The Timeless Companion: What Makes a Literary Classic?

June 11, 2008
The battered spine and tattered pages, a veteran of your weary hands and silent eyes. A title that is tossed about at dinner parties by silver-tongued intellectual elites and eager-to-impress youths. The omnipresent reading list requirement, hanging sullenly over summer’s euphoric glow. An image, a sensation that lingers soft and mysterious like a murky, sensual twilight between reality and the sublime. Classic literature: were there ever any two words so evocative in their meaning, so profound in their content, so exotic in their ambiguity? For many, I assume a definition of what comprises a literary classic seems too sacred to be articulated; so transcendent are these works, so godlike in their unsullied perfection, that it seems unnecessary and frivolous to speak of what can only be experienced. Yet William Faulkner, whether consciously or not, ever so eloquently revealed the layers and importance of classic literature in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The literature that survives for eternity and leaves a lasting footprint on the desolate sands of time, reminds us that man is immortal “because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance” (Faulkner). The author of a classic is a prophet, a historian, and a scientist: he gives us hope for the future, memories of the past, and a hypothesis of what it means to be human. Great literature could not exist without man, but man also could not exist without literature. The subject and effects of classic writing not only illuminate the condition of man, but also act as “the pillars to help him endure and prevail” (Faulkner).

All literary classics, despite their myriad of characters, situations, and styles, are bound together by common underlying themes: the exploration of the human condition, statements made about the human psyche, questions asked about the human heart. Emerson created a classic essay through overtly addressing such issues. His “Self-Reliance” is a piece of writing that overflows with unmediated sincerity and the desperate desire to communicate to readers that “to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, -- that is genius.” This essay resonates with all readers from all avenues of life; the passion and inescapable truth of Emerson’s words leave us with no choice but to listen and absorb. Flaubert’s masterpiece, the unforgettable Madame Bovary, confronts readers with the inevitable conflict between the mundane and the spectacular, the life we dream of living and the life we are forced to partake in. Emma’s desire to be “the amoureuse of all the novels, the heroine of all the plays, the vague ‘she’ of all the poetry books" is parallel to our own lost and desperate dreams (Madame Bovary, 302), dreams that seem impossible yet excruciatingly tantalizing nonetheless. Shakespeare, the father of the English literary classic, weaves in his plays a brilliant, intricate tapestry of the plethora of human experiences, emotions, and desires. Hamlet is not a literary classic solely because of its lyricism, linguistic sublimity, and aesthetic beauty. It is a work that essentially acts as a mirror that reflects the complexities and struggles of life that all of us face in varying degrees. The line “To be or not to be” has not gained immortal fame for nothing: these six simple words represent one of the most profound and agonizing questions of human existence. All the authors of literary classics, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy, Dickens to Marquez, have achieved renown in part through their efforts to convey and understand what it means to be human. It is man that makes literature great, man that brings depth and life to the words. A book becomes a classic because it can relate to all people in all places in any century. While the world is swept up in gusts of change, “the old verities and truths of the human heart” remain, unchanged and unmoved (Faulkner).

It is tempting to consider the arts as a superfluous human activity, as outlets of expression but not of utility. But with deeper investigation, it becomes clear that the arts, in the words of Faulkner, are “one of the props, the pillars to help [man] endure and prevail.” Although literature does not provide sustenance, shelter, warmth, or relief from physical pain, it is integral to the survival and well-being of the soul. Animals need to eat and be protected from the wind and rain; humans need to find a way to handle mental anguish. Literature is one such way. Whenever I read the famed first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, something is triggered in my soul. “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (Anna Karenina, 1). This sentence not only releases a cascade of images in my mind of Anna, Vronsky, Dolly, Karenin, Kitty, and Levin, but also of my own life and the lives of those I know. And when I think of the end of the novel— the death of Anna, the suffering of Vronsky, the happiness of Levin and Kitty— I am presented with a tableau of human existence. I see those who survived and those who could not survive, those who found fulfillment and those who shied from meaning. But above all, I am reminded of what it means to be human. Humans suffer, humans face death, humans stand afraid above the abyss of meaninglessness, but humans find a way to prevail, a way to endure.

Camus, existentialist philosopher and Nobel Prize winner, transformed The Stranger from a philosophical allegory to a literary classic in the last two pages, when Meursault moves from being a shell of a person to a vividly real and multi-layered human. Before facing death, Meursault is an aesthetic in the purest sense of the word, and his indifference to life is utterly monstrous and inhuman. The opening of the novel, when Meursault observes, “Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know” (The Stranger, 1), makes us as readers feel alienated, afraid, cold. But when Meursault “[opens] himself to the gentle indifference to the world” and wishes that “there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” (The Stranger, 122-123), we witness his transformation into the existentialist hero. Camus himself once said that Meursault is “the only Christ we deserve.” The way in which Meursault faces death, the way he finds meaning among the memories of an empty, pleasure-driven life, is breath-taking, life-changing. The Stranger, which unfolds into an account of human existence and the search for meaning in the face of death, is a classic for no other reason than that it helps man endure and understand the most profound tribulations of life. Literary classics, from Anna Karenina to The Stranger, all give receptive readers fortitude in knowing that they are not alone in the fear and pain that enshrouds life, fortitude in understanding that the soul, despite its weaknesses and its wounds, has “courage” and “honor” and “hope” and “compassion” (Faulkner).

The greatest authors write without fear. They write without a desire to conform, without concerns of success or failure. Anyone who does not write so cannot transcend the imposing, formidable barrier between works of literature and works of classic literature. True masterpieces, the products of their authors’ own experiences and observations of humanity, reflect the passionate yearning to reveal that “the basest of all things is to be afraid” (Faulkner). We live in a world where it is so easy to be trapped by fear, stifled by fear, paralyzed by fear. We live in a world where it is so easy to succumb to meaninglessness, to emptiness, to hopelessness. But at the same time, we, as human beings, are also capable of love and strength and fulfillment. It these gifts of the soul, that will allow humans to “not merely endure” but “prevail” (Faulkner). Classic literature is timeless and celebrated because it either reminds us of the power of soul or reveals to us what life can be when the powers of the soul are not used to their fullest extent. It helps us realize that we have the strength to triumph in the face of odds that often seem insurmountable. Characters from classic literature each illuminate a piece of ourselves: in Hamlet, we see our tormented uncertainty and inner battles, in Emma, we see our desperate longings to escape the mundane, in Meursault, we see the suffering and the questions that we will confront before facing death. We see these characters fail or triumph, some collapsing beneath the strain of the human condition or courageously overcoming it. They endure in our minds and our hearts, ubiquitous sentinels guarding the innermost chambers of our soul. I see Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull, I see Emma staring wistfully out the window, I see Meursault approaching the guillotine. I see them, and I know that I will never be alone. I see them, and I know that I can prevail.

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