Why Classic Books Are So Hard to Understand?

Julia Webster, Co-Editor

We’ve all been there. Your English teacher assigned you a novel that you just can’t wrap your head around, no matter how hard you try (or didn’t try). It’s the day before your comprehension test, you’re ten pages in and no closer to understanding what “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” means. You haven’t eaten in six hours, haven’t seen your parents since this morning, and did you use sand as eye drops? It’s 2 a.m. And you’re desperate and tired. SparkNotes it is.

English teachers get their kicks from torturing us with classics with vague themes, complex tones, and incomprehensible syntax and diction…or so many of us would like to think. But these pieces are important.

The reason we find classics so hard to digest is that we lack context. None of us were alive when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, and we certainly weren’t alive when Plato was writing Republic. We aren’t familiar with the complexities of their societies, the faux pas of the time and what was “in” and what wasn’t. It is much too difficult to learn another culture for the sake of understanding a novel. We are all too caught up in our own lives to worry about what life was like in 300 BC.

Language also evolves. A few hundred years ago, Chaucer Geoffrey wrote The Canterbury Tales. Untranslated, a few lines look like a five year old’s mindless rambling. One excerpt from the story goes like this: “A wys wyf, if that she can hir good, Shal beren him on hond the cow is wood, And take witnesse of hir owene mayde Of hir assent; but herkneth how I sayde.” It resembles English, but not enough to understand what is happening. Shakespeare (I never thought I would say this) is easier to understand because he writes in Modern English. But his (sometimes excessive) use of figurative language makes the simple reader want to poke his eyeballs out with a hot poker. Writers such as Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, and Frances Hodgson Burnett don’t use figurative language as much as flowery imagery and what seems like redundantly long sentences with no useful information.

You may be asking yourself, why? Why do we read these elaborate novels and stories if we don’t even use the same language? Why do English teachers like to confuse us with books like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice?

The answer is, for experience. The more we read, the more knowledge we have. The more educated we are. The more empowered we feel. When you read, you open your eyes to new ideas, new thoughts that you haven’t thought before. You see the world in a new light, or from a new point of view. When you read, you learn about other cultures and how they lived, and what their fears are. You learn that maybe your life is not as horrible as you thought. You gain perspective. You mature.

Books allow us to visit different lands, be different people, have different experiences. You can go to England during the Revolutionary War without ever leaving your couch. You can go to outer space without years of training and the shock of zero gravity. Anything is possible when you read. You are taken on a journey you can’t even imagine.  

If that is too broad and philosophical for you, think of all the literary references you will now understand. Things like “Big Brother,” “a plague on both your houses,” and “a catch-22” will make much more sense once you read the books they came from.

Classic books may not be necessary to your education as a whole; you will hardly be expected to explain what part three of East of Eden means on a job interview, but they are enriching. Professor Arnold Weinstein says, “Classic novels are restless creatures, trying out new forms of expression, challenging our views on how a culture might be understood and how a life might be packaged. What is the shape of experience? How would you represent your own? These books help us toward a deeper understanding of our own estate.”

Think about this the next time you pick up a classic novel for school and want to cry.