by Lydia Tan
If you’re stuck at home and want to get a rest from the digital world, why not hunker down with reading some classic literature or its adaptations?
Classic literature can go as far back as the Victorian era, stretching into the 1940s and 50s. Even after centuries, they are still beloved by many around the world today. But what makes these classics so classic, even after mindsets and societal standards have changed over the years? We will cover novels from the Victorian era, a period where a lot of the most well-known classics came from.
Themes as old as time
One reason that makes classics so relevant today are the themes present in the books. You see themes of love in stories like Sense and Sensibility, suffering in Oliver Twist, and adventure in Around the World in Eighty Days. These are universal themes that are still very relevant to modern literature and in our lives.
These themes can also come in different interpretations, making them more diverse and multi-dimensional. For example, the theme of “love” can be defined as romantic love between a couple, or between friends and family members, or even unrequited love. The same theme of love can also be twisted in a negative, toxic relationship, like the one between Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights. A more recent comparison would be Nick and Amy’s marriage in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012).
Love ‘em or hate ‘em
The characters in classic novels are memorable because they evoke a strong emotional feeling — they’re either very likable or detestable. One example would be Jane Eyre as a headstrong feminist heroine with strong values — set in an era where women were expected to be compliant to men, she earns readers’ respect. You also see characters with different sides and traits that are gradually revealed, changing the reader’s perception of them. For example, George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice was initially introduced as Darcy’s charming friend but is later revealed to be scheming and manipulative.
When the reader is able to follow the characters — like Pip from Great Expectations or the March sisters from the Little Women series — through their ups and downs, they connect more emotionally with the characters. This is known as the “bildungsroman” format, which follows protagonist’s life from youth to adulthood, allowing the reader to watch the character grow and develop as the story progresses.
Blast from the past
Literature allows you to explore fictional worlds; with classic novels, you have an insight into how people used to live back in that time period. You learn about the conservative views towards courtship and marriage in romance novels of the Victorian era like Middlemarch and Mansfield Park, and discover the stark class differences in novels like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South.
One interesting genre of classics in which you can truly experience fictional worlds is the sci-fi genre. Believe it or not, sci-fi isn’t just a 20th century theme; it existed back in the Victorian era, when technology was so primitive! Reading novels like The Time Machine lets us see how people imagined the future, and how that ideal relates to today’s reality. It’s also interesting to see how authors of the past imagined common themes of sci-fi we’re familiar with today, like extraterrestrial beings in The War of the Worlds and otherworldly creatures in Jules Vernes’ Voyages extraordinaires series.
Into the New World
With many classics being adapted into movie and TV series, it’s clear that classics are here to stay. The timelessness of classics also makes it easier to adapt into modern settings and still be believable. One prominent example is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012), which transforms Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into a vlog-style web series with a racially-diverse cast reflecting modern American society.
Today’s authors are even taking pages out of Victorian novels (pun intended) and writing stories inspired by classic literature – like Claire O’Dell’s futuristic retelling of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featuring two black queer women in A Study in Honor (2018).
Print and on-screen adaptations have been around since the 1900s, which shows how long these classics have been popular for. Whether or not you’ve read the original novel, you can still appreciate the story through its modern adaptations and might even be encouraged to check out the original version if you haven’t already. These contemporary retellings of classics show that classics live on in our modern context and literature, and continue to interest readers of all ages.