October 16, 2021
Ddespite their archaic grammar, complicated prose and outdated portrayal, classic novels continue to make their way onto our program and our shelves. We spend a large part of our English lessons reading them for their plots and themes, our history lessons for their complementary context, and our foreign language lessons for their literal translations. Entire electives focus their year on the work of a former author; others use various writers to guide them through a semester. Throughout the time that we have been reading them, our teachers and parents have assured us that these novels are essential to our development as people.
Why should we believe them? As 21st century teenagers, it seems that books written by authors thousands of years ago would be unimportant to us. After all, we are separated from it by centuries of social, political and technological changes that have redefined the human experience. Often their perpetrators have completely different social and religious identities from ours and hold political views that today we would consider reprehensible. Knowing this full well, we spend our humanities class time carefully reading these novels word for word, considering exactly how their themes can make sense of our lives. By analyzing their most frustrating pages, one wonders if the teachers only make us read them because that is what “educated” people do: if they have no other reasoning than a vague adhesion to the tradition.
And yet, aside from their difficult and often irritating nature, classic novels can add immense value to our lives. Like all great art, they force us to develop a sense of detail, to confront new ideas and to sympathize with characters who are not like us.
Regardless of the mystique that surrounds them, the classics are exactly as they appear: texts linked by pages to convey a central message. If you remove the polysyllabic words and phrases from a page of “1984”, you will find themes and questions that make up our contemporary politics. And if you take the time to read “Frankenstein” with all of its complicated grammar intact, you will discover beautiful descriptions of the natural world, ones that simply cannot be reproduced by our familiar language.
At their best, the universal themes and intricate writing of these novels work hand in hand: they convey valuable ideas for our daily lives in unique and engaging ways. Their pages add flavor to dates and footnotes to history, life at destroyed ruins, and individual stories to larger political movements. Most importantly, they help us develop compassion for people we wouldn’t usually think twice about in a history textbook. Rather than understanding the working conditions of 19th century London through colorless government statistics, we see them firsthand through the eyes of young orphan Oliver Twist. And instead of remotely associating political authoritarianism with danger and instability, we clearly see its effects unfolding in the dystopias of “Fahrenheit 451”.
In this way, classical literature accomplishes something unique among all novels: the ability to convey complex historical themes through characters with whom one can relate to. Their authors have lived through the wars, discourses, and laws that make up our understanding of the past, and are able to write about them with more clarity than any contemporary research article or academic thesis. Armed with traits that span centuries, their characters guide us through these difficult waters and awaken our senses for those with whom we have the least in common.
Classic novels are not perfect. They can be clumsy, overly complicated, and riddled with archaic representations characteristic of their time. But they can also serve a unique purpose in our lives, helping us appreciate the characteristics of history and the lives that flow from it. If we sift through their pages diligently, choosing carefully which messages to keep and which to suppress, these novels help us better understand the world we live in. We must therefore read them not only according to their historical moment, but as works from which we can learn and cherish.
After all, they have survived this long for a reason.