Books That Endure: Classic Studies of Human Relationships

Literary works typically endure because they address the great, recurring questions about human nature in some of their full complexity. By embodying our most profound inquiries in the lives of particular characters, they invite us to examine and understand the many dimensions of human relationships.

Each of the six books in this series has generated vital and significant discussion for well over a century. Together, they introduce us to worlds that are, in many ways, light years removed from the twenty-first century with its dizzying pace of technological and social change. Yet in the struggles of their heroines and heroes to negotiate the conflicting demands of individual desire and social expectation, of tradition and inevitable change, they explore themes as universal today as they were one hundred fifty years ago.

Published in 1813, Jane Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, is a quintessential comedy of manners, offering an engaging satiric view of village life in nineteenth-century England. The novel centers on the spirited clash between independent and witty Elizabeth Bennet, a daughter of the rural gentry, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich, aristocratic landowner. The account of their sparring and the accompanying adventures of the entire, sometimes inexcusable, Bennet family provides a surprisingly complex reflection on workings of “pride and prejudice” in the author’s time.

Set in the early years of the post-Napoleonic monarchy, Père Goriot (1835) depicts a Paris society in transition, where alliances are formed for the convenience of social advancement and at the expense of deeper family and marriage ties. Desire for money, material goods, and status governs the relationships in this novel, considered by readers to be one of the best works in Honoré de Balzac's celebrated series, The Human Comedy. The bonds formed by the eclectic mix of characters in the boardinghouse where the protagonists live also demonstrate a central feature of Balzac's world, social connectedness.

In The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne raises the enduring question of the extent to which personal love and morality transcend institutional and social values. Set against the backdrop of a Puritan frontier community in New England, this classic romance tells of vengeance and penance, love and loneliness, endurance and forgiveness. Isolated from each other and from their community by deed and circumstance, the four main characters nevertheless sustain powerful relationships that shape their inner and outer lives.

Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (in Russian, Fathers and Children) is the classic 19th century novel of intergenerational relationships. Set in Russia in the politically turbulent 1860s, the story presents the age-old conflicts and attachments through which generations, and individuals, define themselves in relation to one another. While many intellectuals of Turgenev's time overtly identified themselves by their commitment either to western European cultural values or to native Russian/Slavic traditions, Fathers and Sons attends to the deeper affinities and antipathies that derive from timeless forces in human nature.

Nora, the heroine of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1880), shocked the sensibilities of contemporary audiences when she walked out on her husband and children, having discovered her marginalized role in marriage and in life. Nora’s gradual realization that she must find her own identity outside of her society’s traditional definitions reflects recurring questions about gender relationships and marriage that have continued to be vital and have fueled the play's many revivals and its frequent use in college classrooms. Despite its widespread acceptance as a feminist text, however, Ibsen himself insisted A Doll’s House was more about human rights, than women’s rights.

There exists no more moving description of the consequences of transgressing the moral code of late nineteenth-century, middle-class German society than Theodor Fontane’s hauntingly beautiful novel Effi Briest (1895). Effi is a young woman married to an older man, a man who treats her with affection but also as a child who must continually be taught lessons or reproved for mistakes. In the novel’s incisive social analysis and psychological insight into the conventions of nineteenth-century marriage, it bears comparison with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.

For Further Reading

Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet
Arnold Bennet, The Old Wives’ Tale
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Benito Perez Galdos, Fortunada and Jacinta
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of our Time
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers
Giovanni Verga, The House by the Medlar Tree
émile Zola, Nana



Retired Discussion Series



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