The Trouble with Reading Classics

It's all about the context

It’s time. You have to pick up that dreaded classic you have lying around. Maybe it’s Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, or even worse, William Shakespeare’s Richard III. Those things look terrifying with all that fancy bindings and annotations. But you have to read it anyway, either because some lame English professor assigned it or because you want to be well-read. Either way, you know it’s going to be hard.

Why do we struggle so? Why do such books make even the most avid of readers tremble in their boots? What is the problem with these damned things?

It’s all about the context. Or, rather, about how most modern readers lack the context to understand and appreciate classics. The boring dictionary definition of context is: The circumstance or setting in which an idea or even can be fully understood. If you don’t have context, an idea — such as the ones in classics — are liable to be misunderstood or outright overlooked. We, in all of our modernity, lack context for many classics in several respects.

The Context of Prose and Style

Language evolves. Sentence structure shifts. Words fall in and out of fashion. Even word meanings metamorphose.

It takes only a quick survey of English literature to see how much can change in a few hundred years (and we’re not even getting into translations):

A wys wyf, if that she can hir good,
Shal beren him on hond the cow is wood,
And take witnesse of hir owene mayde
Of hir assent; but herkneth how I sayde. — Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath” in The Canterbury Tales (1475)

This isn’t the work of a drunken five-year-old with atrocious spelling skills. It’s Middle English, a variant of English spoken after the Norman Conquest in 1066 and before the 16th century. It bears some resemblance to modern English, but it’s gosh-darn hard to read without annotations (and alcohol).

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? — To die, — to sleep. — William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1603)

Now that we’re in Modern English — yes, Shakespeare is modern — the spelling is improving, but it’s still tough to get through. Shakespeare’s heavy use of figurative language flummoxes us literal-minded modern readers. No, those slings and arrows aren’t real!

The ledge, where I placed my candle, had a few mildewed books piled up in one corner; and it was covered with writing scratched on the paint. This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small — Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton. In vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw — Heathcliff — Linton, till my eyes closed; but they had not rested five minutes when a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid as spectres — the air swarmed with Catherines; and rousing myself to dispel the obtrusive name, I discovered my candle wick reclining on one of the antique volumes, and perfuming the place with an odour of roasted calf-skin. — Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)

Compared to Shakespeare, Brontë seems straightforward, except for one thing. Like many other 19th century writers, she uses long, flowing, and descriptive sentence structure that seems incongruous compared to today’s staccato sentence structure.

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. — George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949)

Now that we’re in the really modern part of Modern English, things are so much better. Orwell adopts the simpler, more direct style that we’re more used to. Whew! (Note that simple and straightforward prose doesn’t always translate into simple and straightforward meaning.)

Not all troublesome prose comes from old and dead white folks. Some contemporary authors eschew plainness for some flair in their prose. Whether you find that dazzling or confounding is up to you.

…I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools. — William Faulkner, The Sound and Fury (1929)

Faulkner’s convoluted prose forces the reader to focus single-mindedly to follow along. Confusing as it may be, Faulkner’s marriage of the stream-of-consciousness writing of modernists and descriptiveness of Romanticism give a certain élan to his writing. Just don’t read him before bed as you’ll fall asleep without any memory of what you’ve read.

Now a member of the company seated there seemed to weigh the judge’s words and some turned to look at the black. He stood an uneasy honoree and at length he stepped back from the firelight and the juggler rose and made a motion with the cards, sweeping them in a fan before him and then proceeding along the perimeter past the boots of the men with the cards outheld as if they would find their own subject. — Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)

McCarthy’s combination of complex sentences and a disdain of punctuation gives his writing an air of inscrutability. Love or hate him, you have to admit

The Context of Historical Settings and Culture

Most authors write for their contemporaries, not for some unknown high school student 100 years in the future. They assume that their reader knows the social and cultural contexts. Once a book survives the test of time, this assumption fails.

Jane Austen’s books serve as a good example of how our ignorance of the social mores of early 19th century genteel society can lead the reader to miss allusions that would’ve been obvious to a contemporaneous reader.

Are any of your younger sisters out, Miss Bennet?”

“Yes, ma’am, all.”

“All! What, all five out at once? Very odd! And you only the second. The younger ones out before the elder ones are married! Your younger sisters must be very young?”

“Yes, my youngest is not sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be much in company. But really, ma’am, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of society and amusement, because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early. The last-born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth at the first. And to be kept back on such a motive! I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind.”

“Upon my word,” said her ladyship, “you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?”

“With three younger sisters grown up,” replied Elizabeth, smiling, “your ladyship can hardly expect me to own it.”

Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished at not receiving a direct answer; and Elizabeth suspected herself to be the first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence.

“You cannot be more than twenty, I am sure, therefore you need not conceal your age.”

“I am not one-and-twenty.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

A reader unaware of the importance (and meaning) of “being out in society” in Georgian gentry wouldn’t note how uncouth it was to have five sisters out all at once, a serious social misstep by the Bennets. (And no, “coming out” doesn’t mean the same thing as it does today.) They would also have missed how tactless it was for Lady Catherine to harp on this point and Elizabeth’s impertinence for evading Lady Catherine’s question. This is why an unschooled reader would overlook the biting satire in Austen’s novels, which is a horrible shame.

Many classic novels attack contemporaneous cultural, religious, and social conventions. If you don’t understand the norms under attack, you lose context to why the novel was so daring, so bold.

I made this mistake with Jane Eyre. Upon my first reading at 15, I dismissed it as a melodramatic slop. When I revisited it at 30, I saw how Charlotte Brontë criticizes the prevailing religious belief of charity and how remarkably independent Jane Eyre is, a shocking thing for a Victorian woman. I, however, still think that the book has too many dei ex machina (overly convenient plot twists).

The Context of Narrative Conventions

Following or breaking it, many classics take a stance on narrative conventions. Thomas Hardy embraces the pastoral and tragic narratives in Tess of the d’Urbervilles as James Joyce bucks the Realists’s more removed narratives with his stream-of-consciousness writing.

To understand a book’s attitude toward narrative conventions is to understand why certain writing, plot, or characters elements exist (or disappear) from a novel. These expectations ease the way for your reading. Really!

When I began reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I knew that it was a pastoral tragedy, which prepared me for two important things. First, since it was a pastoral, I knew Hardy would describe the setting to such detail that the town(s) would become characters in their own rights.. So I was prepared for passages like these which would seem unnecessary and boring to the average modern reader:

The village of Marlott lay amid the north-eastern undulations of the beautiful Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor aforesaid, an engirdled and secluded region, for the most part untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape painter, though within a four hours’ journey from London.

It is a vale whose acquaintance is best made by viewing it from the summits of the hills that surround it — except perhaps during the droughts of summer. An unguided ramble into its recesses in bad weather is apt to engender dissatisfaction with its narrow, tortuous, and miry ways.

— Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Second, since Tess is a tragedy, I prepared myself for many frowny-face moments. If you go into a Hardy expecting a happy ending a la Pride and Prejudice, you’ve taken a wrong turn in the 19th century bookstore.

The Context of Symbolism

When you’re a high school student studying The Great Gatsby, it might seem like the teacher is inventing all those meanings from rivers and currents to justify their paycheck. You think, “Damn it, why can’t a boat just be a boat?”

English teachers’s flights of fancy aside, symbolism is a real thing. Under the best of circumstances, symbolism deepens existing themes and ideas already present in the novel. Problems begin when you don’t recognize the signs of symbolism.

Here’s an example: The last lines heard ‘round the world:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Scholars have quarreled over the meaning of this passage for decades, showing that there is no purely correct answer. Therein lies the subjectivity of literary analysis — but it remains vital that you understand the purpose of symbolism and are able to reocgnize it. (Hint: watch for recurrent motifs and ideas.)

The Context of the Original Publication (or Performance)

This oft-overlooked context can massively alter your reading of a classic. Many classics weren’t originally presented in the format in which it is read today. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was performed in verse. Shakespearean plays were meant for the stage, not small English classrooms. And so it goes.

But those are well-known examples. The examples nobody talks about are these 19th century epics, most of which were originally published in a serialized format where the author was paid by the word (Anna KareninaThe Tale of Two CitiesThe Count of Monte Cristo). This small detail completely alters the structure and flow of those stories. The serialized format and the pay scheme encouraged such writers to write more, more, and more. This is why Anna Karenina clocks in at almost 1,000 pages filled with descriptive passages of Levin moving grass. The format also means that the author didn’t consider the “flow” of narration from chapter to chapter, creating a disjointed reading experience as the story hops from one perspective to another. These stories were never conceptualized as a novel in today’s sense. You might even benefit from reading in small bursts, just like these newspaper readers did more than 100 years ago.

If you happen to read a classic out of its original publishing context, be mindful of how that’ll affect your experience. To get the fullest and richest experience, you might want to revert back to the original storytelling form, such as watching a Shakespearean play or movie. (I recommend Much Ado About Nothing, just ignore Keanu Reeves.)

Context is everything. Without the right context, many classics appear inscrutable and downright mystifying. Most of us aren’t born with knowledge of Middle English syntax and deep knowledge of manners among the English gentry during the Georgian era.

Where does that leave us, the befuddled readers? It leaves us with the hard reality that we need to investigate the context in which the classic was written. That means glancing at a Wikipedia page about the French Revolution before (and during) reading Les Miserables. It also means preparing yourself for a fantastical twirl through time in a South American village before you read One Hundred Years of Solitude. With some preparation, you can actually … dare I say it? … appreciate those dusty little classics.

N.B. I adopt the more expansive definition of classics as notable works of literature due to their excellence and significance, rather than the more traditional definition as pre-17th century works of literature.

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