Originally published in Edition One (2023).
Have you ever felt oddly connected with a character in a story? While writers craft their stories using their own biases, beliefs, and their own perceptions of the state of society, it is up to you, the reader, to form your own opinion of the story being told. Writers are able to use their work as windows into the lives and time of the people they write about. While characters in classic literature are often fictitious, they still embody the values—good and bad—of the society in which they live. Through time, many characteristics in society have evolved, but there are some eternal qualities about human nature and the human mind that authors draw comparisons to certain values to emphasise and explore.
One tale that’s as old as time is the concept of popularity. In classic literature, this is usually seen as social class. The lesson we often learn from these characters of high notoriety is that they would do anything to maintain their status, which often leads to their demise. In S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, she depicts a society divided into two rival groups: the Socs and the Greasers. The Socs are the socialites who are the epitome of the upper class while the Greasers make up the lower class. Despite the characters in the novel being all quite young, even they display the true horrors spawned from class differences. The story follows a group of Greasers who believe themselves to be outcasts of society; kids who do not fit in because they are not as well off or educated as the Socialites.
Modern-day media portrays this issue often, suggesting that money equals power and media allows us to consume content from celebrities such as Mr. Beast, the Kardashians, and Elon Musk, with their main draw being their wealth and lavish lifestyles. We, as a society, admire these people and the idea of materialism. Both Hinton’s Socs and modern-day celebrities are respected solely because of their status. Similarly, classic literature will describe characters who don't necessarily fit into the social mould as troubled, weird, or irredeemably different. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye, for example, is a very controversial character—beloved by many readers but essentially hated by the rest of the characters in his story—for his outlandish traits and nonconforming nature. People, especially youth, have a tendency to cast out those who do not fit in and may even go as far as bullying them for these differences. These characters and people show that for centuries, humans have really valued societal acceptance and we as people, especially when young and easily influenced, mirror these desires found in literary characters.
Literature also teaches us to value courage. Who doesn’t love reading a story about a brave person who defies all the odds and succeeds in the end? While many of us have never fought to regain a throne, survived a zombie apocalypse, or escaped a city overrun by violent AI robots (at least I haven’t), we admire the bravery these characters possess and hope to instil some of that within ourselves. In Jane Eyre, Jane herself defies what society and her superiors dictate a woman should or should not do. Displays of early feminism in classic literature and media have carried on into modern-day movements. Margaret Atwood’s infamous The Handmaid’s Tale recently made massive appeals in the media as Americans cite it in support of the recent overturning of Roe v Wade. Society values the evaluation and discrimination of the text where women are portrayed simply as child bearers of a heavily patriarchal society. Literature where women are described as strong and fearless still empowers modern-day women.
Likewise, classic literature teaches us that no hero can be perfect; it sets realistic standards for how to be brave. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag understands the wrongs he and his fellow firemen have committed against society by concealing knowledge of the past and actively works to reverse the censorship of literature and the media. With contemporary issues such as the Ukraine, Iraq and China conflicts, where governmental bodies censor media from the outside world, the value of information and the people who stand up for their freedoms is omnipresent. Literature shows us examples of literary heroes who challenge their governing power in the fight for the greater good. In the monochrome world depicted in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Jonas, a young boy who learns the knowledge of what the world used to be, seeks to educate himself and the rest of his society on what is being kept from them. In his fight, he goes against everything he has ever known. This courage allows him to change and potentially even save the world. He, along with the other courageous characters aforementioned, have become outstanding role models for people today.
As people, the values we uphold inevitably shape what determines social standing. Classic literature has the power to shape these values, but can also teach us the errors in them. By learning from these texts, we’re able to take away valuable lessons from the characters’ mistakes, successes, and goals to prevent the same tragedies from happening in our world.