What makes the Classics classics?

By Roseanna Lane

The term ‘classic’ is something which is often thrown around when it comes to literature. However, it was not until I recently started reading ‘classical’ texts for my course that I began thinking about why they are referred to in this manner. My family, peers and myself have all labelled my recent reads as this, but why? When put simply, they are branded in this way as a reflection of their social impact or influence throughout history to the modern day. I have started to wonder why is it that the likes of Dickens, Alcott and Eliot still appeal to masses.

Firstly, if we think about why a text makes it into the literary canon, it is predominantly due to its social impact, often the first of its kind to explore a certain idea. For example, the way in which Dickens deals with class politics is seen by most as a way for his work to qualify as part of the most elite in its field. Some may question: what makes this appealing now? It seems that from a historical point of view, the fact that it’s revolutionary.  As well as being the first of their kind, they also carry moral and humanist stories which are still relatable to people today.

Equally, the ‘classics’ can be seen as traditional in their style, structure and form. Modern authors often find their appeal through bending the boundaries of genre or style in order to create something interesting. However, the ‘classics’ stick with a basic and traditional plot and often carry a moral message or lesson. I would argue that these ‘classic’ authors built the foundations which allow for the twenty-first century author to be more experimental in their work. Without the successes of literature in the past, there would be no basis for this modern experimentation.

I’d like to leave you with the thought: what is a classic to you? If we step away from the rigmarole of the canon and the social labels that are connected to a text, then I think it is important to form a canon of your own. In Latin, it means ‘rule’, so instead of letting it rule your own thoughts on literature, try and decide on a rule of your own.


Roseanna Lane

Featured image courtesy The Spectator

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