How relevant is classic literature to young people in 2020?

September 17, 2020

Collage created by Sadie Souter with images from Pixabay

Aloki Rochelmeyer explores some famous novels and questions if they still resonate and offer any insight today

Are the classics dead? Depends on who you ask. I’m going to give you my fairly mixed opinion.

Now I’m not talking about modern classics, they’re great, they’re more current, and they’re definitely not dead. The classics I’m referring to are highly praised, sometimes overrated pieces of literature, mostly written 100 years ago or more.

At some point, everyone reads or is instructed to read the classics at school. Why do they continue to stay on the syllabus when they could be replaced by more diverse, relatable and current literature?

Although more contemporary literature may be easier to connect with, gaining an insight into the past can be enriching in its way. Learning about the societal attitudes of those who lived long ago enables us to see all that has changed, for instance, the role of women. With knowledge of the past, we can then go on to consider why things needed to change and what other changes could occur within our society now.

My first impression from reading some of the classics was that they were painfully boring and something I would perhaps be interested in later on in my life.

Young people like to read things that let them know they are not alone, that other people endure the same issues

Many of Charles Dickens’ novels appear at first super un-relatable. They often detail urban issues such as overcrowding, prostitution and disease, which form an overwhelming presence in the lives of his characters. However that does not make his books as irrelevant and inaccessible as you think. Historical context obviously changes but human nature not so much.

Young people like to read things that let them know they are not alone, that other people endure the same issues and find themselves in the same dilemmas that they experience.

I was chuffed and comforted when I found in some of Jane Austen’s works characters having experiences comparable to some of my own, with much of her writing following teenage girls. As seen in Pride and Prejudice the whole ‘playing hard to get’ fiasco still goes on. Questioning whether your crush likes you or not is definitely something we all contemplate at some stage.

Following your heart is still superb advice. And true love is also clearly worth waiting for as revealed in the novel Persuasion with its central character Anne Elliot. Anne initially refuses Frederick Wentworth’s proposal eight years prior to ending up with him; which reflects my feeling that timing can in fact be key when it comes to love.

I’ve unexpectedly become an advocate of Victorian classics, initially thinking I would rip their relevance apart

Many of the emotional concepts and life lessons explored in the classics I’ve read are timeless and meaningful in some way.

  • In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), which follows the four March sisters as they struggle to overcome poverty and grow into young women, the central themes of coming-of-age, the importance of being genuine, following your dreams and personal growth are always going to resonate, especially for me as a young woman.
  • In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Jane, an inspirational young woman, tackles gender discrimination during the Victorian era. For starters she values self-respect, self-truth and she has excellent morals. She also teaches us to take control of our lives and to be strong.
  • In Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Bathsheba Everdene, the novel’s heroine, is torn between three love interests – when put simply like this, the story is not as irrelevant to me despite its pastoral setting.
  • The themes of love, social customs and freedom that Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1846) address are also eternal. The novel provokes the reader to question whether Cathy and Heathcliff have a toxic obsession for each other or a deep passionate love. We are also forced to face the fact that actions have consequences. Cathy is unhappy in her marriage to Edgar Linton and remains deeply in love with Heathcliff till her death.
  • And lastly for me there’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). This is sweet in its intentions yet, for me, tedious to read, which is ironic taking into account its short length. The main message of money not truly making you happy is one that no doubt needs to keep on being reiterated, with today’s world putting more emphasis on consumerism and greed than ever.

I began, thinking I would rip apart the relevance and praise given to Victorian classics, yet it seems I’ve become an advocate. The classics aren’t as dead as you might think.

My friend suggested Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo as an alternative to the classics. It won the Man Booker prize in 2019. Following the lives and loves of a dozen diverse British women across time, class and life experience, the novel paints a unique, enlightening portrait of modern British life. What would you recommend?

I feel that no matter where you come from or what you’re dealing with, teenagers of all backgrounds and skill levels can find something relevant to their lives in the classics.

Aloki is currently studying Psychology, Graphics and English literature at A level. She enjoys running, loves listening to music and watching documentaries to increase her understanding of the world.

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