Have you ever heard someone's interpretation of a book you enjoyed — or hated — and thought that you must not have read the same novel? Some books just aren't about what you thought when you first read them, and they're usually the books that everybody interprets the wrong way.* And although we consider these books to be familiar, many of them have become synonymous in pop culture with something diametrically opposed to their original meaning — the contronyms of books.
Think about it: How many times have you heard someone use the phrase "Frankenstein's monster" to describe some terrible combination of ill-fitting parts that goes against its creator's intent? That idiom has very little to do with Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, but over the years we've come to equate the idea of her infamous creature with a slew of bad things, including murder and mayhem.
Other times, we associate a book with only what lies on its surface, turning Pride & Prejudice into a book about marriage and manners, and The Call of the Wild into a dog book. These novels are about much more than matrimony and hounds, but you wouldn't know that from listening to people talk.
Before you read on, you should know that there are major and minor spoilers ahead for the 17 books on this list. You've probably read them before, but don't blame me for giving away the ending of American Psycho or Romeo and Juliet.
Check out the books I've found that aren't about what you thought below, and share your favorite misinterpreted titles with me on Twitter!
* Note: There's no such thing as a wrong interpretation, but sometimes even the best readers just miss the point entirely.
1'Moby-Dick' by Herman Melville
What everyone thinks it's about: Whales.
It's pretty much impossible to talk about Moby-Dick without conjuring up the image of the titular White Whale, the object of Captain Ahab's disastrous fixation. Literally any time a giant whale appears in the media, you can bet that someone, somewhere will make some sort of comparison to Herman Melville's 1851 novel.
So that means Moby-Dick must be about whales, right? Right?
What it's actually about: Hubris.
Although Moby-Dick contains a number of infamous chapters on the inner-workings of whales and the whaling industry, Melville's Romantic novel isn't actually about whales. At its core, Moby-Dick is about the folly of humanity: how far we will pursue a lost cause, the ways we misjudge our abilities and intellect, and how easily we become the very evils we fear.
2'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
What everyone thinks it's about: A forward-thinking lawyer in a small Alabama town who sets a wonderful example for his children and the other lawyers in the county when he agrees to represent a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
What it's actually about: Racism, both personal and institutional, and how doing the barest minimum of your duty — e.g., fairly representing your client when you are called to be his public defender — does not absolve you of your personal prejudice.
Although white readers have long upheld him as a bastion of virtue, Atticus Finch tells his daughter that he's "about as radical as" an infamous politician and KKK member, and his opposition to his children's use of the N-word is rooted in classism, not some racially progressive ideal. He fails to expose the Ewells' incestuous open secret, which — while still somewhat problematic in its vilification of Mayella Ewell for being a victim of a horrible crime — could have saved Tom Robinson by calling Mayella Ewell's testimony into question. Instead, Atticus allows the white family their little dignity, at the expense of his black client's future.
3'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding
What everyone thinks it's about: A group of English preteens who live a hedonistic lifestyle after they crash-land on a desert island.
Also known as That Really Violent Book You Read in Your High School English Class, William Golding's Lord of the Flies conjures up images of posh schoolboys donning war paint and playing at building their own society in the wake of a terrible accident.
What it's actually about: People are pretty much garbage.
Lord of the Flies explores how human beings living outside the law and authority will descend into the cruelest, most brutal mindset of violence. When their adult escorts are dead, and the boundaries and laws of England are far away, the boys murder their reason and their conscience, and soon, in their maenad frenzies, cease to recognize the humanity in their remaining compatriots.
4'Little House on the Prairie' by Laura Ingalls Wilder
What everyone thinks it's about: Pioneering with your pretty sister and a dog.
Everyone loves Little House on the Prairie. From the covered wagons and gingham covers to the sun bonnets and prairie weather, Laura Ingalls Wilder's 1935 novel never ceases to bring on the warm-and-fuzzies for its feel-good portrayal of pioneer life.
What it's actually about: Libertarianism.
Although it's widely accepted that Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, helped her to edit her long life-story — published in 2014 as Pioneer Girl — into a series of books for young readers, a more controversial opinion holds that Lane infused the Little House series with her own political ideology. The books spin a false narrative of the Ingallses as a self-sufficient family, masters of their own destiny, beholden to no one, when they were quite dependent upon their neighbors and others, in actuality.
5'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk
What everyone thinks it's about: A bunch of dudes who get together to beat the crap out of each other because they don't have dads, or something.
What it's actually about: Consumerism and toxic masculinity.
Fight Club is actually making fun of the guys who claim to love the book. Tyler Durden convinces the narrator that his material possessions have ruined his life by making him weak, and talks him into starting or joining a number of enterprises, including an underground boxing ring, a human-fat soap company, and an anti-capitalist anarchist collective. None of this makes the narrator's life any better, of course, nor does it make him more masculine. Instead, he winds up on the run — hardly the master of his own fortune that the fratbros believe in.
6'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley
What everyone thinks it's about: How poorly things go when men play God.
Everyone knows the story of Frankenstein, right? A mad scientist creates a monster out of human body parts, only to find that his creation is ugly, mute, and evil. The creator must then make things right, somehow, even if it means ending his own life in the process.
What it's actually about: How society rejects people who are different.
Unlike his portrayal on film, the creature of the novel is intelligent, sensitive, and caring, but is constantly rejected by the people he tries to befriend. The creature is horrified by its own behavior, largely because it internalizes society's fear into self-loathing.
Meanwhile, Frankenstein is perfectly sane, but he is far more evil than his creation. After bringing the creature to life, Victor flees. He later blames the creature for killing his brother, but never takes responsibility for the role his absenteeism played in that death. Victor then agrees to craft a bride for the creature, only to kill her in front of him, further fueling the creature's hatred of Victor and the rest of humanity.
7'Fahrenheit 451' by Ray Bradbury
What everyone thinks it's about: Censorship.
In a society in which books are banned, Guy Montag burns them for a living, describing it as "a pleasure to burn." Named for the temperature at which paper burns, Fahrenheit 451 is obviously a dystopian warning about censorship.
What it's actually about: Television addiction?
A few years after he published Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury admitted that his novel was written to reflect the anxieties of McCarthyism, when people were reporting on suspecting communists in their neighborhood and calling for books and other materials to be banned. However, Bradbury has since been very vocal about this, claiming that his novel was neither about government censorship or a reaction to McCarthy's politics, but a warning against relying on television media for news coverage and entertainment.
8'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Brontë
What everyone thinks it's about: The generations-long love story of a misunderstood man.
The orphaned Heathcliff grows up with the Earnshaw children, Catherine and Hindley, and becomes more beloved to Mr. Earnshaw than his own son. When Catherine leaves him for a rich man, poor and pitiful Heathcliff descends into a violent madness caused by her wronging him.
What it's actually about: Rape, violence, and an immature man.
Heathcliff is not a romantic hero. Instead of moving on after Catherine leaves, he remains obsessed with her, and marries her sister-in-law, whom he beats and rapes. After he gains custody of their son, he mistreats the boy as well. Wuthering Heights is not a story of love, but of hate.
9'The Jungle' by Upton Sinclair
What everyone thinks it's about: Food contamination.
When Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel revealed the unsanitary conditions in Chicago's meatpacking facilities, public outcry led the government to create the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that same year. Although Sinclair was only a vegetarian for part of his life, The Jungle inspired many people to give up eating meat because of the sanitation violations involved in processing it.
What it's actually about: Mistreatment of laborers.
Sinclair never intended for The Jungle to change the way people eat. Instead, the novel's entire purpose was to expose the mistreatment of meatpacking-industry workers within a capitalist system that offered them no protection. He did not support the new legislation his novel inspired, because it came at no cost to factory owners. Sinclair famously said of The Jungle: "I aimed for the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
10'Interview with the Vampire' by Anne Rice
What everyone thinks it's about: Vampires living large in New Orleans.
Interview with the Vampire's narrator, Louis de Pointe du Lac, is the heir to a large indigo plantation, and his vampire maker, Lestat de Lioncourt, was born into a wealthy family and enjoys a leisurely lifestyle after coming to Louisiana. The novel describes the vampires' decadence in detail, including their world travels and shopping sprees. Clearly, everybody wants to be a vampire, right?
What it's actually about: How vampires are basically miserable.
Vampires live pretty much forever, unless they encounter one of a few rare, fatal circumstances. To offset the value of ~eternal youth~, vampires must give up most earthly pleasures. They can no longer consume human food and wine, and they cannot have sex. Living in the shadows — literally — means that they are not usually able to achieve widespread fame or fortune. After a while, vampire life gets incredibly boring, and Anne Rice's vampires often go mad with the constraints of their damned life.
11'American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis
What everyone thinks it's about: An "utterly insane" Wall Street hotshot who kills a bunch of people.
Patrick Bateman tortures and kills people for fun. He ties up a woman and clamps her nipples with car-battery cables, leaves her while he goes to work, and is disappointed to find her dead when he returns. Seriously, he's one of the most frightening characters you'll ever meet in a book.
What it's actually about: The emptiness of high-class culture.
American Psycho goes to great lengths to describe, in detail, what each and every character wears on each and every occasion. There are pages and pages of exposition just describing the outfits of Bateman's "friends." And for all this obsession with material possessions and appearances, these are people who can't recognize each other on sight, but can spot an Armani suit from a block away. This disconnect from the reality of other people is so strong that, at the end of the novel, we can't be sure whether Bateman is actually killing people, or just living a double life that's all in his head.
12'Uncle Tom's Cabin' by Harriet Beecher Stowe
What everyone thinks it's about: The horrors of slavery.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is credited so often with catalyzing the Civil War that there's even an apocryphal quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln about Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. The story revolves around the titular Tom, but features several stories of escaped slaves running for their freedom, as well as glimpses into the injustices of human bondage.
What it's actually about: How God will reward slaves who obey their masters.
At the end of the novel, Tom — who has endured broken promises and beatings — encourages two of his master's rape victims to run for freedom. When he refuses to give up their whereabouts, Tom is beaten to death by the master, but is welcomed into Heaven with open arms for living a life of servitude and faithfulness. Yikes.
13'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' by Anita Loos
What everyone thinks it's about: Air-headed, but attractive, women who just want money.
Lorelei and Dorothy's looks convince rich men to do everything from buying them nice gifts and paying their travel fees to acquitting them of assault with a deadly weapon.
What it's actually about: Smart women who know that silly men will give air-headed women money.
Lorelei and Dorothy aren't "dumb blondes," but they know that infantile women get big breaks from the boys. So they ply their feminine wiles to dupe foolish men into spending loads of money and time on them, climbing the social ladder and achieving security as they go.
14'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare
What everyone thinks it's about: The greatest love story ever told.
Two young lovers in Verona, whose families are engaged in a constant and petty war with one another, fight against all odds to be together, and eventually resort to suicide as a means of eternally securing their bond.
What it's actually about: The foolishness of youth.
Romeo and Juliet takes place over the course of a few days. When Romeo meets Juliet, he's in love — supposedly — with another girl, whom he promptly forgets at the sight of his fellow title character. The two young teens throw everything they have at being together forever, but eventually die by suicide after a tragic miscommunication. This senseless death appears to reunite their families, but doesn't stop the petty bickering that exists between Montague and Capulet.
15'The Girl on the Train' by Paula Hawkins
What everyone thinks it's about: A murder mystery.
Every day, Rachel's train stops in front of the house belonging to Megan and Scott: a young couple whose life she idealizes in her daydreams. When Megan goes missing, Rachel inserts herself into the investigation.
What it's actually about: The story of an abusive relationship.
Rachel isn't a reliable narrator. She's a drunk with a past full of violence, and she's bitter about her ex's successful new relationship. It's hinted strongly that she was the last person to see Megan alive, and that her obsession with the other woman's life may have driven her to kill.
Not only is Rachel entirely innocent, but everything we know about her also happens to be a lie fabricated by her abusive ex: a lie she can only untangle when she begins investigating Megan's case.
16'Girl, Interrupted' by Susanna Kaysen
What everyone thinks it's about: Insane, privileged women in the 1960s.
After a suicide attempt, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen becomes a patient at McLean Hospital: a private psychiatric care facility famous for its elite clientele. While at McLean, she is diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and meets a number of other patients, who have all come for treatment under different circumstances.
What it's actually about: How institutionalized people may be just as sane as you are.
Although some of the women Kaysen meets at McLean will never leave the hospital, and others are unable to cope with life outside the institution, Kaysen ultimately concludes that she and many of her fellow patients are no less sane than people who do not seek or receive psychiatric treatment, and suggests that sanity is a negatively-defined concept.
17'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut
What everyone thinks it's about: A sci-fi story about a vet abducted by aliens.
As a German POW in World War II, Billy Pilgrim becomes "unstuck in time" and spends the rest of his life slipping between the past, present, and future. His travels include a trip to the planet Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants abduct him on his daughter's wedding night and place him in a zoo exhibit with a movie star, whom they intend to be his mate. The novel ends in Dresden, where it began.
What it's actually about: PTSD.
"Unstuck in time" is author Kurt Vonnegut's way of describing Billy Pilgrim's PTSD. His hero doesn't actually travel to an alien planet or move through time, but banal events in the present trigger flashbacks to catastrophic periods of his life, particularly the time he spends in Dresden.