We all grew up reading classic literature in middle and high school English classes, whether we liked it or not. I belong to the group of people who, for the most part, really enjoyed the majority of novels assigned.
Some books, of course, I liked better than others, but the ending was always my favorite part. Even for the books I didn’t enjoy reading throughout, I loved the feeling of tying loose ends and identifying the novel’s takeaway.
No matter your interest in literature, we can all find meaning in popular novels that resonate with our lives – at any stage of it! Below are a few of my favorites and the life messages I believe are most powerful from each.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
An aspect that makes the novel so shrewd and raw is that it is narrated by Scout, a naïve and innocent young girl. While Scout’s loss of innocence becomes a major theme, we see how her maturity allows space for some of her innocence to remain.
As Scout navigates through her world in Maycomb, Alabama, she experiences the good and evil of life. She begins to understand the dichotomy of human nature while also trying to establish a moral compass in a complicated world. Lucky for her, she has Atticus as a father to help her figure things out.
Atticus Finch really feels like a father to us all. With his strong moral code and ability to see past stereotypes, we can all learn a little something about humanity from Atticus. He teaches us treat everyone with respect and to stand up for what’s right, despite the costs.
“Atticus was right,” Scout said. “One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” If young Scout can appreciate her father’s wisdom, surely we all can too.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ah, the roaring 20s – characterized by glitz and glam, decadence, success, jazz, flappers, champagne, and of course, The American Dream. The Great Gatsby has it all. Consumed by materialism, the characters find that their money can’t buy them love. How surprising.
Jay Gatsby spends his whole life chasing wealth (through secretly bootlegging) and power in an effort to win over the lovely Daisy Buchanan, who comes from old money. Despite his giant mansion and extravagant parties, Gatsby’s middle-class background keeps Daisy from ever loving him.
Having excess material items and all the things money can buy continues to motivate greed, until most all the characters are left feeling hollow or alone, excusing their actions with their wealth.
The narrator, Nick, a friend of Gatsby’s and perhaps the only genuine character, describes Daisy and her husband, “They were careless people – Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness.”
The Great Gatsby warns us of the dangers of consumerism – how it can strip us of our morality, responsibility, and happiness.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield is one of the most beloved characters in 20th-century American literature. Although he is a symbol of revolt and sarcasm, Holden is much more intelligent than your typical cranky teenager.
Sure, he gets himself into a lot of trouble when he opposes authority figures, but he doesn’t do it as an act of defiance, but rather, a way to critique societal behaviors and the crooked ways of the world. Holden recognizes hypocrisy and is constantly identifying what he calls “phonies.”
His way of seeing the world through a lens of authenticity is something we can all appreciate. Holden wants all people to be honest and true to themselves, and sees people stray from this behavior as they move from adolescence to adulthood.
Holden describes a vision he has about protecting children from societal corruption, “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
Holden’s desire to save people from “phoniness” is relatable to young people as they themselves make the transition to adulthood, as well as to adults as they watch their young loved ones grow.
Each book has earned the “classical literature” label, which is not an easy title to achieve. Because of the novels’ powerful and applicable messages, each has found its way into the hearts of both lovers and non-lovers of literature. What books did you read in grade school that still resonate with you today? Share with us, we’d love to hear!
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