If you enjoy books, chances are you may stumble across or perhaps select a classic work for your reading pleasure. A classic is a story that transcends time and cultures so that a variety of people and societies can benefit from the reading experience.
Some readers carefully choose a classic piece of literature, hoping to improve their minds or expand mental experiences. Others read the classics because they offer great enjoyment.
Whatever your reason, the next time you pick up a classic read by authors like the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, the Renaissance dramatist Shakespeare, 20th century poets like Sylvia Plath, or children’s writer Shel Silverstein, keep your eyes open for important features that have helped the story stand the test of time:
- Plot. The story line develops naturally to arc toward a central conflict. Following resolution, the main line of action descends to a normal level again.
- Characters. A good guy or hero, who the classic Greek philosophers called a “protagonist,” usually squares off with a bad guy or villain, called the “antagonist.” There may be a pretty girl involved. If she has exotic features, she may be termed a “Dark Lady,” meaning she is associated with sex, seduction, and death. But a blonde or fair-haired girl, called the “light” or “fair heroine,” represents domestic harmony. Heroes typically fall in love with the dark lady but marry the fair girl.
- Setting. Great literature utilizes many kinds of settings, from ancient cities like Thebes to lost kingdoms (Epic of Gilgamesh) or sea stories (“The Old Man and the Sea”). A setting involves the location of the story, the time period, and the physical description of the location. For example, a house sitting beside a stagnant pond may spell trouble as it does in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
- Theme. Good books present a major theme often coupled with one or more minor themes, or subplots. A theme is the main point of the story or how the action unfolds toward a bottom line moral. Someone usually sees the world in a new light based on events in the story. It may be the lead character or a lesser character, or it may even be the reader.
- Symbolism. In quality fiction, an object or types of object may come to represent a significant meaning. For example, the pink hair ribbons worn by the Puritan wife in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” suggests her innocence and youth. When she loses her ribbons while en route to a black sabbath, the symbolism supports the action of the story.
- Conflicts. Good versus bad, small versus large, and up versus down are general ideas of how opposites can set up disputes that become the basis of the plot. No story is complete without one or more conflicts, which typically take forms like the following:
human vs. God (or gods)
human vs. nature
human vs. self
human vs. human
human vs. society
human vs. technology
man vs. woman
As you read through a classic work of fiction, look for elements like those outlined above. Not only will you appreciate the story more, but you will come to understand how an author’s mind works in arranging the characteristics of a universal tale that holds audiences captive.note