5 The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane’s naturalist novel is that rarest of all undesirable gems: a very boring and slow paced war novel. Especially considering all the great themes that a Civil War novel could play off — a country divided, brother against brother, the rights of all men — this novel falls short. Instead, it turns inward to focus on a soldier’s desertion, justification, and perpetual rejustification of his actions through out. Though these get inventive at times (he throws an acorn at a squirrel!), the book is mired in feelings instead of events. Like Ethan Frome, you’ll want to kill the main character yourself by the end of the novel.
Again, a brilliant book well worth concentrated study. The only real problem here is the language used by the characters. Sure the arguments are well structured and poetically executed; they are, however, a piss-poor representation of how normal people speak. Even if you try to attribute the elevated language to the way educated people spoke in the early 1800s, one look at works from the same period will topple this house-of-cards theory. The novel also looses feminist points for the heavy-handed revisions Percy Shelley imposed upon Mary Shelley’s manuscript. And this is such a familiar story with so many easily tenable themes, that you can sparknote it and still comfortably ace a final or paper.
Along with Moby Dick, Ulysses is probably the most likely book on this list to take up an entire semester’s worth of study and analysation. (In fact, don’t skip either if one is the sole basis of a seminar, duh.) So what’s the problem? Ulysses might be the most difficult novel likely to be posted on a required reading syllabus. It borders on impenetrable at times, combining and redefining almost every literary technique that had been used up to that point — and even inventing a few others. If that’s your bag, which I doubt it is, then you’re in for a dazzling display of literary perfection. If not, you’ll be direly confused on the distinction between the narrative voice and the character’s stream of consciousness thoughts.
2 Ethan Frome
Ethan Frome hails from that pivotal period in American literate, where symbolism and allegory were thrilling new developments. Unlike other classics from this period (like The Scarlet Letter), though, Ethan Frome doesn’t really do anything dynamic with these new concepts. The pickle dish is always symbolic of Ethan’s struggling marriage. That’s it. Right after it breaks (gasp), Ethan commits an act of infidelity. The whole production is so ham-fisted that you’re rooting for the sniveling Ethan to die at the end, even though you know that he just gets horribly crippled from the onset. (Spoiler alert?)
1 Moby Dick
Like all classics, Moby Dick offers erudite commentary on the state of man’s soul within the confines of life. What it doesn’t offer is a clear-cut path to that message. Instead, Melville waylays the audience with chapters on whale’s foreheads. Then how noble whales are. Then why whalers are different from typical sailors. Then why every whaleboat needs to keep a bucket of water ready at all times. If that sounds like something you can bare, then the homoerotic repetition of the word “seaman” ad nauseum may be worth the four hundred-some-odd pages you’ll need to slog through between the boat first embarking until it finally encounters Moby Dick.
Obviously, these books aren’t all snoozers. After all, they’re immortal classics for many reasons. What they won’t do, though, is engage you enough on a personal level if you’re too preoccupied with the rest of your scholarly obligations. (Chiefly beer pong.) No, these novels are best left on the back burner for your retirement. Hopefully, you’ll live long enough to finally crack one open and utter a triumphant, knowledgeable, “Meh.” If you have any other literary classics that have absolutely tormented you throughout your schooling, please be sure to leave a comment below!