While it might not always seem like it – particularly not on a slow Monday morning in your English literature class – the books we study in high school do have some valuable lessons to teach us. There’s a reason these books are on the syllabus, and what’s more, these characters always have something relevant to say no matter what era they were written in. So, in celebration of World Storytelling Day, here are our top takeaway lessons from the best of high school lit.
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Who even is the monster? If you’ve been assigned this text, you’re probably aware that ‘Frankenstein’ is the crazed scientist who creates the monster and not the monster itself. Dr Frankenstein is also, arguably, the real monster in this story. His obsession, his secrets, his selfishness, all alienate him from human society. It’s also the monster’s emotional isolation that causes him to become evil. There’s more to the monster – though ugly and terrifying – than we’d first expect and herein lies the lesson: even when things scare us or seem different, it’s always important to be kind and to carefully consider our opinions. Not everything is as it seems.
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D.Salinger
Holden Caulfield is the original teen-behaving-badly poster boy. Convinced that all adults are dishonest “phonies”, he cuts himself off from the world and assumes himself better off. He takes any excuse he can to further retreat into his own cynical isolation and in doing so, reveals his own immaturity and fears about growing up. As the book progresses, and through his interactions with the other characters, we see the shallowness of Holden’s conceptions. He thinks he knows best, but he is unable to fully understand the world around him yet. The lesson here is to appreciate what there is learn from the world around you, to criticize less, and to remember that we all have some way to go before we know everything (and it’s likely that we never will!).
Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare
Perhaps the most famous love story in the English literary tradition, Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two star-crossed lovers who meet a bitter end. But this is no ordinary romance; the love between Romeo and Juliet is all-consuming, violent, ecstatic, and supersedes all other values and loyalties. The lovers cast everything aside to be with each other and as a result, end up losing their lives. Take note of this cautionary tale: Family, friends, ambitions, careers, dreams, and yes, maybe a little romance – all make for a well-rounded experience. Chaos may seem romantic, but Romeo and Juliet aren’t going to live happily ever after anytime soon.
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
There is a great lesson to learn about strength and cruelty from this classic tale. Even at their weakest, the characters seek to destroy those who are weaker than themselves. Just before Crooks criticizes Lennie’s dream of living on the farm with George, he explains how he longs for companionship. Like any bully would, Crooks zeros in on Lennie’s insecurities and uses them to make himself feel bigger. Steinbeck’s powerful message: the most visible kind of strength – strength used to oppress others – is itself born of weakness.
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
The moral tale here is simple: loyalty, affection and values are all more important than money, class and social advancement. We follow Pip through this story as he grows and focuses more and more on self-improvement. When he considers his moral shortcomings, he wants to be better. When he realizes he can’t read, his only desire is to learn how. Pip has “great expectations” for his future and as he learns the importance of good character, those characters who are cynical or cruel, are left behind.
Feeling inspired? At EF Academy, students are immersed in the English language and the literary traditions of the US and the UK.