Does classic literature deserve the hype?

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From the movie “Pride and Prejudice” (2005)

Bianca McCarty, Co-editor

Are classics truly important for modern readers?

Undoubtedly, we’ve all asked ourselves that question while trudging through a school assigned novel, maybe The Lord of the Flies, Emma, or Animal Farm. Though I love to read and consider it to be one of the most beneficial pastimes, I too have wondered, why? What makes these novels so great, and do I really gain anything from enduring them?

So, should I even bother?

The answer is a reluctant yes.

While literature is primarily written for our enjoyment, it is also meant to broaden our horizons. Only reading within one’s comfort zone leads to intellectual stagnation. A constant flow of ideas allows us to form our own unique view of the world, and then continue to question it. I’ve hated many books in my lifetime, but I can confidentially say that even my most despised reads have benefitted me in some way, whether that just be grounds to pick an argument with a self-righteous literature snob.

Classics, whether we like it or not, have shaped ideas throughout history. Literature has the power to sway public opinion, as well as change individual minds. In addition, these works capture a certain time period, allowing modern readers to better comprehend the past. Instead of just knowing the facts of history, we understand it.

Still the question remains: what makes a work a classic?

There is no one answer to this question, but all of these works have one thing in common. They have continued to persist for one reason or another. Over the course of humanity, millions upon millions of novels have been written, and very few are remembered. The subject matter of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice can no longer be considered “relevant,” yet it remains a favorite of countless readers. Austen’s most famous novel is deeply entertaining and unexpectedly hilarious, but Austen’s clever commentary on her society is what keeps Pride and Prejudice on reading lists.

Each case varies from novel to novel. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale remain due to the questions they ask about equality and the roles of minorities and women in society. Some novels are taught simply because of beautiful writing, revolutionary storytelling, their original impact, or universal themes.

Even as I say this, I still hold the opinion that some classic novels have done more harm than good. I will make one generalization, one that I will stand by until I die: The Catcher in the Rye only resonates with borderline sociopathic teenage boys. Sure, tell me that I just “don’t get it,” and maybe my bass player ex-boyfriend ruined it for me, but I assure you I’ve heard it all before. And that’s the thing about literature. I’m allowed to have my opinion. In my personal experience, only men enjoy this novel, because it is far easier for them to resonate with Holden Caulfield, while women tend to see him as a whiny, privileged, white boy.

Men have always set the standards for what is considered great art. Movies aimed towards women are dismissed as “chick flicks” while violent action movies for men are considered completely valid past times. Underhanded sexism like this even bleeds into school reading requirements, which serve as most children’s first exposure to higher literature. In the past six years of school, I have been required to read the works of just three female authors; not to mention, one of these women was S.E. Hinton, who exclusively writes from male perspectives. I have often heard the excuse that young boys want to read books about other boys because “it’s easier to relate.” This is said as if young girls don’t want the same thing. At a very early age, girls are subtly told that seeing themselves in literature is not something they should feel a right to, while boys are conditioned to believe that literature written for women by women is inherently less than.

This problem is exasperated by the fact that many of these classics are, in fact, incredibly sexist. Take, for example, Curley’s Wife from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I hope I don’t have to explain why her lack of a name is insanely misogynistic. She is given no identity outside of her husband and is portrayed as a one-dimensional seductress only meant to die at the end. 1984 by George Orwell is guilty of sexism as well. Winston, the main character, hates his co-worker, Julia, simply for being a young, attractive woman. He often lingers upon horrifying desires to rape and murder her because she will likely never be intimate with him.

Now, I wouldn’t have such a large problem with these elements of the novels if the narration ever condemned the actions/thoughts of its characters. Instead, this misogyny is just left on the table with no resolution. When young, impressionable minds repeatedly read that women are collateral damage at most, nothing good can come from it.

Taking a deeper look at the treatment of women in classic literature doesn’t make me a crazy, radical feminist. It just means that I am doing what reading is supposed to make you do: think.

By no means am I saying that the value of literature is judged solely on how “politically correct” it is, only that when taught to children the bigotry should be addressed. The cliché, “those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it,” applies to this as well. If we are ever to create a better world, we need to start with addressing the issues of the past.

Since I tire of reading books from the 60’s full of thinly veiled metaphors about communism, here are a few novels of my generation that deserve to become classics themselves: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak never fails to make me sob. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give handles race issues with the delicacy and boldness required. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky uses simple language to convey a heart-wrenching story. Last, but not least, The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness checks all of the boxes, masterful world-building, realistic characters, and deeper meanings.

To put it bluntly, I’ve hated a lot of the classics I’ve read, but I still appreciate the value they hold.