There are a select few books which are universally known as classics; they are revered and held up as pinnacles of literature even by those who have never read them. So after years of being told how a book has inspired generations, and seeing the countless movie adaptations which were inspired by it, what happens when you actually sit down to read it? Sometimes it lives up to its reputation, sometimes it disappoints, but now and again it is completely unexpected and not at all how you imagined it to be.
Below are the top 10 classic literature which aren’t what you expect.
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When you hear the title, what do you immediately picture; a green giant with a bolt through his neck? A stumbling monster awakened by lightning? How about a Swiss Scientist with abandonment issues and borderline Narcissism? The latter is in fact precisely what the famous name alludes to; Victor Frankenstein is actually the scientist who created the (unnamed) monster, and the novel is less a horror story and more a study of the dangers of science and the responsibilities of God. Perhaps more astonishingly, the lumbering monster is actually a highly intelligence creature who is depicted as a tragic figure similar to the Lucifer of Paradise Lost and introduces himself through a 50 page monologue.
9. Moby Dick:
There are many things surprising about Moby Dick; chief among them is that it can barely be called a novel. For large portions of the book, plot advancement is ignored in favor of a detailed and accurate description of whales and the ships that catch him. This all builds up to the famous battle between Captain Ahab and the white whale, which is a long time coming. It never bores however; the language is poetic, rich and often astonishing, and there is a good reason why the narrator Ishmael is almost as famous as the novel itself.
Even those unversed in Shakespeare will know the opening to the most famous soliloquy in literature. ‘To be or not to be’ actually sums up quite well an extremely complex character, one who may surprise new comers with his emotional depth and character flaws which ultimately have tragic consequences. The story is ostensibly one of revenge for a slain father; It soon becomes apparent though that it is a character study; of indecision, doubt and whether there is any purpose to life.
7. The Lord of the Rings:
The movie adaptations were epic, sprawling events, but they paled in comparison to the books themselves. There is enough material in its pages and appendixes to fill five movies, and you may find yourself waning through some of it. What becomes apparent when reading Lord of the Rings, and becomes even clearer if you know a little about the author, is that it was never meant to be pure storytelling. J.R.R Tolkien was a linguist and this was his project to create new languages and worlds for them to live in. This goes some way to explaining the unparalleled depth of Middle earth, as well as accounting for some of the narrative missteps.
This is another novel whose main character has transcended into something bigger. Vampires are everywhere these days and partly diluted for a younger audience but this is where it all began. The tone is creepy and disturbing, but the real surprise is the structure. It is told entirely through diary entries and letters, which creates a sense of realism which elevates the tension. Despite its complex format, it is expertly crafted and builds to a thrilling climax. It’s portrayal of the count is memorable, and if you want to know why vampires have maintained their popularity, then look no further than this books eponymous villain.
5. The Divine Comedy:
This title may not be overly familiar; how about ‘Dante’s inferno?’ Most people will recognise that one, as it has seeped into the modern zeitgeist and was recently the inspiration for a new Dan Brown novel. Inferno is the first of three parts of the epic poem ‘The Divine Comedy’, the others being Purgatory and Paradise. It charts the journey of the narrator as he makes the spiritual journey to Heaven, having to pass through Hell to get there. It’s packed with references to Italy in Dante’s day, as he uses it to vent at everything he feels is wrong with the world. Be prepared to be constantly flicking between the text and the explanatory notes.
The title has become synonymous with a hopeless situation in which no possible action is the right one. The novel itself has become somewhat overshadowed by the phrase, and tells the tale of Yossarian, a bomber pilot during the war. It is certainly a unique read, telling the same story through several different viewpoints; it’s also filled with borderline insane character and the sort of ironic, surreal humor you would find in a good spoof movie. It also carries a dark message of the futility of war, portraying it as a hopeless situation in which no possible action is the right one.
3. The Picture of Dorian Grey:
This is the book that will introduce you emphatically to the epigram. The basic plot is well known; a vain man makes a Faustian pact to live forever young, whilst his portrait ages instead. There is so much more to it than that though. The character of Lord Henry is particularly memorable, and it is his witty sayings and hedonistic lifestyle that tempt Dorian. More than anything though this, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, is something of an outlet for his homosexuality and as such it was considered a scandal when first published.
2. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:
The template for any Victorian Gothic novella was to be short, concise and with something to say. This novel ticks these boxes emphatically, and is as far removed from its more known Hollywood version as Jekyll is to Hyde. For a start Mr Hyde is not a monster in the traditional sense; he is still portrayed as a man, albeit one whose physical appearance seems inexplicably disturbing. The books real message is essentially that there is a Hyde in all of us, a primal ego which society suppresses and must at some point be unleashed.
1. The Bible:
In the words of Reverend Lovejoy ‘Have you actually sat down and read this thing’. The King James Version is one of the cornerstones of the English Language and the story of Jesus is perhaps the most well known in history. However the Old Testament is full of stories that would make even the most committed Christian work extremely hard to find a moral message. Genocide, the sacrifice of one’s children and jarring narrative contradictions are just some of the things that make the bible surprising to say the least.
We all like to be surprised when reading a good story, which is why we may avoid classics, because we assume that we already know what’s going to happen; Ahab fights the whale, Frodo destroys the ring, Hamlet dies. It is reassuring then that even the most famous tales still have something fresh in store, something we weren’t expecting, if we took the time to read them. Most classics earned that title, and in many cases they are far more intriguing and absorbing than the countless imitations they spawned.