Finally, after hours of reading, it’s time to conclude on these five English classics I have read. I believe that all of these books are innovative for one reason or another. Let’s take a closer look at that, book by book.
Jane Eyre has a clear feminist message that was obviously ahead of its time and is considered as a proto-feminist novel (a feminist novel before feminism was invented). The novel is set in Victorian England, at a time when patriarchy ruled the political and social life. And what is really striking when you read Jane Eyre is that the three main male figures that Jane Eyre encounters throughout the novel are trying to control her in a way or another while she is fighting to keep her independence. And a few of Jane Eyre’s internal monologues clearly emphasize Charlotte Brontë’s own opinions towards patriarchy. But Jane Eyre is also innovative in its form, although it’s not really obvious for a contemporary reader. Jane Eyre‘s first-person narration from a character who really takes the reader into her mind was totally new in 1847. In this regard, this novel is considered as a forerunner to the stream-of-consciousness novel. Virginia Woolf herself wrote that the character of Jane Eyre had an “overpowering personality”…
Animal Farm also carried a very strong critical message, this time towards Stalin’s USSR. This message is interesting because totally contrary to the intellectual opinion of that time. Indeed, when Orwell wrote his book, during the Second World War, the Soviet Union was an important ally of Great Britain and there was an “uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia” in the country, shared by all the members of the British intelligentsia and supported by the media. Because the message from Animal Farm was an “unpopular opinion”, the manuscript of Animal Farm was rejected by four publishers, including Orwell’s regular publisher. Orwell, by denouncing Stalin’s totalitarian methods, got it right before everyone else. Animal Farm can also be read as an allegory of any totalitarianism, which makes it still totally relevant nowadays.
Brave New World and A Tale Of Two Cities also delivered strong messages, but in a much more ambivalent and finely-shaded way. The Fordist world from Brave New World is of course inhuman but seems much softer and less dark than other fictional totalitarian worlds. Some of its aspects are colourful, inventive and playful. Of course, this novel reflects the anxieties of the society in which it was written, among which a real fear of an “acceleration of American world domination”. But, there’s more than that. When Huxley wrote Brave New World, he was fed up with conventional politics (there’s a big economic and social crisis in the UK, which politicians didn’t seem to be able to solve) and declared that stability was the “primal and ultimate need” for civilization to resist the crisis, and that it might be achieved through means such as dictatorship, eugenics or scientific propaganda… So basically when Huxley wrote this novel he wasn’t sure anymore “whether he was writing a satire, a prophecy or a blueprint” (I quote David Bradshaw here). That’s this strange confusion that makes Brave New World so ambivalent and interesting to read.
A Tale of Two Cities has been claimed to be a work of revolutionary intent by some Marxist critics because it shows the French Revolution as a natural consequence of social oppression. And this aspect is true. However, how this Revolution turned into evil is also a huge point of focus in the novel, so saying that this book is revolutionary is not necessarily true. George Orwell seems to have been among the first ones to read Dickens in a more objective and accurate way (Orwell rocks, we had already established that). In his essay on Dickens from his book Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Orwell states that Dickens was not a revolutionary writer because his criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. What he really criticizes are the wrong moral attitudes, those which allow social injustices and abuses to be perpetuated. Once again, we have a novel that seems to carry a strong social message (a warning to the English bourgeoisie?) but that also allows multiple interpretations.
Now, let’s talk about The Waves. This book is obviously very innovative is its form, if not in its themes (life, death, self-discovery, relationships with others). Actually, Virginia Woolf didn’t describe it as a novel but as a “play-poem“. It blurs the distinction between novel and poetry. It is full of symbols and poetic images, and totally abandons the traditional structure of the English novel, which was all about narrating characters’ actions within a plot. With The Waves, Virginia Woolf wants to enter the minds of her characters and be as faithful as possible to the human experience. We experience the world and think it in a fragmented way, and that’s what Virginia Woolf gives us with The Waves. This experimental novel perfectly embodies Woolf’s efforts to find a new literary expression.
I’m really glad I read these books, which had original and precursory messages to deliver, which resist interpretation (or rather allow multiple interpretations), and which experiment with genres and forms. If you have read any of these books, let’s discuss!