10 Classic Novels That Are Secretly Really Messed Up

by Charlotte Ahlin

Some books are trying to mess with your mind. And that's perfectly fine: books like A Clockwork Orange or American Psycho or the Animorph book covers are brilliant in part because they push boundaries and play with the reader's expectations. You go into the experience wanting to feel a little uncomfortable. But then there are the books that promise cutesy kid adventures, or classic romance, or easy reading, and instead they deliver... something stranger. These books are a whole lot more disturbing than their reputations might lead you to believe, because sometimes you really can't judge a book by its cover. Here are a few books that are actually way more messed up than you realized.

Perhaps the freakiest thing about these books is that a lot of us read them as kids. We read them because they were classic children's books, or because they were assigned in high school, and they didn't seem that upsetting at the time. But looking back on them now... yikes. Spontaneous combustion, fascist railroads, dead children, rampant racism and sexism — these books are not nearly as innocent as they seem. The messages they impart and the heroes they reward are not always the greatest. In short... they're pretty messed up:

'The Last Battle' by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis isn't exactly subtle about the Christian undertones of The Chronicles of Narnia. But The Last Battle takes Lewis' Christian themes in an... interesting direction. By that I mean, all the kids die in a horrific train accident and get to stay in Narnia-Heaven forever, except for their sister, Susan, who doesn't get to go to heaven because she likes lipstick and stockings. Presumably, it was left to Susan to identify the bodies of all her younger siblings. Um. UM. What!?

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'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights has a reputation for being a torrid, Gothic romance, but... really it's kind of a mess. Heathcliff loves Catherine, he thinks she doesn't love him back, she dies, and it's all very sad and romantic. But Heathcliff's "revenge" plot is to have his son and Catherine's daughter make out to vicariously relive his own youthful romance. That's... not a great plan? Please stop trying to force your kids to hook up??

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'Peter Pan' by J.M. Barrie

There are just... so many ways in which Peter Pan is upsetting. There's the fact that Native Americans are treated like mythical creatures on par with mermaids. There's the heavy implication that Peter kills the Lost Boys when they get too old to stay in Neverland. And then there's the reality that Peter Pan was based on J.M. Barrie's own brother, who died in childhood and "never grew up". Their mother would have Barrie dress in his dead brother's clothes and pretend to be him, to cope with her grief. So yeah... try enjoying all those Tinkerbell movies now.

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'Bleak House' by Charles Dickens

Bleak House is a pretty straightforward Dickens novel, full of litigation and subplots, until one character just... spontaneously combusts. He's an important character to the plot, and his spontaneous combustion is never explained. At the time, critics freaked out, and Dickens inspired a whole generation of spontaneous combustion truthers. But these days, most people just treat Bleak House as if it's a perfectly respectable book with no spontaneous combustion whatsoever.

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'Thomas The Tank Engine' by Wilbert Awdry

People are just now starting to grasp the stark, fascist overtones of Thomas the Tank Engine. It is a children's book that teaches absolute and unquestioning obedience to authority: trains who don't work hard enough are mutilated, scrapped, or (in one horrifying instance) buried alive. If they are not "useful" as trains, they are turned into generators or hen houses. Thomas' passenger cars are also sentient, and yet they are hitched to him permanently in some wretched, railway version of the human centipede.

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'Eight Cousins' by Louisa May Alcott

I know that you're probably thinking what the hell is Eight Cousins? Well, if you liked Little Women, prepare to be disappointed. Louisa May Alcott's other popular children's series was kind of an anti-feminist manifesto. Shy orphan Rose Campbell is sent to live with her seven male cousins and her uncle, who teaches her valuable lessons like "baking bread is more important than school for girls." He also "cuddles" her on his lap when she's nearly 14 years old (don't worry, though, she doesn't marry her uncle—she marries one of her cousins).

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'A Separate Peace' by John Knowles

I remember being bored stiff by this one in high school, but looking back on it now... WTF? Look, I understand that A Separate Peace is a classic about war and brotherhood and whatnot, but nowadays it's hard not to read it as a parable about toxic masculinity. If Gene and Phineas shared their feelings, everything would have been fine. Like, just tell your best friend you have a crush on him, Gene, instead of pushing your friend out of a tree so that he then dies from surgical complications??

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'Mary Poppins' by P.L. Travers

The literary Mary Poppins is a lot less adorable than her film counterpart. She's strict, she's vain, and the danger she puts those kids in is no joke. Michael gets abducted by cat aliens. Jane is trapped inside a porcelain bowl. They meet a woman who eats her own fingers. And then when the adventure is over, Mary always gaslights the children and insists that nothing supernatural has taken place.

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'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is one of the most notable female protagonists in literature, but she really deserves better than Edward Rochester. Dude's first wife experienced a mental breakdown, so he locked her in the attic forever. Um? Even given the time period, there must have been a better way to deal with that? Not to mention that Bertha Rochester is of Creole heritage, and her mental illness manifests in her behaving in a "savage" or "animalistic" way. The book doesn't do a lot to make Creole or mentally ill people seem like fully realized humans.

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'The Giving Tree' by Shel Silverstein

Probably the most messed up thing about The Giving Tree is that no one can agree on exactly how messed up The Giving Tree is. Sure, there's a tree and a boy, and the tree loves the boy, and the tree gives the boy everything she has until the tree is a stump and the boy is an old man. Some people believe this is an example of unconditional maternal love, while others see it as a bratty, ungrateful kid who needs to stop mooching off of this doormat of a tree. Some critics even believe that the story is a metaphor for mankind destroying the environment, with the tree as Mother Earth and the boy as the exploitative human race who mistreats Mother Earth until she dies. Yikes.

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