8 Classic Novels That Are Surprisingly Relevant Today
The so-called "classics" have a bit of a weird reputation. Some people insist on putting the canonical classics on an pedestal, and refusing all criticism of them... even though there are plenty of other books that are just as good, if not better. Other people shrug classic literature off as old fashioned, stuffy, and irrelevant.... but there's a reason that these books have been read and re-read for decades. There's a reason that so much of our modern speech comes from Shakespeare, or that most of our modern rom-coms have a bit of a Jane Austen flair. Whether you're a hardcore classics apologist or a reader who prefers more modern material, you should know that there are a lot of classics that are still relevant today. Surprisingly, sometimes horrifyingly relevant. Here are a few classics that more than hold up.
Of course, almost every novel from the past can offer us something for the present. Any story that deals with love, or loss, or being freaked out by monsters still resonates with us. But these books in particular feel like they could have been written to reflect our current society. From sexism to toxic privilege to political meltdowns, these are classic novels that work just as well today:
1'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I mean, I love a good Great Gatsby party just as much as the next guy... but the book isn't really meant to be a guide to throwing flapper parties. It's an exploration of the "American dream," and of the limits of social mobility. And for all of his fun partying, Gatsby is very much the embodiment of those Americans who want to head back in time, to some fictional past when everything was great (remind you of anyone?). The only problem is that you can't recapture the past, no matter how rich you are or how great you think it was, and Gatsby dies for his efforts.
2'Othello' by William Shakespeare
I really wish that the character of Iago didn't feel quite so on point in our modern era. But Iago is that guy who thinks that a loss of his privilege is the exact same thing as being oppressed, and there seems to be a lot of that going around. In the play, Iago is utterly furious that Othello is more successful than he is, even though Othello is more talented and all around a better person. But because Othello is a racial minority, Iago takes his success as a personal insult. He spends the next five acts gaslighting Othello into committing violence, then takes this as evidence that Othello was violent all along.
3'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
Man does it feel like The Bell Jar could have been written today. Internships still suck, that fig tree quote is so real, blind dates are still a nightmare, and sexism and depression are both very much alive. The Bell Jar is the story of one young woman seeking treatment for her mental illness in a world that refuses to take her experiences seriously. Unfortunately, that's a story that too many of us can still identify with.
4'1984' by George Orwell
I'll bet you know where I'm going with this one. In a world where our government tries to pass off blatant lies as "alternative facts," where surveillance is becoming the norm and people are choosing between state-sponsored truth and actual reality, it's hard not to think of Winston's world in 1984. Orwell wasn't just writing a scary, powerful government, after all, he was writing a government that was capable of rewriting its own reality without being questioned by the people.
5'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley
If you only know Frankenstein's monster as the big, bolt-necked dude from the movies, then you might want to pick up Shelley's original novel. The monster in Frankenstein goes from a dangerous beast to a soulful guy who speaks French and just wants his dad to love him. But Victor Frankenstein is your classic bad dad, and he keeps running from his own creation. The lesson isn't so much "science is evil" or "don't play God," it's that we must all take responsibility for what we create. Whether that means being better parents, cleaning up the environment, or participating more in local government is up to you, but it's a pretty timeless moral.
6'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker
Yes, themes of sexism, domestic violence, and racial injustice are still all too relevant today. In fact, sexism and hate crimes are on the rise under our current president. And a book celebrating female relationships is always timely. But The Color Purple is also notable for its use of colloquial language in a work of classic literature. People were scandalized by Walker's realistic portrayal of her character's speech when the book first came out, and people are still quick to judge others' intelligence and artistic ability by whether or not their speech sounds "correct."
7'The Odyssey' by Homer
The Odyssey might be the ultimate classic. It's 2,800 years old. Everybody's heard of it. (Almost) nobody wants to read it. And yet, The Odyssey can still reflect a thing or two about our own modern society. The narrative of a single person struggling to return home and changing in the process is universal, of course. But as Odysseus bumbles around a fairly small sea for an entire decade, he encounters a number of new cultures—and is shocked to find that they have different values and traditions than his own, and that he's not always hailed as a hero. The Odyssey is not just about one man's journey. It's about one man learning how his journey affects others. By the end, as Homer says, Odysseus "saw the cities of many men and understood the way they thought."
8'Les Misérables' by Victor Hugo
Most people know of Les Misérables as being long and French, or as being that musical where people get all hyped up about waving a big flag. But when the (very, very long) novel originally came out, it was critically panned for being socialist and pro-revolutionary. Hugo's story is, after all, about the humanity of convicts and sex workers, the inescapable cycle of poverty, and the lack of true justice for the poor. In a world where income inequality and prejudice are still persistent problems, Les Misérables is inescapably relevant. It's a call to action and a call to empathy that has survived generations.