Classic novels, you know, A Tale of Two Cities, Anna Karenina, Les Miserables and others.
These are novels that really speak to us and stand the test of time. But what makes them that way and, more importantly, how do you write one?
Well, let’s take a quick look at a few classics and see if we can answer those questions.
Classic Novels Set The Scene
One of the characteristics of a classic is that they are written so well that we feel like we are stepping into another time and place.
“Another time a man comes a-prowling round here you roust me out, you hear? That man warn’t here for no good. I’d a shot him. Next time you roust me out, you hear?”
This is a snippet from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Without describing the setting at all the speech resounds with images of roughly sawn log cabins and ceramic jugs of moonshine.
“The accused, who was (and who knew he was) being mentally hanged, beheaded, and quartered, by everybody there, neither flinched from the situation, nor assumed any theatrical air in it. He was quiet and attentive; watched the opening proceedings with a grave interest; and stood with his hands resting on the slab of wood before him, so composedly, that they had not displaced a leaf of the herbs with which it was strewn. The court was all bestrewn with herbs and sprinkled with vinegar, as a precaution against gaol air and gaol fever.”
So the quality of writing, the detail, is essential to classic novels and standing the test of time.
If you can’t remember the characters how are you going to remember the book?
Classic novels are novels in which the characters stay with us long after the last page.
Who can forget these characters?
- Captain Ahab who hunts the oceans of the globe for the great while whale in vengeance for taking his leg years before.
- Anna Karenina the unhappily married wife of an aristocrat who seeks solace in an affair with Count Vronsky.
- Frodo Baggins who, though nothing more than a Halfling, takes on the burden of destroying a golden ring that could ruin him and his entire world as well.
- Emma Bovary who tries to forget her mundane existence in a series of extra marital affairs and lavish expenses that ultimately commit her family to financial ruin.
But, Ultimately It Is The Theme Of The Book Itself
Classic novels tell us what it means to be human.
They actually cause a change in who we are as a person. We are not the same at the end as we were at the beginning. We understand life and ourselves in more depth.
In Hugo’s own words Les Miserables is “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.
And, in the words of Sydney Carton who sacrifices his life for the greater good at the end of A Tale of two Cities, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”