Have you ever been assigned to read classic lit novels in class and thought “Why does anyone like this? It’s confusing and long and I don’t understand what it’s saying.” Us too. Even as an English Lit major, I still felt like I was being punished when I had to suffer through some of the long, boring novels that professors insist are classics. So, just in case you’ve felt the same way, here is my list of overrated classic lit novels and some alternative titles to read instead!
1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
One of the most over-assigned of overrated classic lit novels is Melville’s Moby Dick. To preface, I absolutely hate Moby Dick–I read every word for an early American lit class and hated every minute. Moby Dick is excruciatingly long and incredibly hyper-masculine, and any professor who says it isn’t is probably an older white male (sorry, I don’t make the rules). And don’t even get me started on the chapters dedicated to whale anatomy, whale blubber, ship parts, etc. It’s like a textbook on whales wedged into an idealized story of male pride and becoming a man.
There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the discussion of a whale’s penis. It is entirely unnecessary and I still can’t find a valid reason to include it (spoiler alert: there isn’t one).
If you want to read an adventure story about searching for a mythological creature and the bond that is created between the heroine and her fellow adventurers, try The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. It’s a fascinating adventure novel with courage, friendship, and no whale genitalia.
2. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
As far as overrated classic novels go, Walden is by far my least favorite for several reasons. For one, it’s long and boring, which makes it a struggle to get through. But also, it’s incredibly hypocritical. In Walden, Thoreau lays out his thoughts and reflections on living a simple life in nature. He laments the way society binds us to certain ideals and limitations that are wholly unnecessary to live a fulfilling life. It’s a two-year “social experiment” on how living in the woods is better than living in society because society brainwashes us into thinking we need more than we do or that we need to live a certain life to be happy.
But here’s the thing: Thoreau tries to act like he’s sooo much better than everyone else because he lives alone in the woods. But he didn’t even really live away from society–he lived in a cabin owned by a friend where he constantly had guests over, and he went into town weekly to visit his mother, wash his clothes, get his groceries, etc. So he didn’t live off the land or anything, he just wanted to act like he did. So now it’s boring AND pretentious.
If you want a book that is centered on self-reflection and philosophy without all the hypocrisy and boring language, check out Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. It’s considered to be one of the best books on philosophy, and it’s just a more enjoyable read all around.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is another book on my list of overrated classic lit novels. It’s not that I don’t like Jane Eyre, I actually enjoyed it a lot, but it’s also got its fair share of problems, from its characterization of colonized Caribbean women to its woman v. woman subpoints. Also, I also think it’s way longer than it needs to be to get the story across, and Rochester is one of my least favorite male love interests in any romance novel I’ve ever read.
Jane Eyre is usually considered a feminist classic as Jane’s journey throughout the story is one of strength and self-discovery. However, her newfound strength comes at the cost of the other women in the story, and her pain is constantly blamed on all the women around her. And while it’s true that abuse has no gender, you would think that a feminist author like Charlotte Brontë would do more to lift women up rather than make them the villains of the story.
If you want a compelling rewriting of Jane Eyre to read, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a novel telling the story of Antoinette, Rochester’s first “mad” wife. It offers a look into the true lives of colonized Caribbean citizens and offers a story of resilience and strength that doesn’t come at the expense of other women.
4. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
One of the most widely assigned of overrated classic lit novels, Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness would not pass the vibe check for the current cultural standard of political correctness. The story centers on the narrator’s voyage up the Congo River in the heart of Africa. While it is still often assigned in world-lit classes, it’s also been criticized for being incredibly racist. I mean, the story essentially says that colonized society is good, while native African tribes and people are “savages.” It’s going to be a hard pass from me once the word “savage” is thrown in.
For those looking to read a novel about native African tribes and colonization written by a Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a great place to start. Not only does it offer an accurate description of how colonization affects native communities, but it’s also honestly just a much more interesting book to read.
5. Wuthering Heights by Jane Brontë
While Wuthering Heights is considered the epitome of romance novels, it’s another story that should be grouped with overrated classic lit novels. I know everyone kind of wanted to read Wuthering Heights after it was hyped up by Bella in “Twilight: Eclipse,” it’s an absolutely horrible romance novel. Nothing about the relationships portrayed in the story is healthy, and all the characters are incredibly toxic and cruel to one another. Unless you’re utilizing it as a “What Not To Do,” Wuthering Heights shouldn’t be read as a top-dollar romance novel.
However, if you’re looking for a story with complicated relationships, love, and strength, try Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. While many of the relationships still involve toxic people, readers can follow Janie’s journey as she finds herself and her voice throughout the novel. It’s a story not only about being in love with others but also about falling in love with yourself. It’s also an amazing commentary on feminism and racism, making it both compelling and relevant.
6. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
For anyone who has had to read Grapes of Wrath–I am so sorry. As far as classic lit novels go, it is one of the longest, most boring novels you can ever be assigned to read. I know it’s supposed to be an intricate deep dive into the realities of Depression-era Americans, but I couldn’t find anything about it to enjoy. I mean, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to a turtle crossing the road. An. Entire. Chapter.
Instead of reading Grapes of Wrath, here is my petition for professors to start assigning Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is still incredibly long, I’m sorry for that, but if you’re going to be assigned a long novel anyway, it might as well be the fascinating magic-realist story centering on the seven generations of the Buendía Family. This story also deals with Steinbeck’s themes of family and classism and is widely regarded as a landmark novel.
7. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
I love Faulkner, I really do, but I am so tired of being assigned to read As I Lay Dying. While it should still be considered in the ranks of classic lit novels, there are only so many times a person can read “My mother is a fish” without wanting to scream. It’s also not even Faulkner’s best novel – while it’s an interesting deep-dive into one family’s secrets and drama, “The Sound in the Fury” is more interesting to read and isn’t assigned in every American lit class ever.
For readers looking for a more modern and interesting coming of age story centering on one family’s secrets and the search for redemption, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is what I would choose. It’s just as dark and bleak as Faulkner’s novel, but it’s also a story of redemption and forgiveness and doesn’t leave you with the “WTF” feeling As I Lay Dying concludes on.
8. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome is always included in my list of “overrated classic lit novels.” Why? Because it’s another toxic “romance” novel that’s a terrible representation of love. For one thing, it’s supposed to be a case of “passionate, forbidden romance” which is accurate–you shouldn’t have an affair with your wife’s cousin, that’s definitely forbidden. But it just felt incredibly exaggerated, like I was reading a mid-afternoon melodrama. I actually laughed reading it, and I don’t think you’re supposed to laugh.
Instead of Ethan Frome, Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women offers a much more compelling look at the complexities of relationships. Through seven short stories, Murakami looks at the relationships his protagonists have with the women in their lives and includes the themes of love and loss just like Ethan Frome.