Why You Should Read Classic Literature

A wise person once told me that Jane Eyre is a boring book filled with cliche melodrama. That the heroine is unlikable, the romantic interest even worse, and that the book was wrongly regarded as classic literature.

Turns out, that person wasn’t so wise after all, because Jane Eyre is a goddamn masterpiece.

Besides allowing me the chance to defend the genius that is Charlotte Brontë, this did provoke an interesting question to consider: What determines Classic Literature? Why are some books—like Jane Eyre—heralded as timeless works of art while others are tossed to the side and forgotten, along with the rest of the boring parts of history? Well, I study English Literature, so I felt the need to defend my craft. In my opinion, there is a strict, uncrossable line that determines the classic novel from the temporary fad. The prestige that comes with a novel being accepted as part of a nation’s canon is not just prestige; there are concrete reasons why they are considered important. In fact, these reasons are so concrete that I urge for everyone to pick up a classic novel and read it. Right now. After reading this article, of course, but after that? There’s no excuse. Do it.

Fiction writing, first and foremost, is an art. No different than the Mona Lisa or a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo. It has no obligation to exist beyond it being a masterful piece of a genius’ creative capabilities.

But Literature takes it a step further. The classic novel, when compared to a dollar-store romance story, is the same as comparing the Parthenon to the pantry-sized dorm room I live in; they all serve a similar purpose, but only one work changes history. Only the Parthenon and the classic are worth remembering.

Literature changes history. It is a political statement that has stood before a culture or a society or even a person, and declared, “No. I think differently than that.” I began viewing all classic novels as political statements; they deserve no less from their readers.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s return to Jane Eyre. Here’s a quick rundown of the story—a poor orphan girl has a terrible childhood, gets sent to a shitty school, becomes a teacher for the bastard daughter of a rich man—whom she ends up falling in love with, but discovers he is already married to a woman he keeps locked in his attic. At first glance, it sounds stereotypically Victorian in every possible way. How could Jane Eyre of all people be a revolutionary for the 1800s? She is virtuous, boring, pure, and white: all the traits required to be a standard Victorian heroine.

But, did you know Jane Eyre was the first novel to ever have a child narrate in first person? Before Charlotte, no author had ever given a voice to a child. Why would they? Children are mindless pests, right? Charlotte thought otherwise—it was quite radical of her to argue that children, like adults, are equally deserving of love and attention, and the right to having a voice. And oh man, did she give that child a strong voice. Jane Eyre—as a girl of eight—denounced God, belittled her wealthy aunt, and told a hypocritical pastor that in order to stay out of Hell, she simply won’t die. When her cousin made fun of her, she punched him in the face. When she went to a disgusting rundown school, she dreamt about breaking her teachers’ noses.

This wasn’t done simply for shock value; Charlotte Brontë made a political statement. Children deserve to have rights. Religion is hypocritical. God is used as a means of teaching girls to hate themselves. Charlotte saw all through all of the hypocritical standards in the society around her, and she said Bull. Shit. 

Brontë revolutionized the way people viewed their kids. She become a pioneer for how authors wrote about children. She was the first to give them a voice. And, of course, she wasn’t alone in this—Charles Dickens wrote about David Copperfield and Oliver Twist around the same time. These classics, amongst many things, made political statements about how society should treat children differently.

Charlotte Brontë also held the radical idea that maybe women are equal to men. And that maybe a woman doesn’t just want to knit stockings in the house all day, and that she craves adventure and excitement just as much as her husband or father. What a concept, I know—but it was shocking in the 1850s. It was scandalous, course, dirty. “Good women” didn’t want to do all those yucky things like going outside. And yet again, Charlotte called bullshit on them. She wrote in the preface to the second edition of her novel:

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth.”

In modern terms, this basically translates to: “Just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be. Oh, and don’t tell me what to do, and fuck you.”

And what’s amazing about Literature is that there is a novel for every subject. If children and women don’t interest you, there is an author out there who wrote about something that revolutionized sex, or marriage, or government, or religion, or even the art of writing itself. These literary icons created the culture we live in today. Take a look at some examples:

D.H. Lawrence wrote about adulterous sex in the beginning of the 1900s…as a good thing. He was also the first to repeatedly use the words “fuck” and “cunt” in a novel. I mean, we are talking up to 3 “fucks” a page—I counted.

Jane Austen basically invented irony as we know it today. Alanis Morissette really ought to pay her respects.

Christopher Isherwood wrote about gay men having stable relationships in the 50s and 60s…as a good thing.

Maya Angelou spoke up about the horrors of growing up in the 1940s South as a black woman.

Virginia Woolf perfected streams-of-consciousness and wrote openly about depression for the first time in history.

Mary Shelley invented Science Fiction. Trekkies and Star Wars fans? Pledge allegiance to this 18th century socialite—you owe her your fan devotion.

The list goes on and on. I specialize in British Literature, specifically female authors, but imagine the depth of Literature coming from ever country on the planet. Each with it’s own history—it’s own revolutionary goal—it’s own political statement. All of these books added something monumental to the society we live in today.

So please, pick up a classic during your next trip to Barnes and Noble. Read each word not as some stuffy old drivel, but as it’s own declaration for change.

I recommend starting with Jane Eyre.