If you call to mind stories like “The Great Gatsby,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” or “Crime and Punishment,” you might remember your literature teacher assigning these books in high school. Perhaps you’ve read them more than once. These novels fall under a category known as “classic literature.”
What makes a specific book a classic and another story, not one? In fact, there are typically four key elements that define a classic novel. If you were to ask 10 novelists or literary experts what constitutes classic literature, you might get 10 different answers. However, the four characteristics mentioned in this post are usually at the top of most lists regarding how to identify a classic piece of literature.
Classic novels are relevant to any era
If you were to read any of the novels mentioned at the start of this post today, you would no doubt find social issues, political issues or other topics woven throughout the stories that remain relevant in 2024. In the publishing industry, when a book has this quality, it is called “timeless.” Having the attribute of timelessness is one of the four defining elements of classic literature.
Classic literature presents the rawness of humanity
Once again using the three examples of classic literature from the opening paragraph of this post, the human condition is a primary topic in all three stories. In fact, one might say it is the “plight” of the human condition that is made evident as each plot unfolds. Justice versus injustice, as well as truth and conflict capture and hold readers’ attention, which makes them all classics.
The characters in a classic are relatable
For a novel to be considered a classic, the characters in the story must seem genuine and relatable to readers. Whatever the characters experience in the story must touch readers’ hearts and must feel familiar to them. Sometimes, it’s not the protagonist who necessarily has the biggest impact on readers. It’s whichever character is most relatable and believable.
Stories that spark discussion
The fourth element of classic literature is that the story must encourage readers to think and ponder and talk about the book. Even if it has been more than a decade since you read a classic novel, you could probably sit down with friends and discuss it with ease. Classics keep you thinking and stay fresh in your mind.
Some other famous works of classic literature include stories like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and “Jane Eyre.” Have you read these novels? What other stories come to mind when you think of the classics?