Sometimes I wander out of the fantasy aisle and resurface amongst classic literature. This post focuses on pre-1900s literature.
I read this book because I needed a palate cleanser after reading The Scarlet Letter for the third time. This book contains everything: revenge, adventure, hope, justice, regret, mercy, forgiveness, redemption, intrigue, sword-fights, politics, and romance. The abridged edition is alright, but I recommend reading the complete version. Several important subplots are left out of the abridged version and this detracts from the character development of Edmond Dantès. Completed in 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of Dumas most popular novels. A majority of the story takes place in France, Italy, and islands in the Mediterranean from 1815-1838. This time frame spans from Napoleon’s return to power after exile to the reign of Louis-Philippe of France. The historical setting plays a pivotal part in the plot. History aside, this is a story about a man’s whose life is irrevocable changed and his path of revenge. Prose wise, the writing is complex and sometimes slightly rambling. However, the narrative is phenomenal and the main characters are expertly developed. Also, I am disappointed that all the movie adaptions significantly alter the ending, Dumas ended the story in a specific manner. Changing the ending undercuts the emotional/dramatic impact. I highly recommend The Count of Monte Cristo, the unabridged version. Though if you want a lighter introduction to Dumas, try reading The Three Musketeers. Which also has never been granted a decent cinematic adaption.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Penguin Classics, 2003, 9780140449266
While this is not a novel per se, combining all the stories in one volume is fantastic. No other literary detective captures the imagination quite like Sherlock Holmes. Even today, Holmes remains a permanent fixture in modern pop culture. However, I recommend reading the original stories in addition to watching the cinematic adaptions. While the movies and TV series are enjoyable, they do not adequately capture the complexity of the stories. The original stories are complicated and feature well-developed characters. Most of the adventures are self-contained crime-of the week type stories, though Doyle does include several narrative arcs that span several entries. Of course the most famous arc involves Holmes’ showdown with Professor Moriarty. Doyle created Moriarty in order to kill off Holmes and end the series. However, the public outcry was overwhelmingly negative and Doyle ended up resurrecting Holmes. What I appreciate about the Holmes stories is that Watson and Holmes are complex and conflicted souls. They are not perfect and occasionally make tragic mistakes. This adds an element of believability and humanity to the characters, especially since Holmes could easily come across as unlikable. Doyle’s writing is old fashioned and I struggled to complete some of the entries. However, the original stories are worth the effort.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Bantam Classics, 1986, 9780553328257
After reading A Tale of Two Cities, I did not think I would ever enjoy a Dickens’ novel. A Tale of Two Cities is a great classic novel, but the narrative is bogged down with unnecessary descriptions. Dickens’ novels contain compelling and troubled characters and the narratives are well-developed. But Dickens ascribes to the notion that one hundred words beat ten. Some of the paragraphs seem endless, detailed descriptions of table settings adds nothing to a narrative. However, Great Expectations is one of my favorite Dickens’ novels because the narrative is fantastic. Expectations follows the life of a young impoverished boy named Pip. One day, Pip is recruited to become the playmate of the wealthy Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter. Pip is introduced to the opulence of the upper-classes. This awakens a longing in his heart to become a gentleman. His dream comes true but this realization sets Pip on a dangerous path. What I love about this book is its exploration of the human longing of betterment. Trying to move up the social ladder by cutting corners will always backfire, as Pip discovers to almost devastating effect. While Great Expectations is not as complicated as Dickens’ other works, I think the narrative is one of Dickens’ best explorations into the human psyche. It also helps that the book is half the length of A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend, and Bleak House.
Great Expectations, Oxford University Press, 1998, 9780192833594
While Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich are excellent stories, War and Peace is Tolstoy’s magnum opus. In High School I had to read War and Peace over the summer for a World Literature class and I hated the experience. The book is ridiculously long, the first one-fourth is ponderous and excruciatingly slow. However, I have come to appreciate Tolstoy’s prose and the philosophical nature of his work. War and Peace explores the societal and political culture of Russia up to and after Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow. There are several protagonists, but the main narrative follows the life of Natalya “Natasha” Ilyinichna Rostova. She is an idealistic and free-spirited younger daughter of a lower rung aristocratic family. Over the course of the novel, she becomes romantically entangled with two extremely different men. Tolstoy explores societal tension and politics via these relationships. His commentary about a disintegrating aristocracy and corrupt political structure is applicable to most Western cultures. It becomes apparent that Tolstoy experienced a change in philosophical outlook by the book’s conclusion. The philosophical message of the epilogue is completely different from the views extolled in the beginning. I would also like to note that this is not a romance and the 1956 movie radically altered the tone of the novel. Read the book, avoid the movie.
War & Peace, Oxford University Press, 1998, 9780192833983
Several distinguished American authors have penned novels that will stand the test of time. Nathanial Hawthorne, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, and Tennessee Williams all wrote stories that capture the discontent and social problems of their respective time periods. All their works will probably dominate assigned reading lists for years to come. I chose to list Harriet Beecher Stowe above these other American greats because I think her novel is slightly more universally applicable. Slavery is not an American phenomena, the slave trade has existed since almost the dawn of time. This practice is still thriving today. Uncle Tom’s Cabin details the trials and tribulations of several slaves in the American South. The narrative is moving and extremely well-written. Though some of the dialogue is difficult to read due to Stowe’s overdependence on regional dialects. Stowe explores the social and political factors behind slavery and the endurance of the human spirit. She captures a specific point in American history and brings the events to life. I thought Stowe struck the right note between outright condemnation and understating, not every slave owner was a total psychopath. Stowe infuses the right amount of humanity into both groups of characters, the slaves and the plantation owners. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is my gold standard when it comes to evaluating books with similar stories.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Wordsworth Classics, 1999, 9781840224023