The Problem with Classics

I love a lot about classics. For the most part, there’s a reason they’ve stuck around.

As wonderful experiences I have had reading classic literature, there are some definite challenges that come along with it.

One of the challenges of reading classics is reconciling “old-fashioned” ways of thinking with modern expectations. This stood out to me as I’ve been reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I have been really annoyed with her presentation of gender and class. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I have found the book so far to feel like the worst of upper-class snobbery.

In addition to that, I find the female characters in particular to be really obnoxious and have felt extremely disappointed that a woman was apparently so incapable of writing a competent, complex female character.

I’ve read plenty of books where I noticed problems with gender dynamics before. It’s, unfortunately, hard to avoid – especially when you consider that the history of publishing was so entirely dominated by men for such a long time (and still is, although to a lesser extent). But it is really grating for me in North and South (again – so far; I may change my mind). Does that mean I’m simply not doing a good enough job of getting my head into a 19th century mentality and stop trying to view it through a 21st century lens? Is it my fault for expecting or wanting my values to be reflected? I mean, I really feel like I’m not asking for anything unreasonable here. (Can we have one woman in an 19th century novel that doesn’t faint or burst into hysterics? One woman?)

On the flip side, if I roll my eyes and keep reading, muttering something along the lines of “it’s of its time,” am I letting myself down and minimizing/ignoring the issues I see?

It’s clear that there is some kind of balance that can exist. After all, it is entirely possible to recognize something as deeply problematic while still enjoying and even holding it close to your heart. Perhaps I just haven’t read enough classics to find that balance.

I’ll finish with this: It is disheartening to see yourself (in my case, my gender) in great literature only through stereotypes and paper-cutout-characters. To see yourself only in shadows while everything else is in brilliant color. To see writers time and time again lazily resort to trope after trope after trope. And of course there are many, many other groups who experience this to an even greater degree.

As fantastic as much of classic literature is, I think we have to admit that visibility matters. Being able to see yourself in the stories that you read really matters. It’s why we really do need diverse books.

Classics are worthwhile, by all means. But so is a conversation about where literature has failed.

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