceiving that what it had concealed was no picture, and, before she could leave the chamber, she dropped senseless on the floor.”

A few brave novelists—notably Hawthorne, who could never resist a touch of supernatural horrors, and Emily Brontë, who had a weakness for ghosts at windows—borrowed Gothic elements to jazz up their tales of adulterous Puritans and unhappy moor residents. But most serious writers rejected the fantastic in favor of the real. The novel even developed a social conscience. Charles Dickens and his American counterpart, Harriet Beecher Stowe, used their stories to kick against the injustices of a market economy that built wealth on the backs of the weak; Dickens protested English society’s use of children for labor, while Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin put a human face on the slave labor that made the southern economy run. (Stowe, quite by accident, turned into an economic dynamo in her own right; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, according to the historian Joan D. Hedrick, “generated an industry of Uncle Tom plates, spoons, candlesticks, games, wallpapers, songs, and stage spin-offs that ran continuously for the next ninety years.”)4

The earliest writers had seen nothing wrong with pointing out the fictional nature of their stories (“I would wish this book,” Cervantes tells the reader, “the child of my brain, to be . . . the cleverest imaginable”). But later novelists avoided this sort of intrusion into the narrative. They wanted readers to discover a real world, not an imaginary one. The late-nineteenth-century novel wasn’t supposed to be the child of the writer’s brain; it was intended to be an accurate record of ordinary life.

This new philosophy of realism turned the novelist into a sort of scientist. Like the scientist, the novelist recorded every detail rather than selectively describing scenes—which tended to make most realistic novels very, very long. The father of realism, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, was so determined to portray real characters in a real country town that he drew maps and diagrams of his imaginary world. (He got a little lost in the details occasionally; if you’re careful, you can catch his heroine turning the wrong direction to go home.) Flaubert’s Emma Bovary is the woman eighteenth-century clergymen fretted about, the female reader whose love for romances has blotted out “real life.” She is consumed by the desire for romance, that “great passion which . . . hovered like a great pink-plumaged bird soaring in the splendor of poetic skies,” and this absorption in fantasy makes her “unable to believe that the tranquility in which she was living was the happiness of which she had dreamed.”

Emma Bovary comes to a bad end—she eats arsenic after realizing that she’ll never be able to live in a romance—but the realistic novel flourished. Henry James’s characters don’t run around with Indians in the woods, like the hero of the romantic Leatherstocking tales. Nor do they develop mysterious stigmata and die from guilt, like Hawthorne’s anguished clergyman. Instead they go to their jobs, live in their dusty, high-ceilinged rooms, battle consumption, and marry men who are presentable but no great shakes—like most of the “regular” folk in the world.5

Which brings us, more or less, up to the present. Realism never really goes away. Even today, stories that describe “extraordinary” events (thrillers, science fiction, fantasies, and to some extent religious fiction) tend to be intellectually exiled, dismissed as “popular” genres unworthy of serious critical acclaim. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, realism developed offshoots. Dostoyevsky and Kafka perfected a “psychological realism” that pays less attention to physical details and more to psychological details. Rather than giving loving attention to the exact appearance of landscapes or furnishings, psychological realism tries to paint an accurate picture of the mind, so that the reader seems to be in direct contact with a character’s mental processes. William James (Henry’s brother) invented the term “stream of consciousness” in 1900 to describe the unordered but natural flow of human thought, and novelists from Conrad to Virginia Woolf seized on this idea. “Stream of consciousness” writing is the psychological equivalent of the detailed physical landscape description: We are to think that we are seeing, uncensored by the writer’s judgment, the “facts” of the mind. “The War was over,” thinks Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as she walks out for the morning’s flowers,

except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin. . . . And everywhere, though it was still so early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats; Lords, Ascot, Ranelagh and all the rest of it; wrapped in the soft mesh of the grey-blue morning air, which, as the day wore on, would unwind them, and set down on their lawns and pitches the bouncing ponies . . . and the shopkeepers were fidgeting in their windows with their paste and diamonds, their lovely old sea-green brooches in eighteenth-century settings to tempt Americans (but one must economise, not buy things rashly for Elizabeth), and she, too, loving it as she did with an absurd and faithful passion, being part of it, since her people were couriers once in the time of the Georges, she, too, was going that very night to kindle and illuminate; to give her party.

Too much of this sort of thing is just as wearying as the protracted details of ponds and heaths found in early realism. But early-twentieth-century writers were enthralled by the stream-of-consciousness technique. Faulkner’scharacters rarely come to us by any other means, and James Joyce produced (in Ulysses) a famously dense chunk of stream-of-consciousness writing that lasts forty-five pages. (Ulysses always ranks at the top of modern Great Books lists, but it isn’t on the list at the end of this chapter because it’s brutal to read.)

Another form of realism—even more ferociously modern than “psychological realism”—was naturalism. Naturalist writers were convinced that they could write “purely scientific” novels. The individual, the subject of all novelization since Don Quixote, was no longer free. The “self” was only the product of inherited traits plus environmental influence. Naturalist writers—most notably Thomas Hardy—gave their characters certain genetic characteristics, plopped them down into a sheer hell of environmental factors, and then described the resulting behavior. The naturalist’s job (in his or her own eyes, at any rate) was just like the scientist’s: Put the rat in the maze, watch what it does, and record the outcome without elaboration.

And so we arrive at the twentieth century. The style of realism, with its careful cataloguing of detail, is still with us. Don DeLillo begins his 1985 novel White Noise with his narrator leaning out a window, watching the college kids arrive for the first day of class: “The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. . . .” And so on.

But the ideas behind the novel have changed since realism’s heyday. The novel is generally considered to have moved through “modernity” to “postmodernity.” Defining these two terms is tricky, since no one realized that modernity existed until it had been replaced by postmodernity, which simply means “following modernity.”

“The dirty secret of higher academics,” a colleague told me one day, “is that none of us really know exactly what postmodernism is.” It would probably help if critics were able to state in English what modernism is, first; the critic James Bloom, for example, writes that modernism involves “density, the generic ambiguity, and the understanding of . . . [the novelist’s] own status as mediated and mediating,” which doesn’t move us much forward.6 Most other definitions are just as opaque.

More simply, then: Modernism is a type of realism. It too strives to portray “real life.” But modernists, writing during and after two world wars, saw that their Victorian ancestors were deluded. The Victorians thought that they could understand what life was all about, but the modernists knew that “real life” was actually beyond understanding. “Real life” was chaotic, planless and unguided, and so the “scientific style” of the modernist is chaotic, refusing to bring novels neatly into any kind of resolution. To quote Dorothy L. Sayers (a good Anglican who responded to modernism by asserting her own belief in God and writing mysteries, an exceedingly unchaotic form of literature):

Said a rising young author, “What, what?

If I think that causation is not,

No word of my text

Will bear on the next,

And what will become of the plot?”7

Absence of plot made the modernist novel very difficult to read, especially for the common reader who hankered for a story.

But the modernists tended to scorn story. One of modernism’s most unattractive aspects was its snobbery. Modernist writers distrusted the masses and put all their faith in a small, well-educated elite. Several prominent modernists (most notably Ezra Pound) supported fascism and sneered at democracy. And the most well known were particularly savage about “popular fiction.” The novel was an intellectual exercise, not a form of entertainment, and readers who wanted entertainment were welcome to go buy a dime-store Western. Virginia Woolf moaned that the novelist was a “slave” to the necessity of selling books; she longed for a fiction that could be free, with “no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest, or catastrophe in the accepted style.” E. M. Forster wrote that “oh dear, yes—the novel tells a story,” but wished with all his heart that the market wouldn’t demand “story,” that “low atavistic form.” (As both Forster and Woolf ended up telling quite interesting stories, the market apparently won out in the end.)

No one likes to be condescended to, so it’s hardly surprising that so many high school students develop a loathing for the modernist novels they’re forced to read in senior English and go to the movies instead. (Movies have plots, after all.) They’re being good postmodernists.

Postmodernism is modernism’s teenage child. Postmodernism says to modernism, “Who made you the boss?” (and to E. M. Forster, “Who made you an authority on fiction, you dead white male, you?”). Postmodernism rejects modernism’s claim to know the truth about real life. Postmodernism says: There are many ways to portray real life and no single authority can pick which one is right. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has just as much intellectual value as Heart of Darkness, not to mention a lot more insight into women’s lives.

The postmodern novelist considered that all previous attempts to write about the individual self were flawed, because those earlier attempts insisted on seeing the self as essentially free. No, no, says the postmodernist; the private self that we first met in Don Quixote and Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t some sort of independent, free being that can find its own path through obstacles, triumphing over society’s hypocrisies. Nor was that self formed by nature and genetics. Instead, that private self was produced by society. Everything that we think about ourselves—every “truth” we know about our own existence—has been instilled in us, since birth, by our culture. We can’t ever get “outside” of society’s structures in order to see what is really true. And when we examine our own deepest selves, all we’ll find is a collection of social conventions.

Postmodern novelists didn’t try to write original stories, since “original” implies some sort of creative ability which is free from the influence of society. Instead, they wrote about society, about the flood of information that shapes us from birth. Their careful, lengthy cataloguing of the details of daily life reminds the reader: This is who you are. You’re formed and shaped by these details. You can’t ever escape them.

In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the narrator tries to get some sort of control over the chaos of his life by cleaning out his attic (an impulse we’ve all felt). But in the end, the details defeat him:

I threw away picture-frame wire, metal book ends, cork coasters, plastic key tags, dusty bottles of Mercurochrome and Vaseline, crusted paintbrushes, caked shoe brushes, clotted correction fluid. I threw away candle stubs, laminated placemats, frayed pot holders. . . . I threw away my battered khaki canteen, my ridiculous hip boots. I threw away diplomas, certificates, awards and citations. When the girls stopped me, I was working the bathroom, discarding used bars of soap, damp towels, shampoo bottles with streaked labels and missing caps.

Postmodernism can be as heavily didactic as John Bunyan’s sermons, and White Noise (like DeLillo’s later and larger novel Underworld) hammers home its point as unrelentingly as any Puritan allegorizer. For folks who reject the idea of “one truth,” postmodernists are amazingly loud as they shout their conclusions: Get it? Get it? You don’t have any power. You’re pushed here and there by your society. It rules you. It is you.

Literary postmodernism began to lose some of its steam in the late 1970s, and no single “movement” has replaced it (these things are easier to see in retrospect). But it seems that as the novel passes its four hundredth birthday, we’ve come full circle, back around to Don Quixote. “Sit down,” Cervantes tells his readers, “and let me tell you a story. It’s just pretend, but that’s fine; you’ll enjoy it anyway.” “Here is my book,” the twentieth-century novelist Italo Calvino announces. “Put your feet up and read it.”

This technique is called metafiction. Rather than creating a fictional world that pretends to be real, metafiction admits, right up front, that it’s only a story; the writer is standing behind you as you walk over the threshold into that new world, shouting, “Don’t forget where you came from!” Calvino doesn’t have to worry about being taken seriously. He can admit that he’s writing a novel, because the postmodernists have already shown that the contrast between “real” and “false” is only a product of the realist’s quest for a truth that doesn’t even exist.

So that tension created in the first years of the novel’s existence—the tension between real and fictional, fantasy and reality, novel and romance—has finally begun to ease. Fantastic events are once again possible, and novels that make use of them have their own (intellectually respectable) label: magic realism. Plot has even made a minor comeback; Possession, the penultimate novel on the list below, is a love story, a wry reflection on the state of literary criticism, a mystery with a point of view that shifts from present to past, from omniscient narrator to first person, using letters, dreams, critical articles, biographies, bits of tales, excerpts from poems (all written by the author, A. S. Byatt) and old-fashioned storytelling to lead the reader to its center. And the final novel, Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Road, deftly combines the quest narrative (one of the oldest plot devices in the world) with post-apocalypticism. In fact, thanks to the solid stories at their centers, Possession and The Road were both bought by production companies and turned into movies.

After four hundred years, the occupation of novel writing has grown up: The best writers of metafiction are happy to be called storytellers. Postmodernism, for all its flaws, loosened the stranglehold of nineteenth-century realism and its related forms, and gave the imagination back some of the power that was usurped in the days of the realists and naturalists.

HOW TO READ A NOVEL

The First Level of Inquiry: Grammar-Stage Reading

The first time you read through a novel, you should look for answers to three very simple questions: Who are these people? What happens to them? And how are they different afterward? As you read, you should also turn down (or bookmark) pages where something significant seems to be happening. Don’t worry about what that significance is—you’ll return to these sections later, after you do your initial read-through.

Look at the title, cover, and table of contents.   With your journal and pencil close by, read the title page and the copy on the back cover. If the book has a biographical sketch of the author and/or translator, read that as well. Remember: it’s often best to skip the preface unless it was written by the author (or translator); otherwise you may get a full interpretation of the book before you’ve had a chance to form your own ideas.

Write the title of the book, the author’s name, and the date of composition on the top of a blank page. Underneath, note any facts learned from the book’s cover or introduction that will help you read the book as the author intended. If, for example, the back-cover copy of Don Quixote tells you that Cervantes began his story as a parody on traditional songs and romances about chivalry, you might write “Makes fun of traditional chivalry” (or something similar) as a note to yourself.

Now read the table of contents. Don Quixote has many short chapters; the chapter titles (“The prophesying ape,” “The puppet show,” “The braying adventure,” “Concerning a squire’s wages”) tell you that the story will unfold as a series of separate, brief events. The chapter titles of The Scarlet Letter (“Hester and the Physician,” “Hester and Pearl,” “The Minister in a Maze”) introduce you to the story’s main characters. In both cases the chapter titles tell you how to approach the book. Don Quixote is an episodic adventure; The Scarlet Letter an examination of character. If a novel doesn’t have chapter titles (1984, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby), that also is important; the writer found the various parts of the story too closely related for easy division and labeling. If the chapter titles do give you any clues about the book’s contents, you can jot down a sentence or two for reference.

Now start to read Chapter 1.

Keep a list of characters as you read.   Somewhere in your notebook (right underneath the title, or perhaps on the open left-hand page), you’ll want to keep a list of major characters: their names, their positions, and their relationships to each other. Sometimes (especially in Russian works) characters have two (or more) names; your character list can help keep them straight. If the novel deals with a family, you should put the characters into a genealogical table (otherwise, you’ll never keep the relationships in Oliver Twist straight).

Briefly note the main event of each chapter.   As you finish each chapter, write one or two sentences describing the chapter’s main event in your notebook. These should be memory joggers for you, not a detailed précis of the plot. Try to limit yourself to one major event per chapter. “Don Quixote decides to be a knight, so he chooses Aldonza Lorenzo to be his lady and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso” is a perfectly good summary of Chapter 1 of Don Quixote. These sentences will help you grasp the book’s overall flow—not to mention making it easier to pick your reading back up after an interruption. At some point in your reading, at least one crisis will temporarily derail your study time, and you don’t want to have to reread four hundred pages of plot development because you’ve forgotten what happened before.

Make initial notes on passages that seem interesting.   During this initial reading, don’t stop to write down long reflections on the book’s content. But if you come across a passage that seems particularly important, bracket it with your pencil, turn down the corner of the page, and write a note to yourself in your journal (“Page 31: Is it important that books drove Don Quixote out of his wits?”). Distinguish these notes in some way from your content summaries; write them in the journal margins, on a different page, or in a different-color ink.

Give the book your own title and subtitle.   When you finish reading the book, go back and reread your chapter summaries. Do they provide you with a clear, coherent outline of what happens in the book? If so, you can move on to the next step: titling. If not, rewrite your summaries: delete those details which now seem inessential, add important events or characters that you might have missed.

Once you’re happy with your outline, give the book a brief title and a longer subtitle. Before you can do this, though, you’ll need to answer two questions:

1. Who is the central character in this book?

2. What is the book’s most important event?

If you have difficulty answering these questions, ask yourself: Is there some point in the book where the characters change? Does something happen that makes everyone behave differently? There are plenty of important moments in Pilgrim’s Progress, but the story’s hero changes most drastically right at the beginning, when he hears Evangelist’s words and runs through the wicket gate, crying, “Life, life, eternal life!” He is a different man afterward—and although he goes through multiple trials and temptations, his new personality does not alter. Glance back through the list of major events that you’ve jotted down for each chapter and try to identify the most central and life-changing of them all.

Once you find this event, ask yourself: Which character is the most affected? This is likely to be the book’s hero (or heroine). (And don’t fret too much about this question; you may change your mind after you’ve done a second, more intensive reading of the book’s important sections.)

Now give your book a title that mentions the main character, and a subtitle that tells how that character is affected by the book’s main event. Christian’s Journey to the Celestial City: How an ordinary man responded to Evangelist’s invitation by leaving his home and beginning a journey in which he meets various figures that represent biblical truths, faces Apollyon, triumphs over a number of temptations that try to pull him away from the road to the City, and finally crosses over the Jordan to glory: This sums up the story.

The Second Level of Inquiry: Logic-Stage Reading

Your first reading of the book should give you a sense of the story as a whole—one sweeping tale that you pursue from beginning to end, without stopping to ruminate or look up details. Now you’ll narrow your gaze to individual elements of the book. Ideally, you would reread the whole novel at this point, but unless you’re independently wealthy and unmarried (like the gentlemen-scholars of previous centuries), you probably won’t. Instead, go back through the bracketed or bookmarked sections that you noted on your first read-through. Some will now appear irrelevant; others will suddenly reveal themselves to be central.

If you were reading nonfiction, you would now begin to analyze the writer’s argument: What idea is she trying to convince you of? What evidence does he give you for believing this argument?

But fiction has a different end than philosophy, or science, or history. The novel doesn’t present you with an argument; it invites you to enter another world. When you evaluate a nonfiction work, you will ask: Am I persuaded? But when you evaluate a novel, you must instead ask: Am I transported? Do I see, feel, hear this other world? Can I sympathize with the people who live there? Do I understand their wants and desires and problems? Or am I left unmoved?

Like any other skill, thinking critically about a novel becomes simpler with practice. The following brief guide to literary analysis isn’t meant as a graduate course in literary criticism. Nor is it intended to turn you into a critic. Rather, these questions will begin to guide your thinking into a more analytical mode. As you practice asking and answering them, other questions (and answers) will come to mind.

In your journal, write down answers to the following questions. Not all of them will apply to every novel, of course; if one of the questions doesn’t seem to have any good answer, skip it and move on. And remember that there are not, necessarily, “right answers” to these questions. (Critics can argue unceasingly about whether Moby-Dick is closer to realism or to fantasy.) But whenever you write down an answer, quote directly from the novel in order to support your answer. This will keep you focused on the book. Using a direct quote prevents you from making general—and thus meaningless—assertions, such as “Moby-Dick is about man’s search for God.” That sentence must immediately be followed by, “This can be seen in the scene where . . .” and a description of the scene.

Is this novel a “fable” or a “chronicle”?   Every novelist belongs in one of two camps. Some writers want to draw us into a world very like our own; they tell us how people behave, moment by moment, in lives governed by the same rules that regulate our own lives. These writers convince us that every emotion stems from a cause, every action from a reaction. These writers produce “chronicles”—stories set in our own universe.

Other novelists never try to convince us that the world of the book is real. These once-upon-a-time fables transport us into a place where different laws apply. “I sailed from England,” Gulliver remarks, “and was captured by men three inches high.” “And then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven,” Christian tells us. The writer of fables begins not with, “At 9 a.m. on a rainy Saturday in June,” but rather with “Once upon a time . . .” Pilgrim’s Progress and Gullivers Travels were written by fable-tellers; Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of a Lady, by chroniclers.8

This is the first question you must ask of a novel: Is this narrative taking place in a world that is governed by the same rules that govern my existence? Or are there fantastic events in the book that don’t square with reality as I know it?

Once you’ve answered this question, you can then consider one of these three questions (again, try to jot down a quote or two from the novel in support of each answer):

1. If this novel is set in our world—a chronicle—how does the writer show us reality? Does she try to convince us that her world is real through the careful presentation of physical detail—the meals people eat, the cut and color of their clothes, the landscape that surrounds them? Or does she focus instead on psychological detail: the processes of the mind, the rise and fall of emotions, the slow discovery of motivations?

2. If the writer presents a fantastic world, what is his or her intent? Is she writing allegorically? In an allegory, the writer establishes a one-to-one correspondence between some part of her story (a character, an event, a place) and some other, literal reality. In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian carries a huge burden on his back; this burden represents sin. In Gullivers Travels, Swift’s characters war about whether eggs should be cracked at the little or the big end; the bitter dispute between Little-Endians and Big-Endians is an allegorical reference to the controversy over the proper observation of the Eucharist that raged during Swift’s century. (A writer’s choice of allegory is in itself an expression of opinion, and you can take issue with it: Not everyone finds the debate over the Real Presence as insignificant as the debate over how to crack an egg.)9

In the absence of allegory, is the writer of fables speculating? In this case, the fantastic elements don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to our world; instead, the oddness of the unfamiliar surroundings represents ideas taken to their extreme. George Orwell writes fantastically about a world that doesn’t exist, but he doesn’t want you to pick out a single parallel between Big Brother and some contemporary politician. In the strange universe of 1984, certain aspects of modern life are stretched, exaggerated, and expanded to an unthinkable extreme in order to demonstrate their potential danger.

3. Is the novel primarily realistic, but with a few fantastic elements? If so, you cannot simply classify it as a “fable.” The Scarlet Letter chronicles quite ordinary events—unfaithfulness, the birth of an illegitimate baby—but its climax involves at least one fantastical event. Jane Eyre is the story of realistic people who live (unhappily) in regular English houses, but Jane hears a ghostly voice at a climactic moment: Is it a dream? When a writer brings fantastical elements into an otherwise realistic tale, he is illustrating a real phenomenon that is too powerful to be described in realistic terms. Can you identify this phenomenon?

What does the central character (or characters) want? What is standing in his (or her) way? And what strategy does he (or she) pursue in order to overcome this block?   Almost every novel (even the most modern) is constructed around these basic questions. You can ask them for as many characters as you want, but begin with the person who seems most prominent.

What does Elizabeth Bennet want? This most central of questions often appears to have a straightforward answer. Elizabeth Bennet wants to get married. Christian wants to get to the Celestial City. Heathcliff wants Cathy. Ahab wants the whale.

But generally a deeper, more essential need or want lies beneath this surface desire. You can often get at this deeper motivation by asking the second question: What’s standing in the way? What destroys Elizabeth Bennet’s marriageability, complicates her life, threatens to destroy her happiness? Her family: her wild younger sister, her ridiculous mother, her passive and cynical father. Elizabeth wants to marry, but her deepest want goes beyond matrimony. She wants to abandon the world she was born into and move into another world. She wants to escape. (Asking this question will also keep you from settling on too simple an answer: Ahab doesn’t just want to catch the whale.)

Now do a little more classification. Is a person keeping the heroine from achieving her deepest wants? If so, is that person a “villain” in the classic sense, an evildoer who wishes to do another character harm? (Simon Legree, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is a classic villain.) Or is the “villain” simply another character with a deep want of his own that happens to be at cross-purposes with the heroine’s need? (Elizabeth Bennet’s mother, father, and younger sister, all pursuing their own needs, are unmindful of their disastrous effect on Elizabeth’s struggling romance.)

The block in the heroine’s way doesn’t have to be a person. A collection of circumstances, a malign force that constantly pushes her in the wrong direction, an impersonal set of events that have united to complicate her life—these can also keep a character from getting what she wants. The novelist’s world may demonstrate that human beings are always at the mercy of a flawed, fallen creation—or an uncaring, mechanical universe in which they are as insignificant as flies.

Once you’ve identified, at least tentatively, a character’s wants and the “block” that keeps him from fulfilling them, you can begin to answer the third question: What strategy does a character follow in order to overcome the difficulties that stand in his way? Does he bulldoze his way through the opposition, using strength or wealth to overcome his difficulties? Does he manipulate, scheme, or plan? Does he exercise intelligence? Grit his teeth and keep on going? Buckle under the pressure, wilt and die? This strategy produces the plot of the novel.

These basic questions will take you through even the most modern novels on the list. Characters have always longed for escape, freedom, an ideal existence, control of their lives. Jack Gladney of DeLillo’s White Noise wants to find the inherent meaning of life, not the meaning imposed on him by the corporations that have already constructed the story of his life for him (a story that involves his constant purchase of all the things they manufacture). What keeps him from discovering this meaning? Does he manage to find it in the end? (Three guesses.)

Who is telling you this story?   Stories don’t just float in the air; they are told by a voice. Whose voice is it? Or, in other words, what point of view does the writer adopt?

Point of view, like other aspects of fiction, can be broken into dozens of types, each subtlely different. Unless you plan to make a detailed study of the art of fiction,10 you only need to be familiar with the five basic points of view. Each has its advantages and tradeoffs.

1. First-person point of view (“I”) gives a very immediate, but limited, perspective. First person allows you to hear a character’s most private thoughts—but in exchange, you can only see what happens within the character’s line of sight, and you can only know those facts that the character is herself aware of.

2. Second-person (“You walk down the street and open the door . . .”) is uncommon, generally used only in experimental works (and adventure games). Like first-person point of view, second person keeps the reader intimately involved with the story, and brings a sense of immediacy far beyond what first person can produce. But second person also tends to limit the writer to the present tense, cutting off any reflection on the past.

3. Third-person limited (also called “third-person subjective”) tells the story from the viewpoint of one particular character, delving into that character’s mind, but using the third-person pronouns (he or she) rather than the first-person pronouns. This perspective allows the writer to gain a little bit of distance from the story, but still limits the writer to those events that the viewpoint character can actually see and hear. A useful variant on this—and perhaps the most common narrative strategy in the novels listed below—is “third-person multiple,” which allows the writer to use the viewpoints of several different characters, jumping from the “inside” of one character to the “inside” of another in order to give multiple perspectives.

4. “Third-person objective” tells the story from a removed, distant perspective. The narrator can see everything that is happening, as though he were hovering in space above the scene, but can’t look into the heart or mind of any character. The writer who uses third-person objective gains a sort of scientific, dispassionate perspective but loses the ability to tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling; we have to deduce this from the characters’ actions and expressions. Third-person objective is the filmmaker’s point of view.

5. The omniscient point of view—the most popular until the nineteenth century—puts the writer in the place of God. He can see and explain everything. He can describe both great events in the universe and the thoughts that occupy the most private recesses of a character’s soul. The omniscient point of view often—although not always—is the author’s point of view as well; it can allow the writer to moralize, to record his own personal ideas about the events of the book. (In Victorian times, the omniscient point of view allowed the writer to address the reader directly: “Gentle reader, what depths of guilt such a woman must suffer!”)

Which point of view does the writer choose to use? What does he gain and lose through it? Once you’ve identified the point of view, try an experiment: retell a crucial passage in the novel from a different point of view. How does this change the story?

Where is the story set?   Every story happens in a physical place. Is this place natural, or human-constructed? If natural, do the woods and fields and skies reflect the emotions and problems of the characters? Do clouds cover the sky as the heroine weeps; does the wind rise as tempers fray? Or is nature unresponsive to the hero’s struggles? The answers to these questions will tell you how the novelist views the human relationship to the physical world. Is humanity so intimately connected to nature that the earth responds to the human plight? Or is the universe indifferent? Are we the center of the universe, or simply bugs crawling on its uncaring surface?

Human-built surroundings—a city, a house, a room—can also reflect the inner life of the characters: bare and clean, cluttered and confused. “When I was brought back next day,” writes the narrator of Camus’s The Stranger, “the electric fans were still churning up the heavy air, and the jurymen plying their gaudy little fans in a sort of steady rhythm. The speech for the defense seemed to me interminable.” The thick, unvarying atmosphere reflects the narrator’s own inability to pierce through the fog of confusion all around him.

Look for several sections of description and ask yourself: Who is present in this scene? What are her surroundings like? How does she sense them? What does this say about her state of mind?

What style does the writer employ?   “Style” refers not only to the vocabulary a writer uses (simple or multisyllabic?) but also to the general length of sentences. Are they short and terse? Or complex, containing many clauses and subordinate ideas?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, realistic novelists made a concerted effort to move away from complex, complicated sentences—the product of thought and careful pencil work—toward a more colloquial, casual style, closer to what “real, plain people” would use in everyday conversation. This shift away from formal language reflected a change in ideas of “good style.”

You can identify whether the writer is using formal or informal language (or diction) by using a few simple, mechanical devices. In Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Edward Corbett suggests the following:

1. Choose one long paragraph and count the words in each sentence. What’s the shortest sentence? The longest? What’s the average number of words in a sentence?

2. In the same paragraph, count the number of nouns and verbs which have three or more syllables.

3. How many nouns in the paragraph refer to concrete things (people, landscape, animals, clothing, food, etc.), and how many refer to abstract ideas?

4. How many verbs in the passage describe physical activity (run, jump, climb, blush) and how many describe mental activity (worry, anticipate, rejoice)?11

These mechanical exercises can help you begin to evaluate whether the writer’s style is “plain” (short, common words, simple sentences) or more complex and ornamental.

Now take three passages of dialogue from three different characters and compare them, using the above exercise. Do all these characters talk alike? (This is a very common flaw—even in the work of great writers.) Or do their patterns of speech reflect the fact that they have different backgrounds, different jobs, different lives?

Finally, take note of any departures from standard conventions of punctuation and capitalization. Does the writer intentionally make use of fragments or run-on sentences? How are proper names treated? Is dialogue marked traditionally, or set off in some other way? If there are departures, how does this change your experience of the book? Try rewriting a sentence or paragraph (or more), re-inserting the conventions you learned in high school English. Compare with the original. What difference does your rewrite make?

Images and metaphors.   Is any particular image repeated again and again? Do the characters find themselves continually crossing water or walking through the woods? Does a particular color (a white dress, a white rose, a white sky) occur more than once? In The Great Gatsby, a pair of huge wooden eyes, abandoned by the optometrist who intended to use them as a billboard, looks mournfully out over an ashy plain. A. S. Byatt’s Possession makes great use of the colors green and blue and their relationship to water and to glacier ice.

Once you’ve found a repeated image, ask: Is this a metaphor, and if so, what does this represent? A metaphor is a physical object or act that stands for something else—an attitude, a situation, a truth. A metaphor is different from an allegory. An allegory involves a one-to-one correspondence between different story elements and the realities for which they stand; an allegory is a set of related metaphors, whereas a metaphor is a single image that may bear multiple meanings. The huge wooden eyes in Gatsby reoccur several times. Like the eyes of God, they constantly watch the characters, but they are blind and uncaring and bring no meaning to the lives under their gaze. They also look out over a plain that should have developed into a bustling business district but instead turned into a wasteland. So the wooden eyes serve as a metaphor for the absence of God, but also draw our attention to the essential emptiness in the glittering, prosperous lives of Daisy and her circle.

Beginnings and endings.   Now take a moment to examine the opening and closing scenes. The beginning of a novel should draw you immediately into the story’s central problem. Does the writer hint at a mystery, begin to sketch out an incomplete scenario you don’t immediately understand? If so, perhaps the intent of the book is to show how human beings can triumph over partial knowledge, using their wits and determination to bring meaning to confusion. Does the book begin with violence and color, drawing you in through sheer action? If so, perhaps the intent is to portray humans as busy and effective in their world. Does it begin with passivity and stagnation? Perhaps the intent is the opposite: to show humanity’s essential helplessness. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” begins Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” That single sentence contains all of the novel’s major themes: the necessity of marriage, the desire for independent prosperity, and the shifting nature of “universally acknowledged truths,” since the characters find their deepest convictions overturned, one by one, as the story unfolds. Henry James begins The Portrait of a Lady with a tea party on the front lawn of an English house: “Real dusk would not arrive for many hours,” he writes, “but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.” The tranquility and languor of the European scene is soon shattered by the arrival of an energetic American, and this conflict between old and new cultures is James’s central preoccupation.

Now that you’ve considered the beginning, turn to the end. John Gardner suggests, in The Art of Fiction, that stories have two kinds of endings. There is the resolution, when “no further event can take place (the murderer has been caught and hanged, the diamond has been found and restored to its owner, the elusive lady has been captured and married).” In contrast is the ending of logical exhaustion, in which the characters have reached “the stage of infinite repetition; more events might follow . . . but they will all express the same thing—for example, the character’s entrapment in empty ritual or some consistently wrong response to the pressures of his environment.”12

What sort of ending does the book have? The resolution that Gardner describes shows a certain faith that we can triumph over our world, control our existence by discovering rules we can follow in order to bring success (or break to court disaster). The ending of logical exhaustion, on the other hand, shows that we are trapped, powerless, condemned to repeat the same actions over and over again. Each kind of ending demonstrates a certain philosophy about the nature of human life. Do you agree with that philosophy?

That question (Do I agree?) leads us into the third stage of reading: the rhetoric phase.

The Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading

Your answers to the logic-stage questions should begin to reveal the ideas at the core of each novel. During the rhetoric stage, you’ll try to decide whether you agree with those ideas or not.

These great novels differ so widely—and your own approach to them will depend so heavily on your own philosophy of life, your religious beliefs, your experience of work and play and family life—that I can’t lay down hard and fast “discussion topics” for you. But I can suggest a few topics that will help you begin the process of interacting with the novel’s ideas. Remember that your rhetoric-stage examination of a novel should take place in partnership with another reader. You’ll begin the dialogue by answering one of the following questions; ask your reading partner to do so as well. If you’re conducting your discussion by letter or email, your initial letter can simply consist of a couple of paragraphs in answer to one of the following questions; your reading partner can answer with her own thoughts; and you can then move on to the next question. Even if you’re discussing the book in person, write your answers down in your journal, so that your notes can serve as a “history” of the development of your ideas about reading fiction.

What questions should you ask? Most of them will be related to one central query: Is this book an accurate portrayal of life? Is it true?

The ideas you’ll discuss in the rhetoric stage of novel reading have to do with the nature of human experience: What are people like? What guides and shapes them? Are we free? If not, what binds and restricts us? What is the ideal man or woman like? Is there such a thing as an ideal man or woman—or does this idea itself suggest some sort of transcendent “truth” that is only an illusion?

Do you sympathize with the characters? Which ones, and why?   Can you find some point of empathy (emotional or intellectual identification) with each major character? The characters’ dilemma, or their reaction to it, must provoke some kind of recognition; even in the oddest and most maniacal character, there should be something that we acknowledge. “Though we can see at a glance that Captain Ahab is a madman,” John Gardner remarks, “we affirm his furious hunger to know the truth.”

In a great novel, even the evildoers possess some emotion or motivation that also exists in the reader. The novel’s bad guy is a villain not because he is a monster, but because some real quality has been distorted and exaggerated until it turns destructive. In the same way, a heroine should not possess undiluted goodness; such a character would be unrecognizable. Her greatness should result from her triumph over flaws that we recognize, and might even share. If she fails to triumph, like Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, we should feel that her failure could be our own; were we in her shoes, we too might succumb.

Try to identify the character quality that allows you to sympathize with each character: Ahab’s pursuit of truth, Lily Bart’s longing for beauty, Huck Finn’s craving for freedom. Do you feel this quality in yourself or observe it in others? In the novel, is this quality distorted, or exaggerated, or somehow twisted away from the norm? What opposing tendency destroys it, or stands in the way of its full flowering? Do you recognize that contrary impulse in yourself as well?

And then consider: The writer selected this quality as the character’s central defining characteristic. Is the writer making a statement, through that selection, about the human condition—about the universal longings that all humans share, and the opposition that we all face as we try to fulfill those cravings?

Does the writer’s technique give you a clue as to her “argument”—her take on the human condition?   Point of view, setting, use of detail, stream-of-consciousness reflection: Each technique can imply a certain philosophical commitment on the part of the writer. Consider the implications of point of view. Nineteenth-century narrators were fond of the omniscient point of view, which allowed them (in effect) to take the position of God: to see all, describe all, and issue moral judgments on all. But more than one critic has observed that the slow decline in the use of the omniscient point of view has paralleled a decline in the traditional belief of God as an all-seeing, all-determining being. Without the omniscient point of view, no single, normal, “standard” point of view exists; each character has a different idea about what is happening, and no particular point of view is identified as true.

What does the setting of the book tell you about the way human beings are shaped? If the novelist believes that we are produced by our environment—that the place and time in which we live determine who we are—she will pay close attention to physical landscapes. But if she believes man to be a free soul, with power to triumph over his surroundings, she’s more likely to concentrate on what’s going on inside the characters’ heads. Instead of lovingly detailed descriptions of physical setting, she’ll produce equally detailed records of emotions, thoughts, and moods.

Is the novel self-reflective?   Discovering more about the human condition from a novel: Is this even possible? Can stories about people convey truth? Can written words really communicate something meaningful about existence?

The answer to those questions is not an automatic yes. The novelist assumes, as he writes, that his words convey some sort of real meaning to readers; that human existence can be reduced to a page and still remain recognizable. But most writers also feel deep doubt as to whether this will actually happen. Does the novel acknowledge this tension? Does it call attention to itself, or to the acts of reading and writing? Do the characters in it read? What do they gain from their reading? Are some kinds of reading praised while others are condemned? Do the characters write? If so, what do they hope to achieve through their writing? Are they immortalized or destroyed by what they set down on paper?

If the novel is self-reflective, does it affirm that storytelling can make a meaningful statement about human existence—or does it question that possibility? The novels Don Quixote and Possession are nearly four hundred years apart in time. Yet both writers reflect on the acts of reading and writing. Don Quixote loses sight of reality through much reading; the central characters of Possession are rediscovered through the stories, poems, and letters that they leave behind.

Did the writer’s times affect him?   The common-sense answer to this question would seem to be yes. But this was for several decades a highly debated topic, with so-called formalists asserting that a novel should be treated on its own terms, as an “artifact” that has nothing to do with its times (or its writer, come to that), and that knowledge of a writer’s times can contribute nothing to an understanding of the fiction at hand.

It has become increasingly difficult to argue that you can read (for example) The Great Gatsby without knowing something about America in the 1920s. But the pendulum has now swung somewhat far over to the other side, with literary critics asserting that a novel is nothing more than a product of its times and should be read as a sort of imaginative history, a reflection of social customs—particularly those that oppress a particular race, gender, or class. Thus The Scarlet Letter tells us how the Puritans treated adulterous women, Huckleberry Finn is about slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, and Heart of Darkness reveals the mindset of colonialists toward the native races.

All of these things are true, but these novels are much more than a reflection of their times; to see them primarily as minihistories of culture is to flatten them. The sensible reader should take the middle course: Assume that the writer has been influenced by the accepted wisdom of his times, but also give him the benefit of imagination. Perhaps he was able, in some of the novel’s aspects, to make an imaginative leap that took him further than his contemporaries.

As part of your rhetoric-stage discussion, you may want to read a brief history of the times in which the writer lived. This doesn’t have to be an enormous project; a few pages from a basic text will give you some sense of the writer’s times. The novel list tends to be focused on American and English works, so you might consider investing in Paul Johnson’s History of the American People or George Brown Tindall’s America: A Narrative History and Kenneth O. Morgan’s Oxford History of Britain. A slightly more detailed history—and one that pays a little more attention to social and cultural trends—is A History of England, by Clayton Roberts and David Roberts, which comes in two volumes that overlap: Volume I: Prehistory to 1714, and Volume II: 1688 to the Present. For a broader picture of the world, look for John Morris Robert’s Penguin History of the World, revised in 2014.

A good rule of thumb is to read twenty years on either side of the work in question, so that when you read Pilgrim’s Progress you should read about events in England from 1660 to 1700. You may find it helpful to keep a brief timeline of some sort, either along the top margins of your journal or on a separate sheet of paper, so that you can remember momentous events.

If you find yourself getting bogged down, you can skip this part of rhetoric-stage reading. It is better to read the novels and skip the history than to give up on the whole project. On the other hand, you won’t fully understand Huckleberry Finn without reading about the Fugitive Slave Law; and 1984 won’t make complete sense unless you know something about the state of British politics and culture in 1949, when George Orwell wrote his pessimistic screed.

Is there an argument in this book?   Now try to bring these different considerations together into a final statement: What exactly is the writer telling you?

A novel is not an argument, and a story should never be boiled down into a syllogism. The primary purpose of a novelist is to lead you through an experience, not to convince you of a point. But in many novels, there is an idea. The writer, in describing the life of one particular character, is making a statement about the human condition in general. Jack Gladney, the professor of Hitler studies who stars in DeLillo’s novel White Noise, is drowning in the ephemera of his culture; and so, DeLillo wants you to know, are all of us. Thomas Hardy’s hapless characters struggle against the implacable natural forces that continually push them down into the muck from which they strive to rise. They always lose. And so, Hardy wants you to know, will the rest of us.

So think about what happens to the main characters, and why. Is there an argument in the hero’s (or heroine’s) fate—or in the villain’s downfall?

Do you agree?   Now you can ask yourself that ultimate question suggested above: Is this work true?

Here you should consider two senses of the word true. A novel that is convincing, vivid, engaging, carefully written so that each detail corresponds to reality, a novel that draws you into its world and keeps you interested in the fates of its characters—that novel is real, resonating with our own experience of the world. But a work can be true in this sense and still present an idea about what human experience should be that is opposite to our own convictions.

Or a work can vividly portray one aspect of human existence while suggesting that this is the only level on which humans can live.

Or a story can suggest that there is no “should be”—nothing to strive for beyond what we see, nothing to believe in beyond what is.

All of these ideas we may strenuously reject while still finding the book itself “believable.” So in what sense is the book true?

Related to this is one final question: What is fiction meant to do? Why are you reading a novel at all? Are you expecting to find out some truth about human nature? Should a novel reveal some difficult, hard-to-face truth about ourselves? Do novels show the inevitable end of certain paths? Or are they, instead, agents of moral change? Do they show us models so that we can amend our ways? This idea—that fiction provides us with a model—itself has a certain assumption behind it: There is some standard of human behavior which applies to all of us, in all cultures, and our quest in life is to uncover it.

The opposing idea was once expressed by Alexander Pope in the phrase, “Whatever is, is right.” The novel doesn’t set out an ideal, because to assume that there is such a thing as an unchanging standard of behavior governing all people at all times is narrow minded and myopic. The novel has no business in providing models. It simply explores realities: It opens numerous doors for you to peer through, but makes no suggestions as to which threshold you should cross.

THE ANNOTATED NOVEL LIST

Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding helped create the novel, but they’re not on this list; literary scholars find them fascinating, but their prose is undoubtedly dated. “And so it fell out to Lady Booby,” writes Richardson in Pamela, “who happened to be walking arm in arm with Joey one morning in Hyde-Park, when Lady Tittle and Lady Tattle came accidentally by in their coach. Bless me, says Lady Tittle, can I believe my eyes? Is it Lady Booby?

Pamela and Fielding’s Joseph Andrews are both satire, the most quickly dated of all literary forms; Defoe’s prose fares slightly better, but long chunks of Robinson Crusoe are devoted to minitravelogues, a popular form at the time. (“It happen’d to my farther Misfortune, That the Weather prov’d hazey for three or four Days, while I was in this Valley; and not being able to see the Sun, I wander’d about very uncomfortably, and at last was oblig’d to find out the Sea Side, look for my Post, and come back the same Way I went; and then by easy Journies I turn’d Homeward, the Weather being exceeding hot, and my Gun, Ammunition, Hatchet and other Things very Heavy.” And more of the same, in which nothing particular happens.)

So the Annotated Novel List begins with Cervantes, who anticipated those later English writers, and then moves on to Bunyan and Swift. The list is heavily weighted toward those novels originally composed in English (thus American and British literature), although I have tried to include important works of world literature that are available in affordable translations. This list is representative, not comprehensive; the novels on the list were chosen, not just for their enduring value, but also because they illustrate some important stage in the novel’s development (the allegorical impulse, in the case of Bunyan) or because their ideas and characters have entered our language.

The annotations that follow are intended to help you enjoy your first reading more. For many of the older novels, I offer a brief plot summary. The joy of these books is not found in the surprise of what happens (as if they were crime dramas on TNT), but rather in the ways that the authors develop and complicate ancient plot structures of love and marriage, ambition and loss, greed and catastrophe. If you’d rather be surprised, you can always skip the annotations and read them afterward.

Read the following list in chronological order:

MIGUEL DE CERVANTES

Don Quixote

(1605)

Best translations: Edith Grossman’s energetic 2003 translation brings the tale into a contemporary English voice while retaining much of the original meaning. There are, however, points to reading Tobias Smollett’s classic translation of 1755. Grossman attempts to strike a balance between readability and faithfulness to Cervantes’s intent (as she sees it); Smollett’s translation is closer to a collaboration between himself and Cervantes to produce a popular novel called Don Quixote, which entered into the English imagination. If you get well and truly bogged down in this lengthy book, try the abridgment by Walter Starkie.

Alonso Quixada, a poor country gentleman with too much imagination and not enough money, becomes so enthralled with tales of chivalry that he reads day and night, even selling good farmland to buy books. Soon he imagines that he’s living in a romantic tale; he renames himself Don Quixote [pronounced Kee-HO-tay], claims a village girl as his fair lady, recruits the peasant Sancho Panza as his squire, and sets out on a quest. Cervantes makes use of the literary conventions of the picaresque tale, in which a rogue wanders through the countryside, taking advantage of the gullible people he meets. But Don Quixote is the innocent in this journey, and the people he meets (there are 669 characters in Don Quixote) are generally hardheaded and intolerant of his fantasies. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza wander from adventure to adventure as Quixote’s friends and neighbors scheme to recapture him and bring him back home. Eventually they succeed, and Don Quixote is brought back to La Mancha to be treated for his madness. He’s recuperating in a green flannel bedjacket when the young Sanson Carrasco, a neighbor’s son, comes home from university with the news that Don Quixote’s adventures have been put into a book with more than twelve thousand copies in print! Excited by their fame, Sancho and Don Quixote set off on another adventure; Carrasco, recruited by the village to retrieve the old man yet again, disguises himself as another knight and chases the pair through another whole series of adventures. Finally, posing as “the Knight of the White Moon,” he defeats Quixote and orders him home; Don Quixote totters back to his farm, but soon falls ill with a fever and dies. On the surface, Don Quixote is a contradiction, an antibook novel. Don Quixote’s madness is caused by reading; Sanson Carrasco, the educated university graduate, is vengeful and ineffective. But at the novel’s end, the poor country gentleman Alonso Quixada dies and is buried; Don Quixote, the knight created by reading and kept alive through writing, lives forever. Don Quixote’s adventures are entertaining, but the real fascination of Don Quixote lies in Miguel de Cervantes’ constant attention to the ways in which fables become real in the imagination of the reader.

JOHN BUNYAN

The Pilgrim’s Progress

(1679)

Best edition: The original English text with modernized spelling is available from Penguin Classics, Wordsworth Classics, and Dover Thrift Editions. Be sure that you don’t accidentally pick up an abridged, “retold,” “young people’s,” or “in Modern English” edition.

Both Don Quixote and Pilgrim’s Progress take place within a fantasy that is clearly contrasted to the real world. Cervantes’ hero is mad; John Bunyan’s tale is a dream. In the dream, Bunyan’s ragged hero, Christian, has a burden on his back and a book in his hand; the burden is ruining his life, and the book tells him that he must flee from his home or be destroyed. A mysterious visitor named Evangelist points him toward a narrow wicker gate. Christian finally manages to get through the gate and finds a Cross, at which point the burden on his back rolls away. But this is only the beginning of his spiritual task; now he must travel to the Celestial City. On his way he fights the monster Apollyon, escapes from the goblins who haunt the Valley of the Shadow of Death, resists the temptations of Vanity Fair (a town convinced of the virtues of unbridled capitalism), crosses swords with the Giant Despair, and finally reaches the Dark River, where “great horror” falls upon him. Rescued by Hopeful, he gains the shore and is escorted by Shining Ones into the presence of God. (The sequel to Pilgrim’s Progress, written six years after the first, is often reprinted as Part II; it tells the story of Christian’s wife Christiana and his four sons, who follow his path some years later.) Christian, in the manner of good Puritan divines, is prone to setting out spiritual truths in neatly numbered lists, as though mature spirituality were simply a matter of filling in the correct blanks on a preprinted form. Yet the threat of hell is never absent from Pilgrim’s Progress; as Christian parades triumphantly into the City, he sees another pilgrim taken to a mysterious door at the city’s foot and thrust through: “Then I saw,” he ends, soberly, “that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven.”

JONATHAN SWIFT

Gulliver’s Travels

(1726)

Best edition: Readable basic editions are published by Dover Thrift Editions and Penguin Classics. The Norton Critical Edition, edited by Albert J. Rivero, provides extensive annotations; these can distract from the story, but since so much of the tale is intended as political or cultural satire, they can also help you make sense of what would otherwise be very puzzling episodes.

Ship’s surgeon Lemuel Gulliver keeps trying to sail from Point A to Point B, but bad navigation, pirate attacks, mutinies, and storms push him off course every time. First he ends up shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput, where he is imprisoned by people six inches high (no mean feat). When he finally manages to escape to England, his countrymen strike him as grotesquely huge. On Gulliver’s second voyage, he winds up on an island of giants, where he is treated like a pet. This time he is rescued by an eagle that snatches him up and drops him into the sea near an English ship. But back in England, he suffers from the same unpleasant change in perception; his fellow Englishmen now look like midgets. Restless, he plans another voyage away from home and discovers Laputa, a flying island where the men are obsessed by music and mathematics, while the women long for the less preoccupied men from a neighboring island. Gulliver’s fourth and final journey lands him on an island inhabited half by barbarian, humanlike creatures called Yahoos, and half by graceful, intelligent horses called Houyhnhnms. When he finally returns to England for good, Gulliver is so revolted by his fellow countrymen (who now appear to be Yahoos) that he buys two horses and moves into the stable to live with them. Poor Gulliver: Travel is supposed to broaden the mind, but living with exaggerated versions of human behavior has narrowed him into a settled hatred of the entire human race. Gullivers Travels is an adventure in perception and (partly) in the power of propaganda; Swift leads you to see through Gulliver’s eyes and to accept his version of events—which, without your noticing, will often veer far from the “truth.”

JANE AUSTEN

Pride and Prejudice

(1815)

Best edition: Thanks to the last two decades of Austen movies and mini-series, her novels have been reprinted by a whole slew of publishers, including Dover Thrift Editions, Vintage Classics, and Penguin Classics. The novel reads beautifully without explanations, so give the over-edited and unwieldy annotated editions a miss.

Pride and Prejudice deals not with the male world of quests and sea voyages, but with the indoor world of women, thus anticipating by a couple of hundred years the Oprah boom in women’s fiction. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” the novel begins. A wife is the icing on the cake for Charles Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy, single men with plenty of money and an unassailable position in the world. But without husbands, the five daughters of the impoverished Bennet family can look forward only to a slow decline into poverty. When Charles Bingley rents a house in the neighborhood, Jane, the mild and sweet-tempered oldest daughter, falls in love with him. But his friend Darcy is appalled by the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet and the low position of the rest of the family, and convinces his malleable friend to give Jane up. Meanwhile Darcy, against his will, finds himself attracted to the second daughter, Elizabeth, and finally proposes to her in the most obnoxious manner possible. Elizabeth rejects him indignantly. But then a profligate rake who was once Darcy’s childhood friend seduces Elizabeth’s wild and uncontrollable youngest sister, Lydia—and Darcy sets out to make the situation right. He also steers Bingley back toward Jane, and Elizabeth, softened by these proofs of a changed heart, agrees to marry him. Her father consents (“He is the kind of man, indeed,” Mr. Bennet remarks, “to whom I should never dare refuse anything which he condescended to ask”), and the novel closes with a double wedding. Pride and Prejudice is one of the most satisfying romances in literature, but it ends with an unasked question: Elizabeth, resentful of a world in which appearance is everything, has now moved into its center by marrying one of the richest (and most conservative) men in England. How will her new life change her?

CHARLES DICKENS

Oliver Twist

(1838)

Best edition: The 1838 three-volume version with George Cruikshank’s original illustrations is available online, as well as in the paperback Modern Library edition (2001). As with Pilgrim’s Progress, be sure that you don’t accidentally pick up an abridged or adapted version of this novel, which for some reason (perhaps we should blame the musical) is often thought suitable for children.

An unknown girl gives birth in a workhouse and then dies without revealing her identity; her baby, minutes old, lies gasping for breath on a grimy mattress. If the baby had been “surrounded by careful grandmothers . . . and doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and indubitably have been killed in no time.” But since no one is present but an overworked doctor and a drunken matron, the baby lives. This caustic reversal of fortunes introduces us to Oliver Twist, the orphan child who deserves love and care, but is instead used by adults from his infancy on. The matron who raises him steals his charity handout; the parish rents him to a coffin maker for five pounds; when he runs away to London, the stolen-goods fence Fagin teaches him to pick the pockets of passersby. Oliver is rescued from the streets by the prosperous Mr. Brownlow, but two other thieves, Monks and Sikes (with the help of Sikes’s working-girl lover Nancy), kidnap him back and force him to help with a robbery. The house’s owners, Mrs. Maylie and her niece Rose, catch Oliver in the act and decide to adopt him, but Monks and Sikes are determined to kidnapthe child back again. Nancy, who has begun to regret her involvement, warns Rose and Mrs. Maylie of the kidnap plot; when Sikes discovers her treachery, he beats her to death. (Dickens is a shrewd observer of phenomena for which there were no clinical labels: “I must go back,” Nancy tells Rose, who tries to convince her to leave Sikes. “I am drawn back to him through every suffering and ill usage; and I should be, I believe, if I knew that I was to die by his hand at last.”) Oliver introduces Rose and Mrs. Maylie to his previous benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, and the three adults plan to trap Sikes and Monks when they make their kidnap attempt. Sikes hangs himself accidentally while trying to escape the ambush. Monks is captured and turns out to be Oliver’s illegitimate half-brother; his pursuit of Oliver has been an attempt to steal the younger child’s inheritance. In two of the book’s more staggering coincidences, Rose turns out to be Oliver’s aunt, and Mr. Brownlow realizes that Monks and Oliver are both the sons of his old school friend Edward Leeford. Dickens’s unlikely plot (and I’ve left out three quarters of it) is meant to demonstrate that children who survive in London do so by pure chance, because benevolent individuals happen to take pity on them. Oliver Twist was originally subtitled The Parish Boy’s Progress in a satirical play on Bunyan’s title. Christian is a grown man who can pursue his own destiny, but Oliver Twist is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers.

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

Jane Eyre

(1847)

Best edition: Available from Wordsworth Classics, Dover Thrift Editions, Everyman’s Library, and as an Audible audiobook (you have your choice of several readers, but remember to opt for an unabridged single-performer reading rather than an abridged or “full cast performance”).

Jane Eyre, an orphan raised by an aunt who dislikes her and cousins who torment her, escapes first to school, then to a position as a governess at the estate of Thornfield. Her employer, the dashing but manipulative Mr. Rochester, persuades Jane to marry him; she agrees, but on her wedding day discovers that the strange maniacal laughter and weird happenings in the Rochester household are caused by Mr. Rochester’s wife Bertha, who went insane shortly after their marriage and is confined to the attic. Rochester, prevented from committing bigamy, tries to convince Jane to live with him; but she flees away over the moors and stumbles onto the cottage of distant relations, the Rivers family. She stays with the two sisters, Diana and Mary, and is courted by their brother, the reserved and ascetic St. John Rivers. But when St. John proposes, telling Jane that God has called her to be both his wife and his assistant on his missionary voyages, Jane declines. Fortunately, she inherits a small sum of money from a distant uncle, which gives her a certain amount of independence. Pondering her next move, Jane has a sudden and vivid vision of Mr. Rochester, calling to her. She returns to Thornfield only to find it blackened and ruined. Rochester’s mad wife burned the house, herself inside it; Rochester is now free to remarry, but has been blinded and scarred in the fire. Jane marries him anyway (“Reader,” she announces in one of the novel’s most famous lines, “I married him”), takes care of him, and, as the novel closes, bears him a son. Rochester is one of literature’s great rascals: sexy, charming, rich, and disreputable. In Jane, Charlotte Brontë creates the perfect woman for him; she refuses to marry him until she, not he, can be the dominant partner.

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

The Scarlet Letter

(1850)

Best edition: Published by Dover Thrift Editions, Penguin Classics, and Vintage Classics.

Hester Prynne becomes pregnant well after her husband is lost at sea. Her Puritan community threatens to execute her for adultery, but when the village minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, intervenes on her behalf, the village elders allow her to live—as long as she wears a scarlet cloth A sewn onto the front of her dress. Hester gives birth to her daughter Pearl and lives quietly until a stranger appears in town. This weather-beaten man has spent years living with the Indians; he calls himself Roger Chillingworth, but Hester recognizes him as her missing husband. Humiliated by Hester’s pregnancy, Chillingworth refuses to reveal his real identity to the town. Instead he scrapes up a friendship with Arthur Dimmesdale, whom he suspects (quite rightly) of being Pearl’s father. Under the guise of manly comradeship, he subjects Dimmesdale to mental torture until the minister climbs up onto the scaffold, confesses his sin to the whole town, rips open his shirt to reveal a bizarre stigmata (an A which has formed itself on the flesh of his chest), and then dies. Chillingworth, deprived of the mouse in his cat-and-mouse game, dies too. Hester moves away with Pearl, but unexpectedly reappears some years later, still wearing the scarlet A on her gown, and goes on living quietly in Massachusetts until her death. Pearl, who is born outside of society’s moral constraints, manages to escape all social pressures and live happily ever after; but she only achieves this freedom by leaving the Anglo-American world altogether to marry some mysterious nobleman. (No one ever sees him, but letters with a coat of arms that is “unknown to English heraldry” arrive for Hester with regularity.)

HERMAN MELVILLE

Moby-Dick

(1851)

Best edition: The Penguin Classics paperback has a large, readable font, and a durable binding (important in such a thick book). The Wordsworth Classics edition is also high quality. The Norton Critical Edition, edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, has plenty of enlightening footnotes about whaling, but it’s easy to get lost in the biographical details about Melville.

A schoolmaster (whose true identity is never revealed, although he asks us to call him “Ishmael”) decides, restlessly, to change his life. He signs onto the whaling ship Pequod along with the harpooner Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal from the South Seas. The Pequod is captained by Ahab, a maniacal whaler with a scar that runs the whole length of his body and a wooden leg. Ahab is determined to find and kill the huge white whale Moby-Dick. When the whale is finally spotted, boats are lowered from the ship to chase it down; Ahab is in the lead boat, but Moby-Dick charges his boat and destroys it. Ahab is rescued, and once again the crew pursues the white whale. On the third day of the chase, the whale rams the ship itself and splinters it; the rope from Ahab’s harpoon coils around his neck and drags him down into the water; and the crew all die except for Ishmael, who is rescued by a passing ship.

This may sound fairly straightforward, but the novel is one long exercise in symbolism. What is it really about? The human impulse to “create and destroy gods and heroes” (Eric Mottram); God’s “inscrutable silence” in the face of man’s pursuit of spiritual truth (James Wood); language, which has “so many meanings offered that we end up with meaninglessness” (Wood again); man’s quest for knowledge, which brings “misery as well as wonder” (James McIntosh); the rejection of cultural authority and the subversion of accepted cultural truths (Carolyn Porter); heterosexual anxiety and homosexual identity (too many critics to cite). It’s also about obsession; the fruitless quest for a truth that is often sighted but never found; the essential isolation and loneliness of the human self, even when surrounded by company; the conflict of natural, savage, uncomplicated man (Queequeg) and educated, confused, uncertain man (Ishmael); and (oh, yes) what it’s really like to chase, harpoon, and cut up a whale.

HARRIET BEECHER STOWE

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

(1851)

Best edition: The Modern Library Classics paperback, which has beautiful large print and plenty of white space. Usable editions with smaller print are published by Signet Classics (200th Anniversary Edition) and Dover Thrift Editions.

Uncle Tom is a slave on Arthur Shelby’s Kentucky plantation. Shelby is a conscientious master, but he is still a slaveowner, and Tom is still an asset. So when Shelby gets into debt, he sells Tom “down the river” to the slave markets in the Deep South, dreaded by slaves because of the greater cruelty, the hot, humid living conditions, and the grueling field labor. Selling Tom, who has been with the family for years, is bad, but Shelby also sells the five-year-old Harry away from his mother, Eliza. When his indignant wife protests, Shelby insists that his debts leave him no choice. But Mrs. Shelby, who is a woman and therefore possessed of greater moral sensitivity than any man, argues with her husband. Eliza overhears, snatches her child, and runs away. She tries to convince Uncle Tom to come with her, but he stays behind out of loyalty, knowing that Shelby needs the money from his sale. For this misguided identification with the aims of white people Tom eventually pays with his life. He travels down South, but on the way saves the life of Little Eva St. Clare, an impossibly good, golden-haired, consumptive child. Little Eva convinces her father to buy him, and on her deathbed pleads with Mr. St. Clare to set Tom free. St. Clare agrees, but before he can keep his promise he is accidentally killed; his wife sells Tom to pay her debts, and Tom is beaten to death by his new master, the drunk and vicious Simon Legree.

Eliza reaches Ohio after a dangerous passage across a river jammed with floating ice cakes. She finds refuge at the home of a proslavery senator who, moved by her plight, changes his mind and sends her to a Quaker community, which in turn helps her escape to Canada. Meanwhile, Arthur Shelby, haunted by his decision to sell Harry and Tom, decides to look for his slaves. When he discovers the circumstances of Tom’s death, he meets two other slaves who are running away from Simon Legree’s brutal treatment; one of them, Cassy, turns out to be Eliza’s mother. Shelby goes back to Kentucky and frees all his remaining slaves; Cassy and her companions go to Canada and find Eliza there; and all of the fugitives decide to relocate to Liberia, the new colony for ex-slaves. Like Dickens, Stowe wants her readers to feel the emotions of the wretched. But while Dickens may find hope in benevolent individuals, Stowe sees them as ultimately helpless in the face of an unjust system. She wants a complete social reformation, and she borrows highly evocative themes (children in peril, bereaved mothers, saintly females) from contemporary “women’s fiction” in an attempt to enlist her audience’s emotions (and thus their wills) in this project.

GUSTAVE FLAUBERT

Madame Bovary

(1857)

Best translation: Adam Thorpe’s 2011 translation, published by Vintage Books, beautifully echoes the rhythms of the original, while also deftly avoiding post-1857 English vocabulary and expression.

Gustave Flaubert, the “father of realism,” kills his heroine off because she tries to live in a romance novel. Emma Roualt marries the village doctor, Charles Bovary, because she likes the idea of being the doctor’s wife. But the reality is so boring that she becomes ill. Her husband gives up his rural practice and moves her to the town of Rouen, where she has a daughter. But motherhood doesn’t fulfill her yearning for romance; when the baby drools on her (certainly one of the great realities of life), Emma recoils in horror. Instead she yearns for the law clerk Léon—until he leaves town—and incurs the wrath of her mother-in-law, who complains that Emma is too busy reading novels: “books, bad books, works that are against religion and where they make fun of priests.” Longing for romance, tired of her dull husband with his dirty fingernails and peasant ways, Emma is ripe for the attentions of the town bachelor Rodolphe Boulanger, who has “frequented women a great deal.” Boulanger has an affair with Emma, promises to carry her off, and then ignores their appointed meeting (“I cannot . . . have a child on my hands!” he thinks to himself. “The fuss, the expense!”). Emma, disappointed, begins an affair with Léon, who has just returned to town; she goes deep into debt, spending her husband’s money without telling him until the sheriff comes to confiscate their property. Neither Léon nor Rodolphe will help her, so she poisons herself. Even here, romance and reality war: “How pretty she still is,” an attendant sighs over her beautifully dressed corpse, until a “torrent of black fluids” pours out of Emma’s mouth “like a vomiting” and stains her flounces. Charles Bovary dies of grief, leaving their daughter an orphan who has to work in a cotton mill—surely a guarantee that she won’t share her mother’s failings, which required a regular source of money for their indulgence.

FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY

Crime and Punishment

(1866)

Best translations: The Vintage Classics paperback, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The classic translation by Constance Garnett, available in a Dover Thrift edition, is more dated than the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, but still well respected.

Raskolnikov commits a murder that even he doesn’t understand. His family is poor, and his sister Dunya needs a dowry, so Raskolnikov murders an elderly pawnbroker and her sister for the jewelry in their room—even though the jewelry is poor stuff, hardly enough to make them wealthy. Raskolnikov slowly comes to the attention of the police inspector Porfiry Petrovich. When he realizes that he’s under suspicion, Raskolnikov briefly considers turning himself in, but he abandons this plan when he becomes interested in the prostitute Sonya, the devout daughter of a dead clerk and a consumptive mother.

Meanwhile, Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya has managed to become involved with three men at once. She breaks off her engagement with the petty bureaucrat Luzhin and becomes involved with Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin instead; Luzhin, bitter over his rejection, plants money on Sonya and then accuses her of stealing it. (Fortunately, a neighbor sees him and exonerates her.) Dunya has also attracted the attention of a former student of hers, the sinister Svidrigailov, who follows her to St. Petersburg. When Raskolnikov finally confesses the murders to Sonya, he is overheard by Svidrigailov, who then lures Dunya to his room and locks her in. He promises to help save Raskolnikov if she will marry him, but she refuses; finally, Svidrigailov releases her and kills himself in despair. All of this twisted love stands in contrast to the love offered to Raskolnikov by Sonya, Dunya, and his mother. When they all exhort him to clear his conscience, Raskolnikov finally turns himself in and is sentenced to eight years in Siberia. Dunya and Razumikhin marry; Sonya follows Raskolnikov to Siberia, where she lives near the prison camp and helps care for its inmates. Imprisoned in Siberia, Raskolnikov suffers from wounded pride: “Oh, if only I were alone and no one loved me, and I myself had never loved anyone!” he thinks to himself. “None of this would be!” But under his pillow he keeps a copy of the Gospels that Sonya has given him. When he takes them out, the story of his crime ends, and a new story begins—but Dostoyevsky makes no attempt to tell it. “Here begins a new account,” he writes, “the account of a man’s gradual renewal . . . his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. It might make the subject of a new story—but our present story is ended.” Dostoyevsky’s careful account of Raskolnikov’s growing uneasiness over his crime is a classic description of the stages of guilt; it strikes a contemporary note even today, a century and a half later.

LEO TOLSTOY

Anna Karenina

(1877)

Best translation: The 1901 translation by Constance Garnett, revised by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova in 2000 (Modern Library Classics), remains the most lyrical English version; more recent translations, while sometimes more faithful to Tolstoy’s idioms, have not done the novel justice.

Stepan Arkadyevich is in trouble—he’s been caught cheating on his wife, Dolly. Fortunately, Stepan’s sister Anna is coming to town. She negotiates a truce between her brother and his wife and meets Count Vronsky, who has been paying halfhearted attention to Dolly’s younger sister Kitty. When Vronsky sees Anna he falls in love with her; Anna, despite her husband and eight-year-old son, carries on an increasingly obvious liaison with Vronsky until she becomes pregnant with Vronksy’s child and runs away with him. Meanwhile, Kitty pines for Vronsky but is slowly comforted by another suitor, the solid and worthwhile Levin. They marry and work together to run Levin’s estate.

But Anna and Vronsky tear at each other. Anna is cut off from her son by her husband’s decree; she is nagged by grief, guilt, and “an inner irritation, grounded in her mind on the conviction that his love had diminished.” For his part, Vronsky begins to “regret that he had put himself for her sake in a difficult position.” Their liaison degenerates; they quarrel; Anna rushes to the railway station, intending to run away. As she looks at the tracks, she thinks, “There . . . and I shall punish him and escape from everyone and from myself.” She throws herself under the train. Vronksy, devastated, goes into the army.

Levin and Kitty aren’t blissful either; Levin goes through a crisis of faith that almost drives him to suicide. But the two are held together by more than romantic love—they have the formal structure of family that Anna and Vronsky lacked. Levin’s responsibilities to his family and estate force him to endure. And as he continues, doggedly, “laying down his own individual and definite pattern in life,” he is given the gift of faith. Spiritual strength fills the empty structures of his existence. At the book’s end, he reflects: “I shall go on in the same way. . . . [B]ut my life now . . . is no longer meaningless, as it was before, but it has an unquestionable meaning of the goodness which I have the power to put into it.” Tolstoy’s novel ends with a deft mixture of hope and realism; Levin’s new strength doesn’t depend on circumstances, but on his decision to believe in the spiritual dimensions of his everyday life.

THOMAS HARDY

The Return of the Native

(1878)

Best editions: Available from Penguin Classics, Modern Library Classics, and Signet Classics. Alan Rickman narrates the unabridged audiobook from Audible.

The Return of the Native begins, not with a hero or heroine, but with an entire chapter about the landscape: Egdon Heath, a natural force in its own right, a “sombre stretch of rounds and hollows . . . singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” Eustacia Vye lives on Egdon Heath. She is a forceful girl, with “instincts toward social nonconformity” and plans for life that show “the comprehensive strategy of a general” rather than “the small arts called womanish.” She longs to escape Egdon Heath, and when Clym Yeobright, hometown boy made good, returns to the small village, she sees him as her deliverer. They marry—but she’s infuriated by his decision to stay in Egdon Heath and become a schoolmaster. And things get worse. Clym reads too much and ruins his eyesight, and philosophically becomes a woodcutter. Trapped in this peasantlike existence, at the mercy of forces beyond her control, Eustacia begins an affair with her old suitor Damon Wildeve. When Clym’s mother hears of the affair, she visits the Yeobright house to intervene. But Eustacia is entertaining Wildeve (in Clym’s absence) and doesn’t answer her mother-in-law’s knock. Clym’s mother goes away across the heath—where she stops to rest and is promptly bitten by a snake (Eustacia isn’t the only character at the mercy of hostile natural forces). Clym, returning from his woodcutting, stumbles across his dying mother. He learns from villagers that she has been seen coming away from his home, demands an explanation from his wife, and discovers her affair. Eustacia runs away to elope with Wildeve, but on her way to meet him in the middle of the night, she falls (or jumps) into the nearby millpond and drowns. Damon plunges in after her and is drowned as well. Like water, the forces of nature and society bubble, pool, and flow all around the characters in The Return of the Native, ultimately submerging them in their fruitless attempts to escape. Hardy is the greatest “landscape writer” in the English language; his moors, fields, and hills are real enough to touch and taste; his dark woods and deep pools bristle with menace.

HENRY JAMES

The Portrait of a Lady

(1881)

Best editions: Available from Penguin Classics, Signet Classics, and Oxford World’s Classics, as well as in a no-frills Dover Thrift Edition.

Isabel Archer is an American girl with a very American suitor—Caspar Goodwood, a tall, brown businessman with a resolute jaw. But Isabel’s aunt, who has lived with her husband and son on an English country estate for years, decides to rescue Isabel from uncouth America and show her Europe. In England, Isabel is courted by the noble Lord Warbuton and is half inclined to fall in love with her cousin Ralph. Meanwhile her American friend Henrietta Stackpole, an independent and persistent reporter for an American publication, arrives in England. Troubled by the appeal of old (and in her eyes, decadent) Europe for Isabel, Henrietta invites Goodwood to visit—but Isabel, determined to make her own way, orders Goodwood to go away.

Fortunately Isabel doesn’t have to stretch her self-reliance too far, since her uncle dies and, at Ralph’s request, leaves Isabel half of his estate. With money in her pocket, Isabel makes the acquaintance of a sophisticated widow, Madame Merle, and goes traveling. Madame Merle introduces her to Gilbert Osmond, an oddly untrustworthy American with a fifteen-year-old daughter, Pansy. Isabelle agrees to marry Osmond, but Ralph objects that Isabel is giving up her liberty: “You were meant for something better than to keep guard over the sensibilities of a sterile dilettante!” he cries. Isabel refuses to listen. But three years later, she has been diminished by her marriage: She has less wit, less curiosity, less brilliance. When she discovers that Madame Merle is actually Pansy’s mother and has been in contact with Osmond, her lover, all along, she is sickened by her husband’s deception. She announces that she will travel to England (against Osmond’s will) to see the dying Ralph. After her cousin’s death she meets Caspar Goodwood again; the American begs her to leave Osmond and come back to America with him. She refuses, but the novel ends ambiguously, with Goodwood finding out from Henrietta Stackpole that her friend has gone back to Rome: “Look here,” Henrietta says, “just you wait.” Does Isabel finally return to him? We don’t know, but in her efforts to be free she has consistently wound herself into chains; why would marriage to Goodwood bring her any greater liberty?

MARK TWAIN

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

(1884)

Best editions: Available from multiple publishers (Dover Thrift Editions, Penguin Classics, Bantam Classics, Signet Classics), and also as a public domain ebook. Elijah Wood’s unabridged audio recording for Audible captures Huckleberry Finn’s voice beautifully. Be careful not to pick up a “young reader” or expurgated edition.

After he discovers six thousand dollars in a cave, Huckleberry Finn is suddenly in demand. Tom Sawyer wants him to join a robber’s band, the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson plan to civilize him, and his drunkard father kidnaps him and hauls him off to a cabin in the woods. Huck appreciates the freedom to smoke, cuss, and live in dirt, but doesn’t enjoy being beaten daily, so he fakes his own gory murder and runs off. In the woods, he meets Miss Watson’s slave Jim, who has also run off to avoid being sold. Huck and Jim set off on the Mississippi, headed for freedom. Along the way they explore a wrecked riverboat (Huck pretends to know the owner); meet up with a crowd of boastful raftsmen (Huck pretends to be the son of a riverman); take part in a bitter family feud (Huck pretends to be an orphan); and finally join up with two con men who claim to be the exiled King of France and the Duke of Bridgewater.

Huck tags along while the Duke and the King pretend, in turn, to be evangelists, actors, circus performers, and the long-lost heirs of a rich tanner. Meanwhile Jim stays on the raft, fearful of capture. When the Duke and the King—broke and exposed as frauds—sell Jim to a local farmer for a few extra dollars, Huck plots to free him. He pretends to be Tom Sawyer; Tom Sawyer, showing up to help, pretends to be Huck Finn; Jim, who could perfectly well get away on his own, pretends to be in a dungeon so that the two boys can mount an elaborate rescue. All three are caught, but Tom Sawyer shouts out that Jim has been free all the time. Miss Watson died two months before and set him free in her will, but Tom wanted to stage his false rescue for “the adventure of it.”

“I reckon I got to light out for the Territory . . . ,” Huck complains at the book’s end, “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Huck’s flight to freedom—the quintessential American quest—forces him to change identities again and again, never settling; as David F. Burg writes, Huck understands “that to keep moving is as near as one can ever come to freedom.”13

STEPHEN CRANE

The Red Badge of Courage

(1895)

Best editions: Now in the public domain, this very short novel is available as a free ebook online, as well as in paperback from Dover Thrift Editions, Puffin Classics, and (in a collection with four other stories) Signet Classics. Multiple single-reader audio versions have been produced by Audible.

Henry Fleming, a farm boy fighting in the Civil War, worries over his ability to be brave. When his first battle starts, he finds himself in the middle of a confused and chaotic mass of soldiers, all shooting wildly; he starts shooting too, pleased and relieved to find himself already fighting. (Crane’s battle scenes are fascinating for their extreme realism and limited point of view; he is the nineteenth-century equivalent of the handheld video camera, offering a nonprofessional, man-in-the-street view of events.) The soldiers around Henry retreat. Henry follows their example as he did before—but this time his crowd-following leads him into cowardly flight. Guilty and ashamed, Henry rejoins his regiment, trailing woefully along behind the honorably wounded: “He felt that he was regarding a procession of chosen beings. . . . He could never be like them.” He imagines that the other soldiers are jeering at him as he passes. Suddenly the column of wounded is overwhelmed by a wave of men that pours past them in full retreat. Henry grabs a passing soldier to ask him what has happened, but the panic-stricken man clubs him with his rifle and runs away. Now wounded, Henry finally makes his way back to camp and tells them that he was injured in the battle. (“Ah,” his corporal tells him, examining his head, “yeh’ve been grazed by a ball. It’s raised a queer lump jest as if some feller had lammed yeh on th’ head with a club.”) But soon the regiment is once more engulfed in battle. Henry hides behind a tree and keeps on shooting blindly ahead of him. When the smoke clears, he discovers (to his surprise) that he’s been at the forefront of the fighting: He’s a hero, no longer a coward. Stephen Crane called The Red Badge of Courage a portrayal of fear, but fear and bravery have little relationship to Henry’s reputation; his heroism is purely chance.

JOSEPH CONRAD

Heart of Darkness

(1902)

Best editions: Republished by Modern Library Classics, Everyman’s Library, and Oxford World’s Classics. Kenneth Branagh narrates the unabridged Audible audiobook.

Five old friends have gathered on a yacht in the Thames. One of them—Marlow, a seaman and wanderer—tells the story of his journey into the Congo. Hired by a trading company to check up on their ivory-production center, Marlow makes his slow and difficult way deep into Africa. As he travels, he hears again and again of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, another employee of the trading company. Mr. Kurtz sends out magnificent shipments of ivory and also takes good care of his native workers, enriching the company and educating Africans at the same time. But as Marlow gets closer and closer to the heart of Kurtz’s operation, he finds run-down ports, broken equipment, and hostile Africans. When he finally finds Kurtz, the man is dying; he’s become more savage than the natives and has ruined an entire section of the Congo in his attempts to ship out more ivory. Before Marlow can bring him back to England, Kurtz dies, muttering, “The horror! The horror!” Like Bunyan’s Christian, Marlow has made a pilgrimage. His journey into Africa has been a journey into the innermost recesses of the human soul, but instead of a Celestial City he has found only confusion, illusion, lack of clarity, lack of meaning, lies, and death. Back in civilization, Marlow meets Kurtz’s fiancée, who asks about Kurtz’s last words; Marlow lies, telling her that Kurtz died with her name on his lips. Kurtz’s last words reveal the only truth he has discovered about human existence—but it’s a truth no one can face. Nor is the darkness only in Africa. As Marlow finishes his story, the men on the yacht look up and see “a black bank of clouds . . . an overcast sky . . . the heart of an immense darkness” hovering over the English landscape.

EDITH WHARTON

The House of Mirth

(1905)

Best editions: Available from Signet Classics, Dover Thrift Editions, and Penguin Classics. Avoid the multiple critical editions, which provide you with far too much interpretation. The unabridged audio version by Anna Fields is my favorite (Audible), although I suggest that you skip over the extended introductory essay.

The New York socialite Lily Bart is twenty-nine and (horror!) still unmarried; with no money of her own, she depends on grudging handouts from her aunt and taps her friends for the luxuries that satisfy her sense of beauty. Afraid that her days as perpetual houseguest will end when she’s no longer young and lovely, Lily tries, reluctantly, to snare a rich husband. Her options are limited: Simon Rosedale, the Jewish financier whose cash is making a place for him in high society, has already asked her to marry him, but she cannot bear to sink so low (Wharton’s easy anti-Semitism is symptomatic of her times). Lawrence Selden, an attractive and sympathetic lawyer, is unfortunately too poor for her tastes. Her best choice is Percy Gryce, a heavy, colorless millionaire who collects Americana and always obeys his mother. But Lily despises her own marital ambitions, and her halfhearted schemes fall through, ruining her reputation in the process. No longer an “unsoiled beauty,” Lily descends with startling rapidity through the strata of Gilded Age society; finally, she tries wage labor as a milliner, but can’t keep up the ten-hour workdays. Fired from her job, reduced to living in a cheap boardinghouse while her savings dwindle away, and plagued by insomnia, Lily takes a double dose of chloral to help her sleep and never wakes up. Perhaps there are things that money can’t buy, but in Wharton’s America, you can’t live without it.

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

The Great Gatsby

(1925)

Best edition: The Scribner Classics paperback reprint. Jake Gyllenhaal’s unabridged audio reading for Audible is well done.

Nick Carraway moves away from his innocent midwestern hometown and rents a house on Long Island Sound. His beautiful cousin Daisy lives across the water; the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby lives in a sparkling, brand-new mansion right beside him. Gatsby has loved Daisy since his college days. His desire is draped with romantic phrases, but what he really adores is Daisy’s embodiment of wealth; she gleams “like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.” When Daisy’s husband Tom begins an affair with Myrtle Wilson, his mechanic’s wife, Jay Gatsby convinces Nick to play matchmaker between himself and Daisy. Nick himself falls into a passionless relationship with socialite Jordan Baker. As all three affairs run in parallel, tensions tighten between the five central characters (the mechanic’s wife apparently doesn’t count). During a disastrous dinner at the Plaza, Tom sneers at Gatsby and accuses him of adultery. Daisy and Jay Gatsby leave together and drive back to the Sound in Gatsby’s car—and accidentally run over Myrtle, who rushes into their way. Daisy was driving, but Jay Gatsby takes the blame. Myrtle’s husband discovers Gatsby’s identity, breaks into Gatsby’s mansion, and shoots both Gatsby and himself.

Nick organizes the funeral service, but no one comes. Daisy and Tom drift away, Jordan Baker marries someone else. And finally Nick moves back to his midwestern town, abandoning New York and its deceptive beauty for the dark, solid worth of middle America.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Mrs. Dalloway

(1925)

Best edition: The Harvest Book paperback. The unabridged audiobook read by Annette Bening is available from Audible.

Clarissa Dalloway steps out of her door in the morning to buy flowers for her party that same evening—and instantly we are plunged into the disjointed, image-bright stream of her thought. Mrs. Dalloway follows the thoughts of three main characters over the course of a single day in 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, a London society woman in her early fifties, remembers the long-ago days when she was courted by Peter Walsh, before she rejected him. Peter Walsh, now in love with a much younger woman, also muses about those days and recollects his first introduction to Clarissa’s husband. Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked soldier on the edge of complete disintegration, replays the events of the war and sees his friends dying in flames. The physical lives of the three only intersect twice; once, when Peter Walsh strolls past Septimus and his weeping wife in the park; and again at the end of the day, when Septimus’s physician comes to Clarissa’s party and remarks, casually, that his young patient committed suicide just hours before. But the story actually takes place not in the physical world, but in a different kind of universe: a mental reality, where the laws that govern time and space are different, where characters who never meet in person intersect, mysteriously, in their thoughts, and where Septimus and Clarissa, unacquainted with each other, are mirror images. Septimus is unable to cope with disrupted, shattered, post–World War I England; Clarissa Dalloway survives, but only because she refuses to think deeply (“She knew nothing,” Woolf writes, “no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed”).

FRANZ KAFKA

The Trial

(1925)

Best translation: Breon Mitchell’s translation, published by Schocken Books, is clear and captures Kafka’s use of legal gibberish well.

“Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K.,” The Trial begins, “for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.” It’s the morning of his thirtieth birthday, and at first Josef thinks that the arrest is a joke. But an Inspector appears and assures him that it is no joke; he is undoubtedly guilty, but until his trial he can go about his business. Josef K. keeps attempting to refute the accusation, but since he never finds out what it is, all his attempts end in confusion. He defends himself in front of spectators, only to discover that they are all in fact officers of the court; he discovers that the warders who first arrested him are being flogged for their conduct and tries to intervene; he tries to engage a lawyer, finds the lawyer on a sickbed, is tempted away from the sickbed by the lawyer’s nurse (who seduces him), and then returns to find that the Chief Clerk of the Court has arrived in his absence. These dreamlike, irrational attempts to defend himself continue for a full year. On the morning of his thirty-first birthday, two more warders show up and order Josef K. to go with them. He realizes that they mean to execute him—but although he has the opportunity to escape, he allows himself to be killed. Kafka’s opening words suggest that Josef K. lives in a rational world; “must have” implies some sort of cause and effect, “false accusation” assumes some existing standard of justice. But this reasonable order is an illusion. None of the court proceedings make sense; eventually the words that stand for those proceedings (accusation, trial, crime, guilt, even Josef K.’s name itself) become emptied of meaning as well. At the end, K.’s executioners lead him to his trial in silence. The rational order of the universe, and the words that express it, have both been shown to be phantasms.

RICHARD WRIGHT

Native Son

(1940)

Best edition: The Harper Perennial paperback.

Bigger Thomas lives in a rat-infested Chicago apartment controlled by wealthy Mr. Dalton; the Daltons charge their black tenants enormous rents and then give some of the money to black schools, which makes them feel enlightened. When Bigger gets a job as chauffeur on the Dalton estate, Mary Dalton—the daughter of the house—and her socialist boyfriend Jan treat Bigger as a peer. Bigger finds this oddly infuriating. (“Why didn’t they leave him alone?” he thinks, when Jan shakes his hand. “He was very conscious of his black skin and there was in him a prodding conviction that Jan and men like him . . . made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him.”) In a further egalitarian gesture, Jan and Mary invite Bigger to drink with them. All three get drunk. Bigger takes the staggering Mary home, back to her room. He kisses her, and then, hearing her mother in the hallway outside, puts a pillow over her face to keep her quiet. Afterward he’s startled to find that Mary is dead. Panicked, Bigger stuffs her body into the furnace and then convinces his girlfriend Bessie to help him write a false ransom letter implicating Jan. Bessie starts to lose her nerve, though, and Bigger finally murders her in her sleep with a brick. Bessie’s murder goes unnoticed. But the police decide that Bigger has murdered Mary Dalton and mount a manhunt for him, raiding black homes all along the South Side. Arrested and put on trial, Bigger becomes an icon for all that whites fear in blacks: strength, sexuality, and vengefulness for past mistreatment.

Jan, uneasily aware that somehow he bears responsibility for Bigger’s plight, hires the lawyer Max to defend his girlfriend’s murderer. (“I was . . . grieving for Mary,” he tells Bigger, “and then I thought of all the black men who’ve been killed, the black men who had to grieve when their people were snatched from them in slavery.”) Max admits Bigger’s guilt, but argues that Bigger’s life had been “stunted and distorted” by white mistreatment. Despite Max’s plea for life imprisonment due to these extenuating circumstances, Bigger is sentenced to death. Wright’s novel is a groundbreaking exercise in naturalism written from the black perspective; white Americans may struggle against natural forces, but black Americans were the physical tools of this struggle.

ALBERT CAMUS

The Stranger

(1942)

Best translation: Matthew Ward’s translation, published by Vintage Books, captures the intentional stylistic differences Camus uses; be sure to read the translator’s preface.

Like Native SonThe Stranger is about a murder that, insignificant in itself, demonstrates some truth about human existence. The murder of Mary Dalton shows the hopeless distortion of black-white relations in America; the murder of the Arab in The Stranger demonstrates that the events of life have no ultimate meaning. The actions of Meursault, the novel’s central character, are presented in a flat, unemphasized sequence, so that no action has more importance than any other. Meursault’s mother dies, so he goes to her funeral because everyone seems to expect him to. The day after the funeral, he meets Marie by chance, and the two sleep together. Meursault reads an old newspaper, sees spectators returning from a football game, decides to eat his supper, and tells Marie he’ll marry her if she thinks it would give her pleasure: “It had no importance really,” he thinks. Meursault’s upstairs neighbor Raymond asks Meursault to help him humiliate his girlfriend. Meursault agrees (“I’d no reason not to satisfy him”), but this infuriates the girl’s brother, who assaults Raymond with the help of an Arab friend. Walking on the beach later, Meursault sees the friend sleeping in the shade of a rock, and fires five shots into the man’s body for no particular reason. He is arrested at once and put on trial. Refusing to show any emotion, he is judged to be a dangerous and unfeeling criminal and sentenced to death. But Meursault looks forward to execution, since death is the one certainty of life; he feels that he is “on the brink of freedom . . . I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”

In Camus’s philosophy of “the absurd,” there is no significance to life; all humans are condemned to death, facing the inevitable end. The only possible response is to admit that death will come and then to live actively in the present, making choices without regret. Camus writes in “The Absurd Man” that anyone who comes to terms with this truth is “imbued with the absurd.” Actions have no meaning, but they do have consequences, and “those consequences must be considered calmly . . . There may be responsible persons, but there are no guilty ones.”14 Meursault’s decision to kill the Arab is acceptable because he is willing to suffer the consequences of his choice; in his willingness to act, and in his calm acceptance of death, he is the model “absurd man.”

GEORGE ORWELL

1984

(1949)

Best edition: The Signet Classic edition. Simon Prebble narrates the unabridged audio version from Audible.

Orwell’s 1984 gave us the phrases “Big Brother” and “thought police,” not to mention a whole new set of fears about the invasion of our private lives. Winston Smith lives in a London apartment where a two-way television screen monitors his every movement and word. Posters of Big Brother, the leader of the Party, remind him that he is constantly under surveillance by the Thought Police. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth, which continually rewrites books and newspapers so that Big Brother will appear to have predicted all political developments ahead of time. The Ministry of Truth aims to reduce all languages to Newspeak, the official language, with a vocabulary that gets smaller every year: “In the end,” an official explains, “we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Winston rebels against the Party by starting a diary. Soon his rebellion takes more active forms: He begins an affair with his coworker Julia, and he accepts an invitation from his superior, O’Brien, to join a secret brotherhood that fights against the Party. But O’Brien turns out to be a Party spy, and as soon as Winston and Julia join the brotherhood they are arrested. O’Brien takes charge of Winston’s rehabilitation, convincing him that Winston must believe only what the Party dictates: “Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth,” O’Brien lectures. “It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.” Eventually Winston begins to break; he sits in his cell and writes “Freedom is Slavery. Two and Two make Five.” But O’Brien wants him to love Big Brother, not simply to obey. The final step in Winston’s forcible conversion takes place when O’Brien threatens to strap his head into a cage filled with starving rats, so that the rats can eat his face. At this, Winston screams, “Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia!” His love for Julia has been broken; now he can love the Party. Orwell’s hell on earth didn’t come about in 1984. But in his chilling, detailed vision of a world where both mind and will can be manipulated by large and powerful institutions, he was decades ahead of the postmodernists and their condemnation of our advertisement-driven society.

RALPH ELLISON

Invisible Man

(1952)

Best edition: The Vintage International paperback.

In Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator exists beneath a veil that reflects back to the reader’s eyes a white man’s picture of what a black man should be. He wins a white-sponsored scholarship to a southern college for Negroes by fighting other black students in a boxing ring. Because he is articulate and presentable, the college asks him to show a visiting white trustee around the campus. The trustee insists on being driven into a rural slum and then to a bar that serves black veterans. At the bar, a shell-shocked black veteran attacks the trustee. When the college president discovers this adventure, he expels the narrator and sends him North to work, with “letters of reference” that advise employers not to hire him. Eventually the young man finds work in a paint factory known for its bright white paint. He gets into a fight, leaving his paint cans unattended; they explode and knock him unconscious, landing him in a hospital where he is forced to take part in shock-treatment experiments. Finally he escapes from the hospital and collapses in the street, where he is rescued by other blacks and given a home. He becomes a spokesman for the “Brotherhood,” an organization working for oppressed blacks, and is put in charge of their Harlem agenda. But after a falling-out with the Brotherhood leadership, he realizes that they see him only as an instrument for their cause. Caught in the middle of a Brotherhood-incited riot, the narrator falls down a manhole. Two policemen cover the manhole. So the narrator takes up residence in a secret basement room, which he has lined with 1,396 bulbs that burn on stolen electrical power. He has been viewed by others as a bright black boy, as a guide into the seaminess of black life, as unthinking labor, as an experimental subject, as a useful spokesman, as a rioter, but never as himself. Everyone around him, the narrator muses, “see only . . . themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.” Under the ground, the Invisible Man is now literally invisible, as he has been metaphorically invisible all his life; yet Ellison’s brilliant novel has made him visible to the alert reader.

SAUL BELLOW

Seize the Day

(1956)

Best edition: The Penguin Classics edition.

Tommy Wilhelm, staying in a hotel because he’s separated from his wife and sons, relies on his irascible, elderly father to pay his hotel bill. Tommy’s broke and hopes to make a fortune in lard with the help of Tamkin, a doctor who claims to be an expert in the stock market—but who disappears, mysteriously, when lard falls precipitously and wipes Tommy’s investments out. The novel takes place during a single day, but Tommy spends a good part of it thinking about the past, remembering all of his attempts to remake himself into a new man. He tried to be an actor but failed. He changed his name from Wilhelm Adler to Tommy Wilhelm (“Wilhelm had always had a great longing to be Tommy. He had never, however, succeeded in feeling like Tommy”). He bragged to his friends that he was about to become a vice president at his firm but didn’t get the promotion. Too ashamed to stay and admit his failure, he quit his job but allows his father to boast about his position as vice president, even though both know that the title is a myth. Each reinvention of himself fails, including his final attempt to turn himself into an investor, since he insists on trusting the advice of Dr. Tamkin even though he half suspects him of being a fraud. At the end of the day, Wilhelm finds himself at the funeral of a stranger, where he is mistaken for the dead man’s relative: “He, alone of all the people in the chapel, was sobbing. No one knew who he was. One woman said, ‘Is that perhaps the cousin from New Orleans they were expecting? . . . It must be somebody real close to carry on so.’” As he weeps, Wilhelm finds happiness in his tears. Here at least he finds that importance in the eyes of others which he has always sought—even though it is based on a false identity.

GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

One Hundred Years of Solitude

(1967)

Best edition: The Harper Perennial Classics paperback, translated by Gregory Rabassa. John Lee narrates the unabridged Audible audio verson.

José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula are cousins; Úrsula is afraid that she’ll have a baby with a pig’s tail, so she bars her husband from her bed. When a neighbor jeers at his unconsummated marriage, José Arcadio Buendía kills him in a duel and visits Úrsula’s room in a passion of unproven manhood. Úrsula’s baby, when born, doesn’t have a pig’s tail, but the dead neighbor insists on wandering through his house at night, so that he can wash the blood off his throat in the bathroom. So José Arcadio Buendía takes his wife and children off to found the new town of Macondo.

Macondo, isolated at first, is eventually opened to the outside world by tribes of gypsies—one of whom, Melquiades, bears a mysterious manuscript written in Sanskrit. Outside trade brings both prosperity and troubles. José Arcadio Buendía’s oldest son runs off with the gypsies; his second son Aureliano becomes a colonel and fights bloody battles in a vague civil war until his mother threatens to kill him with her own hands. (“It’s the same as if you’d been born with the tail of a pig,” she snaps.) Eventually Aureliano retreats to his workshop to make little gold fishes, and his great-nephew Aureliano Segundo comes to the center of family life. Segundo marries a beautiful, pretentious, and hysterical woman but carries on an affair with the villager Petra Cotes, who makes him prosperous by wandering around his property, spreading her aura of fertility. Even magical prosperity, though, pales in the face of economic progress: a railroad opens into Macondo, and Yankee traders arrive on the train to sell bananas. This banana company introduces all sorts of trouble to Macondo: disorder, violence, assassination, and more family troubles. (“Look at the mess we’ve got ourselves into,” Segundo’s brother, Colonel Aureliano Buendía complains, “just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas.”) Led by Aureliano Segundo, the banana-company workers go on strike; infuriated, the Yankee traders call up a four-year rain that eventually beats the soggy proletariat into submission.

As Segundo’s grandson, Aureliano Babilonia, grows to adulthood, he develops two obsessions. He has an incestuous passion for his aunt and fathers a baby with a pig’s tail. And he is enthralled by the mysterious gypsy manuscript that arrived in Macondo generations before. After years of translation, he discovers that the manuscript tells the whole story of the Buendía clan, right down to himself—not “in the order of man’s conventional time, but . . . in such a way that [the events] coexisted in one instant.” Gabriel García Márquez follows the same narrative strategy, juxtaposing normal events with magical ones and casting doubt on the possibility of “realistic” fiction that accurately records some sort of “objective history” of humanity. In his family history, imagination and fact exist side by side, indistinguishable from each other.

ITALO CALVINO

If on a winter’s night a traveler

(1972)

Best edition: The Harvest edition, translated by William Weaver.

Salman Rushdie called this “the most complicated book you . . . will ever read,” but you won’t get too lost as long as you know that this novel has eleven beginnings and only one end. Calvino’s narrator speaks directly to you, the reader; you begin to read, only to discover that your novel (apparently a spy romp having to do with exchanged suitcases) has been bound wrong at the printers so that the first thirty-two pages repeat themselves again and again. You take it back to the bookstore and there meet the Other Reader, a beautiful girl who is also in search of the rest of the misbound novel. The bookseller gives you a new copy of your book—but this novel turns out to be a completely different story. And just as you become engrossed in it, you find that the rest of the pages are blank. So it goes for the rest of the tale; each story you begin leads you into another beginning. These ten opening chapters are linked by your quest to find each novel’s ending—and, finally, to discover who is responsible for the chaotic state of these books. Lingering in the background is a third question: Why is Calvino doing this? In each novel’s beginning, he mocks a fiction formula (the spy novel, the adventure, the coming-of-age tale). And in your quest between the tales to find the “real” novel, he continually (and clearly) tells you that any “reality” you might find is as much an illusion as each novel that you find. “I want you to feel,” one novel begins, “around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell . . . a space full of stories . . . where you can move in all directions, as in space.” Any “order” you might find in this book (or in life) has been imposed by the will. It has nothing to do with reality.

TONI MORRISON

Song of Solomon

(1977)

Best edition: The Vintage reprint edition. Don’t substitute the abridged audiobook version from Audible for reading the entire novel, but since Morrison herself narrates, it’s worth a supplemental listen.

Milkman Dead is born in the charity hospital of a Michigan town. His father, Macon Dead, is a rent collector, an exile: a black man living in the North whose American ancestors are in the South and whose African ancestors are entirely unknown. Macon has a sister, Pilate, who was born after their mother died in labor; Pilate, mysteriously, has no navel. As children, Pilate and Macon saw their father murdered and ran away to hide in a Pennsylvania cave. An old harmless white man was sleeping there; full of rage, Macon murdered the man and then discovered sacks of gold nuggets in the cave. Pilate refused to let Macon take the gold, and then disappeared (along with the gold) while Macon was out of the cave. She tried to work in Virginia, but was ostracized because of her missing navel. Eventually she traveled back to the cave, collected the bones she found there, and came to live in the town where her brother Macon had settled, along with her illegitimate daughter Reba, Reba’s daughter Hagar, and a mysterious green sack which (Macon thinks) has the gold nuggets in it.

Milkman has a twelve-year affair with Hagar, but he grows tired of her and instead turns for company to his friend Guitar, “the one person left whose clarity never failed him.” But Guitar has become politically active; he has joined a society called the “Seven Days,” which executes a white person whenever a black man, woman, or child is murdered. Milkman finds politics boring, but when Guitar needs money to carry out one of his revenge killings, Milkman offers to help him steal Pilate’s gold. But the green sack in Pilate’s basement holds bones, not gold. So Milkman sets out on a quest to Pennsylvania to find out what happened to the gold nuggets. He doesn’t find the gold, but he does find his roots: he meets the characters who populate Pilate’s stories about her childhood, and realizes that the nonsense songs the children sing on the streets contain the names of his grandfather and grandmother, aunts and uncles. He also realizes that Guitar is following him—and that Guitar has become his enemy. As the novel ends, Guitar shoots Milkman for the sake of the gold. Milkman’s quest from North to South goes in the opposite direction from the flight of the escaped slave; it is the quest of the freedman who must return South and face the remnants of a slave-holding culture in order to reclaim his family ties.

DON DELILLO

White Noise

(1985)

Best edition: The Penguin Classics edition.

Jack Gladney is a professor of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill; his wife, Babette, pathologically afraid of death, is taking black-market “psychopharmaceuticals” from a shady medical research firm that advertises in supermarket tabloids; their motley mass of children (produced from six separate marriages) battle various odd insecurities. Gladney, trying to find some sort of order in all this chaos, is interrupted by a chemical spill that sends a huge black toxic cloud across the landscape. The residents are all evacuated until the cloud finally disperses. Back home, Gladney sets himself to track down his wife’s pill supplier. When he finds the man and has a gun battle with him (in imitation of older heroes), nothing in particular comes of it. Gladney and Babette and their children end the book in the supermarket, shopping (again) as they have every week: Nothing has changed. White Noise is like 1984with no Big Brother; it convinces us that our lives have no real meaning. A certain order is imposed on the chaos of events by the media and by companies that want us to buy their goods. They invent for us stories that seem to make sense out of our lives, but that actually convince us that we must have their products.

A. S. BYATT

Possession

(1990)

Best edition: The Vintage International edition. Virginia Leishman narrates the unabridged audiobook from Audible.

Roland Mitchell is an academic without job offers, a browbeaten ex–graduate student who pays the rent by working for his former dissertation advisor, James Blackadder. Blackadder is Britain’s foremost authority on the prolific Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, and Roland spends his days digging through Ash’s correspondence. One day in the London Library, Roland discovers a forgotten letter from Ash to a mysterious lady love. Joined by his fellow scholar Maud Bailey, he steals the letter and sets out to discover the lady’s identity—and finds Christabel Mott, also a Victorian poet and the darling of American feminists. Maud and Roland chase Christabel and Randolph Henry through an engrossing labyrinth of letters, journal entries hinting at unrevealed mysteries, brilliant poems, critical articles, biographies, and stories, each adding another detail to the story of unlikely love. They are in turn pursued by Blackadder’s bitterest enemy, the American scholar Mortimer P. Cropper, who wants to buy up all of Ash’s letters with his limitless wealth and take them out of Britain. Along the way, Maud and Roland fall reluctantly in love with each other. And when they discover the center of the maze, they discover a startling secret—which, as Byatt relies on plot to move the last pages of her novel to the end, I won’t reveal.

CORMAC McCARTHY

The Road

(2006)

Best edition: The Vintage International edition.

An unknown catastrophe has swept over the human race, leaving the earth wrecked, ash-covered, and criss-crossed by bands of cannibalistic savages. Only a few survivors have managed to keep their humanity; two of them, an unnamed man and his son, travel along melted highways and through shattered cities, battling starvation and human predators, hoping to find something better when they reach the sea. McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel deftly combines one of the most enduring forms of world literature, the quest narrative (Don Quixote and The Pilgrim’s Progress), with the extremely American genre known as the “road narrative,” a journey through open spaces toward an undefined horizon where, possibly, better things await (Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick). Presenting itself as grimly realistic and postmodern (“He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out to the grocery cart and packed it and came back with their plates and some cornmeal cakes in a plastic bag and a plastic bottle of syrup. . .”), the novel slowly reveals a deep vein of magic. Washing his son’s hair, drying it beside the fire, the man realizes that his actions are “like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breath upon them.” Throughout, McCarthy points out the human compulsion to categorize our world in ways that we understand: good and bad, heroic and villainous, divine and demonic. But the categories continually break down; in the end, the riddle of existence is beyond our comprehension. “All things,” the novel concludes “were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

OTHER RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.

Morgan, Kenneth O., ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, updated ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Roberts, Clayton, David Roberts, and Douglas R. Bisson. History of England: Volume I: Prehistory to 1714, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2013.

Roberts, Clayton, and David Roberts. History of England: Volume II: 1688 to the Present, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson, 2013

Roberts, J. M The Penguin History of the World, 6th ed., ed. Odd Arne Westad. New York: Penguin, 2014

Tindall, George Brown. America: A Narrative History, brief 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

 

1Italo Calvino, If on a winters night a traveler, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1991), p. 3.

2This is the first line of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, translated by Constance Garnett.

3Samuel Johnson, “On Fiction,” Rambler, no. 4, March 31, 1750.

4Joan D. Hedrick, “Commerce in Souls: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the State of the Nation,” in Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront Americas Past (and Each Other), ed. Mark C. Carnes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), pp. 168–69.

5Realism is one of the major movements in English and American fiction. In his 1949 essay “Realism: An Essay in Definition” in Modern Language Quarterly (one of the first attempts to define “realism”), George J. Becker suggests that the movement involves: (1) detail derived from observation and documentation; (2) an effort to portray normal experience, not the exceptional; (3) an “objective, so far as an artist can achieve objectivity, rather than a subjective or idealistic view of human nature and experience.” For more on this topic, see two other foundational critical works on the subject: Lionel Trilling’s “Reality in America,” in The Liberal Imagination (New York: Anchor Books, 1957) and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953).

6James Bloom, Left Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p. 7.

7Dorothy L. Sayers (with Robert Eustace), The Documents in the Case (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 55.

8In contemporary genre fiction, this distinction is most clearly seen in the world of science fiction and fantasy, where science fiction is defined (in the words of Orson Scott Card) as a story with “nuts and bolts.” In fantasy, Frodo can put on the Ring of Power and turn invisible; in science fiction, he has to disappear by manipulating the quantum waves in the space-time continuum. Note that the science doesn’t have to be real; but it has to be at least compatible with present scientific knowledge, with the laws of the universe as we currently understand them.

9If you suspect allegory but need some cultural or historical details in order to find the parallels, glance through the book’s introduction; consult a Norton Anthology, which generally footnotes the most important allegorical elements of a classic work; or Google “Allegory in [title]”(you will probably get better results by using the quotation marks).

10In this case, you might invest in Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction and Thomas McCormick’s The Fiction Editor, two classic guides to how (and why) novelists manage to produce the effects that they do.

11Edward Corbett, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 341–77.

12John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 53.

13David F. Burg, “Another View of Huckleberry Finn,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 29, no. 3 (December 1974): 299–319; 319.

14Albert Camus, “The Absurd Man,” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 67.