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Your Literature Cheat Sheet

You don’t have to trawl through unending pages of dry prose to know a text well enough to fake your way through conversation

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of the print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories ~ Margret Atwood.

When mingling with well-educated and well-read folk, it’s inevitable that certain classic texts will come up in conversation — whether it’s for someone to lord their bookish superiority over others or to pretentiously gloat about their depth of knowledge in the Classics — “it has a capital ‘C’, don’t you know...” (*said in as toff-ish an accent as you can conjure*). Rightly or wrongly, people do this. It’s unavoidable. 

At this point it’s normal to feel out of place, helplessly bereft in your own knowledge of Literature — “it has a capital ‘L’, don’t you know...”

But it is possible to converse on the topic quickly and with a wit that shows you understand the nuances of each text without having to read them. And your savour is here: Here’s your cheat sheet to some key Literary Classics.

The Great Gatsby (1925) — F. Scott Fitzgerald 

A novella of 90 or so pages — which makes it one of the most perfectly executed texts of all time — exploring love, power, wealth and envy succinctly and with pathos.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, is in love with both Daisy and Gatsby (depending on which interpretation you buy into). The titular Gatsby is a swindler, a liar — the ultimate symbol of the American Dream: getting what you want at any cost. 

Written just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression, the novel is now seen as a prescient warning to greedy bankers who were held responsible for the consequent broken state of the American economy. 

The green light that flashes on the water throughout the novella is a motif (one of the most famous in literature) for the fragility of hopes and dreams — easily clouded over by the fog that surrounds it on the water.

Memorable Quote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edge of the print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories ~ Margret Atwood.

Among the Hallowed Halls

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Hamlet (1602) — William Shakespeare 

The longest of his plays, and the most philosophical. And for our money, the best.

Due to the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, Sigmund Freud based much of his Oedipus Complex on it — along with the original Oedipus Rex story from Greek mythology.

It’s a full-on dysfunctional family affair of a play: Hamlet’s uncle kills his dad. His mum marries his uncle. And then his dad’s ghost haunts Hamlet and tells him to kill his uncle — and you thought your Christmas dinner table was awkward…

Many of Hamlet’s soliloquies and monologues fixate on the ideas of life, death and cowardice. Hamlet’s taking revenge against Claudius (his uncle) is constantly postponed due to his indecisiveness: arguably his hamartia (a hero’s tragic, fatal flaw).

The main reason Hamlet was so shocking for an English Renaissance audience — who would’ve been devoutly Christian — was that suicide (the play’s and Hamlet’s main concern) was considered a grave sin, whereby burial rites were withheld.

Memorable Quote: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” 

Ulysses (1922) — James Joyce 

Sometimes lambasted as the most difficult text in the history of Literature but equally praised by serious literary critics for being the apotheosis of the written word.

Joyce’s 1,200-page postcolonial masterpiece is written in the stream of consciousness style that came to define Modernism in Literature. It’s a modern retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, with the ancient Greek world swapped out for the modern Irish setting. 

Ulysses (Latin for Odysseus) follows two Irishmen through Dublin — Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. 

Joyce faced obscenity trials and many publishers tried to have the book banned for the way it explored the human body, sex and desire in a way that was taboo at the time. Subsequent to the book’s eternal fame and reputation, Ireland celebrates Bloomsday on June 16th each year to remember the day Ulysses was set.

Memorable Quote: “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) — Harper Lee 

Though written in 1960, it is set in the fictional community of Maycomb, Alabama in the years 1933-35, so just after America’s Great Depression and at a time of great economic strife and racial tension in the Deep South.

The events of the 280-odd page novel are narrated by Scout — a five-year-old girl at the start of the book, eight at its conclusion. Lee chose Scout as her narrator to highlight an innocent child’s exposure to the irrational and destructive nature of prejudice. The mockingbirds of the book’s title are a symbol of innocence; the murder of Tom Robinson is compared to the “senseless slaughter of songbirds” — a metaphor for the death of innocence. 

Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel for the way it confronted racial prejudice and the taboo topic of rape.

Memorable Quote: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The Count of Monte Cristo (1845) — Alexandre Dumas 

If you are seeking revenge, read this book. It’s a gloriously written manual on dishing up a meticulously planned, long-awaited and deserved revenge. 

On the eve of his wedding, Edmond Dantès is accused of being a Bonapartist traitor, wrongfully imprisoned for six years, subsequently escapes and returns disguised as the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. 

Dantès’ incarceration is as a metaphor for the true voices of the French people being repressed by the aristocratic rulers at the time it was written and set: a time of great political and social upheaval in France.

Bonapartist ideals contrast the “good” characters from the “bad” aristocratic royals. Needless to say, Dumas was a supporter of Napoleon. 

Memorable Quote: “All human wisdom is contained in these two words: Wait and Hope.”

The Art of War (circa 500BC) — Sun Tzu

A collection of aphorisms inked by the Chinese general Sun Tzu around the 5th century BC. It’s a very old text! But it’s enduring nonetheless and is still being used as a quote bank and political basis for the Trump administration.

Sun Tzu was a military strategist and born (544BC) at a time of extreme political instability. The book is therefore a way of finding desirable political stability without fighting. As such, each of the 13 chapters are dedicated to a distinct aspect of warfare and how they can and should be overcome.

As  it focuses on conducting warfare without actually fighting, it is often applied in other fields such as business education and management practice. 

Memorable Quote: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) — Margaret Atwood 

An unapologetically disturbing dystopian novel set in a future America (Gilead) where women are treated as mere tools of procreation.

The female body is used as political instrument. Women have no rights, are not allowed jobs or educated, and are reduced to a set of organs appropriate only for birth. 

Deformed babies are called “Unbabies”, feminists are known as “Unwomen”. This text has become very topical of late. 

Memorable Quote: “Freedom, like everything else, is relative.”

Marks of Dinstinction


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Things Fall Apart (1959) — Chinua Achebe 

Rueful and solemn in tone, this is a commentary on colonialism and the loss of cultural identity from an African perspective. 

Okonkwo is considered a paragon of masculinity in Igbo culture, which he perpetuates from a deep fear of appearing weak. 

The gun (an alien item to the Igbo, and a symbol of Western power) Okonkwo uses to instil fear in others foreshadows how Christianity would instill fear in the locals to forget their traditional gods and cultural ways.

The title is taken from a W.B. Yeats poem, which says, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Memorable Quote: “He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”

The Prince (1532) — Niccolò Machiavelli 

Penned by the infamous Florentine during the Italian Renaissance, known for his devious but frank methods of seizing and maintaining power.

Quite simply, this treatise on power (for that’s what it is) changed the way people acted and thought from the Renaissance to today. A “Machiavellian” character is the archetypal antagonist in any great work of literature. An often misunderstood surmise of Machiavelli’s philosophy that people tend to reduce his thinking down to, is “The ends justify the means.” 

Much of what Machiavelli says encourages a draconian use of force to maintain power; he urged readers to eliminate rival families to remove any future question to one’s authority.

Memorable Quote: “It is far safer to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

Crime and Punishment (1866) — Fyodor Dostoevsky 

If you want to understand the modern world’s psyche, read this masterpiece. 

The protagonist, and anti-hero, Raskalnikov randomly murders an old woman and spends the rest of the 500-page novel ruminating on his potential punishment. 

With secularisation and atheism beginning to flourish across Europe, Dostoevsky wrote Crime to emphasise how a godless society was not necessarily a good thing: without an almighty god, can we really be the moral judges of our own actions? 

Memorable Quote: “The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin.”

Have we missed any Classics that you think should be on this list? If so, get in touch and recommend which texts we should include:

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