Countering the Classics

Here are 7 antidotes to some of literature's most problematic masterpieces.

There’s no question that the classics have a place in our lives. They teach us about the history of literature as well as about history, period. Classics, whether they’re the ones we read as kids or those we read later in life, are especially important to read in context of their time. Yet as contemporary readers, we’re often made uncomfortable by various classic novels because of the way they discuss women, people of color, people with physical disabilities or mental illness. And while we can appreciate the classics for what they are, there’s also something to be said for countering the classics with a kind of antidote to their racism, sexism, ableism, and other miscellaneous stigma. Below, we’ve put together a list of a few books that you may have read for class or because people told you you had to read XYZ classic, and we’ve paired them with a book that may help get the bad taste out of your mouth.

Gone with the Wind / The Wind Done Gone

The classic Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is maybe one of the most obvious choices for a classic that is beloved by many, many, (many) people, yet is a prime example of a novel that is blatantly racist. To put it in perspective (of sorts), let’s remember that the novel is about the United States South, so of course, historically, contextually, white people owned slaves. This is just historically accurate, and doesn’t really represent the problem here. What is really discomfiting (and very possibly enraging, but let’s go with understatement so as not to get too fired up right now) is the whitewashing of the slavery experience, the depiction of house slaves as loyal, happy, and docile as opposed to the field slaves as disloyal, as if leaving their backbreaking, unpaid work when emancipated was the wrong thing to do.

To recuperate from Gone with the Wind’s problems, we can turn to the wonderfully titled The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. This literary parody is nevertheless a searching examination of the way Mitchell looked at slaves in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era South. The complex main character, Cynara, daughter of the house slave Mammy and Scarlett O’Hara’s father, makes vastly different choices than her mother or her white half-sister. The novel is clearly a loaded criticism of Gone with the Wind (there was a lawsuit by Mitchell’s estate—it failed) but is also its own book, a wonderfully illuminating exploration of the choices of slaves in the South that differ from the happy-slave trope.

The Scarlet Letter / Fear of Flying

While The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is considered by some people a kind of feminist book, or at least a look at women who break society’s rules, it is also an extremely itchy book in that it is uncomfortable and disturbing. Hester Prynne, the adulteress who must wear the letter A on her clothes to mark her as such, is shamed publicly, put in jail, and is portrayed as a kind of evil Eve, luring a chaste priest to her and causing his downfall as well as her own. While the book was published two years after the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention and can be seen as Hawthorne’s consideration of women’s freedom; while Hester Prynne is a survivor, she’s still a victim and an object to be owned, and this rubs many readers the wrong way.

As a nice antidote to The Scarlet Letter, take a risk and read the landmark second wave feminist novel Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. The book’s central character and narrator is a young married artist who explores her sexuality both with her husband and with an anonymous fling. She thinks about her experiences, wandering along the paths of her choices and agency, and is also pretty much the opposite of puritan in that she has a sense of humor (the book’s first line is, after all, “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I’d been treated by at least six of them.”).

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Oliver Twist / The Collected Stories of Grace Paley

Charles Dickens’ books aren’t to everyone’s tastes as it is, it’s true, but it can’t be denied that he was a master storyteller, and actually dealt with a lot of complex socioeconomic and class issues in his work. Oliver Twist is one of his most famous titular characters, an orphan boy whose progress goes from the workhouse to being a pickpocket in a gang. While Dickens both satirizes and criticizes child labor, he also depicts an extremely ugly Jewiah stereotype in the character of Fagen. The stereotype comes from a long line of similar ones (possibly beginning, in the English tradition, in The Jew of Malta) and it is still despicable and antisemitic today.

If you need to turn to other socially aware books but that portray Jewishness as less ugly, look no further than Grace Paley’s stories. Her narrators are often, though not always, Jewish as well as socialist, and the stories deal with many similar themes as Dickens’ books but from a vastly different perspective: social norms are satirized, the realities of the working class are criticized, and poverty is examined as are the tragedies of children. Paley’s prose and voice, however, are far from stuffy English white man writing.

Jane Eyre / Wide Sargasso Sea

I love Jane Eyre for so many reasons. It’s one of the earliest novels written by a woman with a first person narration of a woman’s point of view. It looks at childhood abuse and trauma in coded and potent ways. It exemplifies women’s autonomy while also portraying its limitations. It deals with class and poverty and screwed up families. And yet: Bertha. The “madwoman in the attic” trope does stem from this book. Bertha is the first wife of Mr. Rochester (Jane’s love interest), and is shut up in the attic for the better part of the novel, until she finally manages to burn down Rochester’s house and commits suicide. While there’s some truth to the idea that Mr. Rochester keeping Bertha in the attic was likely better than sending her to a 19th century asylum, there is also a terrible discussion of Bertha’s madness, the description of her “discolored” and “savage” face (some think this is meant to imply that Bertha wasn’t white), and the fact that Mr. Rochester opposed Bertha’s “intemperate and unchaste” nature prior to her insanity—meaning that she wasn’t a virgin, obedient, wifely. Some readings see Bertha’s “madness” as later stages of syphilis (because of the “unchaste” remark), and if so, Mr. Rochester would likely have it to and, after marrying Jane, may pass it along to her. To sum up: everything in the novel surrounding Bertha is, to put it simply, problematic.

To counter the simplicity of dismissing Bertha in Jane Eyre we can look at a kind of revisionist history of her character. In Wide Sargasso Sea by British-Dominican author Jean Rhys. In this book, Bertha is not really Mr. Rochester’s wife’s name. It is Antoinette Cosway, and she is a creole heiress who grew up in Jamaica and married Mr. Rochester who renamed her Bertha. Rhys sees Cosway’s madness as a result of her being gaslighted and locked up by Mr. Rochester who believed that she was part of an attempt to have him be married off into a “damaged” family. While the issue of Cosway’s race isn’t touched upon here, her homeland and her being torn from it by her marriage are. And in this book, we get to see not redemption so much as an explanation for how the Bertha in Jane Eyre came to be.

The Berenstain Bears / The Magic School Bus

The Berenstain Bears book series (and some of you may remember it as a TV show) seems like a landmark (and endless) series of books that many of us really and truly enjoyed as kids. They’re still fun to reread today—the dialogue can be funny, the pictures are still their own unique style, and I still want someone to pay me to stop biting my nails. But there’s also a kind of 1950s, leave-it-to-beaver type aftertaste to the books, especially when reading them now. The books are so intensely moralistic, and the family portrayed is extremely heteronormative. If this sticks in your craw, as it might, you can turn elsewhere for your nostalgia needs.

Another endless series that was made into a TV show and had lots of lessons is The Magic School Bus and its many sequels starring Ms. Frizzle. Not so picture perfect—after all, the Friz, as the kids call her, isn’t necessarily married as she goes neither by miss nor mrs. There are both boys and girls in the class but none are shown as being particularly boyish or girlish in the books. They’re kids, kids with a thirst for learning, a sense of humor, and a thirst for learning (even though Arnold always wishes he’d stayed at home). These books are a wonderful way to learn and love and remember our childhoods without the discomfiting need to deal with the issue of traditional family portrayal.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories / Who Fears Death

Fans of H. P. Lovecraft abound, even in the most liberal of circles. As China Mieville, another author of what has come to be known as Weird fiction (one of the many subcategories of science fiction and fantasy) has said, Lovecraft’s work was “hateful, racist bile” while also believing that in Lovecraft’s case, “race-hatred raised him to the state of poetic trance.” That is, that without having been so virulently ugly in his beliefs (racist, sexist, antisemitic, and the list could go on), Lovecraft’s work also wouldn’t have been the feverish stuff of dreams and nightmares that it is. This isn’t an easy thing to swallow and I can’t say that I necessarily agree, but the fact remains that there are still a huge number of fans of The Call of Cthulhu and many other H. P. Lovecraft works, precisely because of their bizarre darkness.

Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor has written about Lovecraft (whose bust is the statuette of the World Fantasy Award, which she won in 2011 and Mieville won in 2010) and is, as a writer, a wonderful antidote to his hateful, racist bile. Her award-winning book Who Fears Death certainly wrangles with race, but in a different way entirely. In the post-apocalyptic Sudan featured in the novel, the lighter-skinned Nuru oppress the darker-skinned Okeke, and the novel’s protagonist is a child of the rape of an Okeke woman by a Nuru man. She uses her magic powers, which are later impaired by female genital mutilation, in order to defeat her rapist father. The themes here are many, and the book is not easy, but it deals with many complicated issues from an extremely different viewpoint, one that is fresh and intelligent and not bogged down with the senseless hate of the face gracing her World Fantasy Award.

The Secret Garden / Margaret’s Moves

As a great fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they have some very prevalent class and race issues (the whole obsession with the lovely colonies in India where children get sick so must be sent back to “civilized” England gets to be a bit much). But in the instance of The Secret Garden there’s another issue that is rarely discussed in terms of problems with classic literature, whether for kids or grownups: ableism. In The Secret Garden, Colin is bedridden and mysteriously sickly, and while the intent of the book seems to be that Colin was merely being overprotected and convinced that he was ill rather than actually differently abled, he still experiences what is a common trope in many forms of media—the miraculous recovery. If you, like Marieke Nijkamp writing for Disability in Kid Lit, feel cheated by this and disturbed by how easily a bedridden and wheelchair-bound child “recovers,” we have another book rec for you.

Margaret’s Moves by Berniece Rabe is not a well-known book today, but it should be. Around Colin’s age, Margaret is born with spina bifida and probably, since she’s in a wheelchair, the most complicated kind—myelomeningocele—which can cause paralysis and difficulty or inability to walk. But Margaret does not get cured, since this condition has no known cure for the nervous system problems it causes. Instead, Margaret is just another kid, a particularly cool and resourceful kid who really wants a sports model wheelchair once she sees wheelchair basketball played. The book also deals with the realities of the economic pressure surrounding children who are differently abled. Her father doesn’t want to get her the sports model she wants because he can’t afford it what with the other costs of treatment and medication and especially the water bed a doctor recommends for Margaret. But she makes money and helps out with costs and manages to try one of the wheelchair models she wants. Rabe conveys a sense of can-do with Margaret without resorting to a Pollyanna-ish trope of a perfect child.


Featured image: Neirfy/Shutterstock.com

About Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer’s Row, The Toast, The Butter, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers. She is (way too) active on Twitter @ilanaslightly.

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