The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

RG

FURTHER READING

RENÉ

(1802), FRANCOIS-RENÉ CHATEAUBRIAND

The melancholic figure of René, wandering the lands from France to the Americas, finding only ennui both in the city and the countryside, offered a perfect protagonist for early Romanticism. René by French writer, diplomat, and politician Chateaubriand (1768–1848) shocked readers with its plot revelation that René’s sister Amélie joined a convent to conquer her feelings of incestuous love. The novella was an instant success.

THE SKETCH BOOK OF GEOFFREY CRAYON, GENT.

(1819–1820), WASHINGTON IRVING

Penned by US writer Washington Irving (1783–1859), The Sketch Book is a collection of short stories and essays. It includes tales such as “Rip van Winkle”, in which the main character sleeps through the War of Independence, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, with its account of Ichabod Crane’s pursuit by the Headless Horseman. Irving’s book was one of the first American literary works to be successfully received in Britain and Europe, and raised the reputation of American literature in the early 19th century.

IVANHOE

(1820), SIR WALTER SCOTT

Set in 12th-century England, Ivanhoe was based on the tensions between the brutal Norman rulers and the dispossessed Saxon population. Scott’s romance tells the love story of two high-born Saxons, Rowena and Ivanhoe; they live alongside many noble and ignoble knights who duel and joust. Legendary figure Robin Hood makes an appearance as an outlaw with exemplary archery skills and a compelling sense of justice. Scott’s characterization in Ivanhoehelped rejuvenate Robin Hood’s reputation for a Victorian readership.

Sir Walter Scott

Scott (1771–1832) was born in Edinburgh, and Scotland is central to much of his work. Considered by some to be the inventor and greatest exponent of the historical novel, Scott’s childhood love of nature, the Scottish landscape, and traditional folktales helped to foster his strong sense of national identity. In poetry and prose, Walter Scott’s meshing of romance and historical fiction set against the passionate depiction of his homeland – especially in the Waverley novels (1814–32), which he wrote anonymously – delighted huge audiences and changed the way Scotland was viewed culturally. Scott suffered ill health for much of his life, finally sailing to Italy for respite, before dying at Abbotsford, the estate he had built over many years in Scotland, in 1832.

Key works

1810 The Lady of the Lake

1814 Waverley

1820 Ivanhoe

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS

(1826), JAMES FENIMORE COOPER

Set in the 1750s at the height of the Seven Years’ War (1754–63), known in the USA as the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans tells of Chingachgook and his son Uncas, the eponymous last pure-blooded member of the Mohican tribe. US writer Cooper (1789–1851) details their brave efforts, with their white trapper friend Natty Bumppo, to save innocent lives. By far the most popular of the five-part series the “Leatherstocking Tales”, Cooper’s novel helped to create several enduring stereotypes of the Western genre, such as the romantic notion of the brave, fearless frontiersman and the wise, stoic indigenous tribesman.

THE RED AND THE BLACK

(1830), STENDHAL

Told over two volumes, The Red and the Black describes the formative years of Julien Sorel, a provincial young man who attempts to scale the social order in 19th-century France. Through detailed personal, historical, and psychological accounts of Julien’s early life, from his beginnings as the sensitive child of a carpenter, to his rise into upper-class echelons via affairs with aristocratic women, the book leads up to Sorel’s eventual fall into disgrace. French writer Stendhal (1783–1842) set his novel in early 19th-century France, both parodying and satirizing the excesses of the Bourbon regime prior to the July Revolution of 1830.

OLD GORIOT

(1834–1835), HONORÉ DE BALZAC

Set in Paris in 1819, Old Goriot by Balzac tells of life during the Bourbon Restoration. The 1789 revolution seems far away, though class divisions are tense once more. Balzac employed realist depiction in recounting his brutal vision of early 19th-century Paris society, and in particular the social climbers willing to tread on others to achieve their ends. Considered by many to be his finest novel, it was the first of Balzac’s stories to feature characters from his other books, a practise that became a trademark of his fiction.

FAIRY TALES

(1835–1837), HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75) created some of his fairy tales by retelling tales he heard as a child and others by inventing his own bold, original stories. Published in three volumes, Fairy Tales consists of nine tales, including classics such as “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Andersen’s works prefigured the explosion of children’s literature in the 19th century and continue to hold enormous cultural significance today.

KALEVALA

(1835–1849), ELIAS LÖNNROT

Taken from folklore tales of the Karelian and Finnish indigenous peoples, the Kalevala – meaning “the land of Kaleval” – is a collection of epic poetry that is considered one of the most significant works of Finnish literature. Brought together by the ethnographic research of Finnish doctor and philologist Elias Lönnrot (1802–84), who travelled across the expanses of Finland and Karelia recording oral folksongs, the Kalevala is written in a distinctive metre, with each line featuring four pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables. It retold mythological tales, building a literary and cultural heritage that awakened Finnish nationalism in the 19th century.

OLIVER TWIST

(1837–1839), CHARLES DICKENS

In his second novel, English writer Dickens paints a bold depiction of the social underclass of Victorian Britain, and of the poor fending for themselves in a hostile world. Seen as an early example of the social protest novel, Oliver Twist tells the story of Oliver as he flees the workhouse for London and joins a criminal child-gang. Like many of Dickens’ novels, it was published serially, with cliff-hangers to keep readers hungry for each installment.

A HERO OF OUR TIME

(1840), MIKHAIL LERMONTOV

In A Hero of Our Time, Russian writer, poet, and painter Lermontov (1814–41) introduces the protagonist Grigory Pechorin, an idle, nihilistic, “superfluous man” figure. Pechorin acts as an antihero through a series of adventures and love affairs set against the landscape of the Caucasus region of Russia. The author arranged his novel in five parts, portraying the complex nature of a sensitive, emotional, yet brutally cynical antihero who despairs at the pointlessness of life.

"I was ready to love the whole world – no one understood me: I learned to hate."

A Hero of Our Time
Mikhail Lermontov

TALES OF THE GROTESQUE AND ARABESQUE

(1840), EDGAR ALLAN POE

Originally published in two volumes, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque consists of 25 short stories or “tales”. Many of them are written with elements of Gothic form, and some delve into the darker psychological aspects of the protagonists’ minds. US writer Poe (1809–49) is regarded as the creator of “dark Romanticism” – a specifically American form of Romanticism. “The Fall of the House of Usher”, best known of the tales, sees Roderick Usher’s home cracking and breaking and finally collapsing in sympathetic parallel with his own psychological breakdown. Much analysis of Poe’s collection has centred on the meaning of the terms “Grotesque” and “Arabesque”: whatever Poe’s exact intention, the tales are significant for their treatment of terror and horror.

"There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart – an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime."

“The Fall of the House of Usher”
Edgar Allan Poe

THE BLACK SHEEP

(1841–1842), HONORÉ DE BALZAC

Long overlooked but now considered to be one of the masterpieces of French novelist and playwright BalzacThe Black Sheep tells the story of the competing plots, manipulations, and schemes of the members of a bourgeois family to secure a substantial inheritance. Titled La Rebouilleuse – someone who stirs waters in order to trap fish – in French, in reference to a controlling mistress of the story, it is a compelling exploration of the nature of deceit. Money, status, and legitimacy, and the lengths to which human beings will go in order to secure financial reward are among the themes explored by Balzac.

Honoré de Balzac

One of France’s leading writers of the 19th century, Balzac is known for his development of realism in the novel form, especially in Old Goriot. Born in Tours in 1799, he moved to Paris as a child, attended the Sorbonne from 1816, and was heading towards law as a profession when he turned to writing. By 1832, he had plans for La Comédie humaine – a collection of nearly 150 of his works, including essays, novels, and a range of analytical and philosophical texts. Balzac intended this vast compendium to capture the nature of the human condition, but he died in 1850, his life’s work unfinished.

Key works

1829 The Chouans

1834–35 Old Goriot

1841–42 The Black Sheep

DEAD SOULS

(1842), NIKOLAI GOGOL

Dead Souls is often seen as the first great novel of the Russian Golden Age. Inspired by his friend, the poet Pushkin, Ukraine-born writer Gogol intended to write a three-part epic, but only produced the first two parts, and burned the manuscript of the second volume when close to his death. The remaining novel satirizes the practices of serfdom in Russia. Since tax must be paid by landowners on all their serfs – even those who have died since the last census – lead character Chichikov colludes illegally with estate owners to buy their dead serfs. He plans to borrow money against the value of his “dead souls” to start his own estate. Chichikov’s travels across Russia are a comic tale reminiscent of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Nikolai Gogol

Born in 1809 in Sorochintsy in the Russian Empire (now part of Ukraine), Gogol was the progenitor of the great 19th-century tradition of Russian realism. Raised in the Cossack heartlands and shaped by the folklore of his native people, Gogol’s early works displayed a lively and often colloquial style, winning instant acclaim from the Russian literary public. His short stories, novels, and plays spanned Romanticism, Surrealism, comedy, and satire, but his creative capacity waned in the years before his death in 1852.

Key works

1831–32 Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka

1836 The Government Inspector

1842 Dead Souls

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO

(1844–1845), ALEXANDRE DUMAS

The most popular book throughout Europe at the time of its serialization, The Count of Monte Cristo, by French playwright and novelist Dumas, was set during the Bourbon Restoration. It tells the story of the revenge inflicted by Edmond Dantès on his enemies, following his imprisonment on false charges of treason. In prison he meets Abbé Faria, who tells him of hidden treasure on the island of Monte Cristo. After escaping and finding the treasure, Dantès rises again as the Count of Monte Cristo.

VANITY FAIR

(1847–1848), WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY

Vanity Fair follows the fortunes of two women – Amelia Smedley, from a decent family, and the orphan Becky Sharp – as they head out into a swirling social world seeking wealth and standing. They are polar opposites: Amelia is innocent and gentle, while Becky is ferocious in her ambition to climb the social strata. English author Thackeray (1811–63) paints a vivid parody of society and creates an essentially amoral heroine in the impish Becky.

"Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place …"

Vanity Fair
William Makepeace Thackeray

DAVID COPPERFIELD

(1849–1850), CHARLES DICKENS

Describing the coming of age of the title character, David Copperfield was first published in serial form, and of all the novels of Dickens, it is the one closest to an autobiographical work. The details of Copperfield’s life show parallels with the author’s own, although places and settings were altered. Characters such as great aunt Betsy Trottwood, the obsequious Uriah Heep, and penniless Mr Macawber are among Dickens’ best-known and best-loved creations.

THE SCARLET LETTER

(1850), NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

Set amid the Puritan world of mid-17th-century Massachusetts, Hawthorne’s historical romance tells the tale of Hester Prynne, a young woman found guilty of adultery and forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” to signify her crime. Her husband has long disappeared, and is presumed dead. She defiantly refuses to name the father of her daughter, Pearl – against the demands of her public trial and her church minister – so is sent to prison. Hester’s alienation from the strict religious creeds of Puritan society allows US writer Hawthorne (1804–64) to explore wider spiritual and moral issues, such as attitudes to the notion of sin. The Scarlet Letter was an immediate success, becoming one of the first mass-produced books in American history.

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN

(1852), HARRIET BEECHER STOWE

The hugely successful anti-slavery tale by US writer Stowe (1811–96) helped to persuade readers that Christian beliefs and slavery were incompatible. Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells of noble slave Tom, who is sold and forced to leave his wife and family, yet never loses his moral values. In its first year of publication Stowe’s story sold some 300,000 copies in the USA, highlighting the country’s race issue and North–South division. It was even seen by some as a spark for the US Civil War (1861–65).

NORTH AND SOUTH

(1854–1855), ELIZABETH GASKELL

English novelist Gaskell despised social inequality and poverty. Her tale of heroine Margaret Hale’s journey from prosperous southern England to the north allowed readers to see the dire state of the lowest classes in Britain’s industrial northern cities. The work graphically depicts the division between the north and south of England and the lives of those who provided the labour for the Industrial Revolution. It was published serially just after Hard Timesby Dickens, at whose request Gaskell wrote her novel.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Born in London in 1810, Gaskell was the daughter of a Unitarian minister. Married to a church minister in industrial Manchester, she began writing in her 30s after beginning a diary to record the day-to-day life of her family. Her first books drew on her early life in rural Cheshire, but it was her later novels, set amid the poverty and strife of the working class, that made her name. She died in 1865, her finest work – Wives and Daughters – unfinished.

Key works

1848 Mary Barton

1853 Cranford

1854–55 North and South