Contrary to popular opinion, classics are not just tattered scraps of mumbo-jumbo that belong buried somewhere in your bookshelf’s graveyard. And they are definitely not wishy-washy fairytales that lived on only so they could end up on the ever-abhorred assigned reading list in your literature class—and I can prove it. Classics have lived on because they contain timeless values that touch our hearts no matter what age we are, where we grew up, or in what era we live in. These are ten classic novels that have touched me in some way and which I believe are still relevant to each of us today.
1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
We all know some variation of this story about the scientist who creates the monster that turns around and kills everyone close to his creator. However, regardless of its morbid premise, there are two valuable takeaways you can get from Frankenstein that make it relevant for you today. The first is to not elevate yourself to the place of God. You are not omniscient and have no way of knowing how decisions you make—even seemingly insignificant ones—are going to affect you or anyone else in the near or long future. While most of us will probably never go grave-digging and stich together a body, this applies to any situation in which we do what we feel like doing without regard to the consequences for you or anyone else. The second is a question. Who do you think is the worse: the monster…or the people who created the monster (figuratively speaking)? We are living in a world where hurting people are constantly neglected and treated like a repugnant mess. If this treatment continues—especially from people who should love them the most—we are all accountable for the inevitable downward spiral. Be the one to stand up for right before it’s too late, because there is a point of no return.
2. The Scarlett Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne (1850)
Being self-righteous has never done anyone in the history of the world any good. Hawthorne’s novel about the Puritans’ treatment of a woman accused of adultery is glaringly poignant—especially when (spoiler alert) it is revealed that her child was fathered by the esteemed town minister. This novel teaches that you can’t be deceived by someone’s label or position, whether that is positive/negative or high-ranking/low-ranking. Labels are misleading and do not always tell you who the person who wears them actually are. And if you tell someone who they are long enough, they will believe it and eventually become it.
3. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde (1890)
No one likes the idea of getting old. The self-obsessed Dorian Gray definitely did not when he sells his soul to stay young eternally in this novel by the famous playwright, Oscar Wilde. This plan backfires on Gray when his self-portrait ages so gruesomely that he stabs the painting—and thus ends his own life. The lesson is obvious: live a life that is not consumed by conceit. Get your eyes off yourself and do for others, and you will find more fulfillment than exalting yourself will ever bring you. There’s a lot to be said for selflessness. Try it sometime.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
The relevance of this modern-day ghost story may seem elusive at first, but stay with me. After Maximilian de Winter’s wife dies under questionable circumstances, he brings his new wife back to Manderley, where she begins to suffer from neglect and the constant reminders of how wonderful his previous wife was compared to her—or so she thinks. Rebecca’s memory is haunting, and the couple goes through the penalties that the dead wife has set up for her husband to suffer—atrocities that she had planned for him long before her death. So why is this morbid classic relevant to us today? Rebecca is a lesson in the domino effect of distorted relationships. Rebecca began the effect with her immoral and inflicting lifestyle. Maxim fell for her beauty and married her without knowledge of her character, only to suffer emotional trauma throughout his marriage and after her death. Because he is emotionally drained, he marries another unwitting girl because he thinks he can find fulfillment in human relationships without facing his problems first. But this only continues the domino effect into another life, and his new wife becomes depressed very, very quickly. Eventually, their marriage remains built on Rebecca’s grievous memory, and one wonders what kind of marriage these two will have for the rest of their lives.
5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
This novel is absolutely heartbreaking because its truths are glaringly accurate. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, who lives in poverty despite her parents’ dedication to their family and perseverance in the face of hardships. Throughout the novel, the reader is confronted with situations in which careless people constantly trample on Francie’s innocence until it becomes a mere fragmented memory that she has to fight to win back in adulthood. While classic novels like are rich in many lessons, the one that stuck with me is how innocents suffer for the guilty without any fault of their own. We are all called to take care of each other. It’s as simple as that. That’s a responsibility we all need to keep in the forefront of our minds. This is one of the best classic novels to try out!
6. Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)
George Orwell’s novel is an allegory that depicts the dangers of communism—with a dark humorous twist. Fed up with being mistreated by their farmer, the animals—under the leadership of the pigs—rise up, overthrow the humans, and set up their own law that claims that all animals are equal. However, it soon becomes clear that all animals are indeed “equal”—except the pigs, who shrewdly make themselves the exception to the rules that all animals are supposed to follow. Eventually, the pigs become even worse than the human slave masters that the animals overthrew, leaving the other animals oppressed and powerless to change their circumstances. This book is a blatant reminder to individuals to make informed political decisions and not set themselves up to be vulnerable to empty, idealistic promises.
7. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
This novel by C.S. Lewis is the classic example of selfless sacrifice and relevant to anyone who seeks to better their perspective of the worth of others. The second and arguably most famous book in The Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe explores the central point of Lewis’s faith: the ultimate sacrifice of a ruler for his people. Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter Pevansie discover the magical world of Narnia behind a wardrobe. After Edmund is deceived by the White With and held hostage, he is about to be sacrificed as a blood offering on the stone table—but the ruler of Narnia, Aslan, takes Edmund’s place, even though the boy is clearly guilty and Aslan is innocent. Although we may never be asked to do this on such an intense scale, this timeless truth presents an otherworldly power that we should all strive to emulate.
8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Harper Lee’s novel explores the consequences of racism through the eyes of a little girl living in Alabama in the mid-1930s. In the face of a trial that decides the fate of an African-American man accused of rape, there is one clear message to the readers: there is one race—the human race—and no one man should ever be treated as a lesser being. The strong voice of this novel is set by the main character’s father, Atticus, who, despite the town’s opposition, defends the accused in court. He loses the case, and the accused is shot down, but the legacy of the stand Atticus takes sets the course for change in his small Alabaman town. This is one of the best classic novels to read today!
9. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson (1977)
Bridge to Terabithia is one of the best classic novels and is very close to my heart and relevant to anyone who has suffered loss. It does more to guide the reader through the possibility of overcoming crippling loss than provide a blueprint for how to do so. When ten-year-old Jess Aaron’s friend Leslie Burke drowns on the way to their special hideout in the woods, Jess’s life hits a stalemate, and at a very young age he has to learn to live a full life without the girl who turned it all around for good. Patterson has crafted characters that show her readers that moving on is possible—not by forgetting a person’s memory, but by honoring them through living life without regret. The way they would want you to. The way they would have wanted to themselves.
10. Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (2000)
The most modern classic of the bunch, Because of Winn Dixie is a very familiar story for any of us who grew up watching the movie. In Because of Winn Dixie, people of all different walks of life come together because of a dog when they probably wouldn’t have met under any other circumstances. It took something as simple as Winn Dixie to tie vastly different hurting people’s stories together at a time when they needed each other the most. I can’t stress enough how important this is to understand. No one is useless, and no one is broken past repair despite what inner turmoil they may be going through. People need healed and not fixed, and it may take someone that you never even dreamed could help you walk through fire with you. And, while I’m at it, this classic also teaches that you can’t just judge people based on what you’ve heard about them or their past—only on what you know them to be today. This book is powerful and relevant to us all to this day.
There are many good novels out there today and there are many bad ones—just like it has always been throughout the eras these classic novels were written. But these classic novels have lived for the next generation for the truths that they tell that everyone needs to hear. I hope I have given you an insight into these ten classic novels and their enduring relevance, and hope that you will find the time to crack them open yourself one day and discover what they can mean to you.