But I believe in a broader notion of what counts as a classic than books which are most widely recognized. That is why I’ve written a children’s book that introduces kids to an array of famous authors including ones you may not have heard of.
From one generation to the next
Gerwig, an actress and filmmaker, has talked about how the issues facing the women in Alcott’s novel feel modern and urgent to her. Her passion for the story told in “Little Women” gets at the heart of what makes something a classic: a tale generations of readers can relate to.
Other examples include Lewis Carroll’s story about an imaginative young girl who learns to find her own way in “Alice in Wonderland” or Charles Dickens’ tale of financial hardship, family and personal redemption in “A Christmas Carol.”
These books are beautifully written, of course. But the reason they are told and retold in countless adaptations is because they express themes that people relate to.
An expanding range
In my view, what counts as a classic today must come from an ever-expanding range of authors.
Diverse books can help all readers develop empathy for other people’s experiences. And opening the gateway to a broader spectrum of books can lead to reading experiences that are rich, stimulating – and just plain fun.
By all means, go ahead and read – or re-read – Alcott’s “Little Women” and similar classics.
In addition, kids and readers of all ages should also become familiar with works by authors like Sui Sin Far, who wrote about the lives of Chinese immigrants in the United States, and María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, one of the first Mexican-American novelists.
A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, some see this administration as the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Trump’s apparent disrespect for truth is suspiciously similar to the manipulation of history in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The crass, three-ring-circus texture of the current crowd in Washington recalls the degraded America depicted in Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic farce Idiocracy. However, the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World might provide the best dystopian gloss on our contemporary predicament.
Like most good dystopian fiction, Brave New World is not a prediction but rather a diagnosis of dangerous tendencies in Huxley’s present. One of the most striking elements of Huxley’s vision of the future involves factories in which infants are designed to perform specific social functions.
These Stepford babies are later conditioned through standardised educational practices. This motif is not primarily a cautionary tale about the potential abuse of genetic engineering. Rather, it is a commentary on existing class inequalities and the use of education to reinforce social obedience. It exemplifies the fundamental tendency of capitalism to convert humans into commodities, interchangeable and bereft of genuine individualism.
Certain aspects of Huxley’s dystopian society strikingly resemble our current situation. A lack of respect for history, a population conditioned to consume goods at breakneck pace, a tendency toward globalisation, and the pacification of individuals via an entertainment culture curated to squelch any inchoate rumblings of critical thought: all of these are hallmarks of Huxley’s and our worlds.
An illustrious family
Born in Surrey, England, in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was a member of one of England’s most illustrious intellectual families. He also went on to become one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, though he was also important as a social and philosophical commentator — and spent the last 26 years of his life living in the United States.
His brother, Julian, was a prominent biologist knighted by the queen. Aldous and Julian were the grandsons of well-known naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading 19th-century advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aldous himself considered a career in biology or medicine, though he eventually turned to literature instead.
By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he was well established as a British novelist; works such as Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) arguably made him the most important English novelist of the 1920s, while also prefiguring Brave New World in important ways with their satirical treatment of British society.
A trip to the US shortly before the writing of Brave New World also contributed to Huxley’s formulation of his thoughts for the novel. (He moved there in 1937, where he would write more dystopian and utopian novels such as Ape and Essence (1948), Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962).)
History is bunk
In Brave New World, Huxley’s World State has arisen in the wake of a global war that nearly destroyed humanity. Its policies are officially driven by a desire to prevent a recurrence of this war at all costs. Stability and placidity in every aspect of life are of paramount concern. The public is protected from anything that might upset them and rock the social boat. However, the underlying goal is to ensure the smooth operation of the consumer capitalist economy and to remove any historical reminders that things might be other than they are.
Huxley presents us with the basic characteristics of his dystopian society through a loosely constructed narrative told largely from the point of view of Bernard Marx. An “alpha” who has been engineered and conditioned to be among the society’s intellectual elite, Bernard finds that his own individualist tendencies make him unable to function comfortably in this conformist society.
We are also introduced to Mustapha Mond, a “world controller” who attempts to explain to Bernard the rationale for the State’s policies, including its rejection of literature and history as sources of wisdom.
Also important to the narrative is “John the Savage.” Born biologically on a “Savage Reservation” and brought up reading the works of Shakespeare, John grows to adulthood outside the controls of the World State. He is eventually brought to London, where he finds himself so unable to fit in that he is driven to suicide.
The lack of respect for history in Huxley’s world is encapsulated in the slogan “history is bunk”. The phrase is but one of many slogan-like modules of prepackaged “wisdom” that pass for public discourse. This particular phrase is attributed in the novel to Henry Ford – the central cultural hero of the society – who was at the height of his influence at the time Brave New World was written. A true forerunner of Donald Trump (but a much better businessman), Ford is an honoured icon of American capitalism even today. Yet, he was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a philistine with no respect for culture.
It should thus come as no surprise that the devaluation of genuine understanding in Huxley’s imagined world includes the suppression of most of the great works of world literature. This is ostensibly done because they might trigger strong emotions. The true reason is that such works are not easily reduced to consumer commodities.
The World State is the ultimate consumer society, even if it cannot match the marketing sophistication of today’s global capitalism. Designed along “Fordist” lines, this society is devoted to economic efficiency, but only in the narrow consumerist sense of boosting sales.
Not only are individuals treated like commodities, but they live in a world that is saturated with the ethos of marketing. They are constantly bombarded by jingle-like slogans that encourage as much consumption as possible. Individuals are urged to replace rather than repair, because “ending is better than mending”.
Huxley’s vision of a World State underestimates the staying power of nationalist rhetoric, of which Trump’s “America First” agenda is but one example. Yet, amid the mad scramble to exploit all potential sources of cheap labour, we have established trade networks that extend into all the nooks and crannies of the global market.
These networks involve individuals and institutions from a wide variety of cultures. When combined with the current trend toward the globalisation of world culture, these networks are so effective that a World State seems redundant, if only in terms of capitalist business practices.
Culture is key to the functioning of Huxley’s entertainment-oriented society. The populace is numbed by happy-making drugs that have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”.
Huxley’s future humans are fed a nonstop dose of popular culture. Designed to amuse and stupefy, this breed of pop culture neither challenges nor inspires. Content is delivered via high-tech mechanisms which foreshadow our own world wide web. Artefacts such as virtual reality “feelies” (echoing the then-new “talkies”) seem highly familiar to a modern audience. As does their effect on the general population.
In Huxley’s world, even human relationships have been made an arm of pop culture. Sexual promiscuity is encouraged and emotional attachments forbidden. Relations between the sexes are just another form of entertainment. Sexual reproduction has become obsolete. Motherhood is an unthinkable obscenity and the parent-child bond has been eliminated. These details differ from Donald Trump’s recent proposed changes to abortion regulations, but they are equally misogynistic.
Frighteningly, although the characteristics of Trump’s America differ from the World State, the differences almost all make 21st-century America seem worse than Huxley’s nightmare consumerist world, from racial hatred to a looming climate crisis.
We are not just in danger of achieving a Huxleyesque dystopia. We are in danger of blowing past it to something Huxley couldn’t possibly have imagined.
In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.
Nothing about the reception of Emily Brontë’s first and only published novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847 suggested that it would grow to achieve its now-cult status. While contemporary critics often admitted its power, even unwillingly responding to the clarity of its psychological realism, the overwhelming response was one of disgust at its brutish and brooding Byronic hero, Heathcliff, and his beloved Catherine, whose rebellion against the norms of Victorian femininity neutered her of any claim to womanly attraction.
The characters speak in tongues heavily inflected with expletives, hurling words like weapons of affliction, and indulging throughout in a gleeful schadenfreude as they attempt to exact revenge on each other. It is all rather like a relentless chess game in hell. One of its early reviewers wrote that the novel “strongly shows the brutalising influence of unchecked passion”.
Moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum claims, however, that “we must ourselves confront the shocking in Wuthering Heights, or we will have no chance of understanding what Emily Brontë is setting out to do”. The reader must give herself over to the horror of Brontë’s inverted world.
She must jump, as it were, without looking to see if there is water below. It is a Paradise Lost of a novel: its poetry Miltonic, its style hyperbolic, and its cruelty relentless. It has left readers and scholars alike stumbling to locate its seemingly Delphic meaning, as we try to make sense of the Hobbesian world it portrays.
The author remains as elusive as her enigmatic masterpiece. As new critical appraisals emerge in this, Emily Brontë’s bicentenary year, the scant traces she left of her personal life beyond her poetry and several extant diary papers, are re-fashioned accordingly.
Described as the “sphinx of the moors”, her obstinate mystery has lured countless pilgrims to the Haworth home in which she passed almost all of her life, and the surrounding moorlands that were the landscape of her daily walks and the inspiration for her writing. Brontë relinquished her jealous hold of the manuscript only after considerable pressure from her sister Charlotte, who insisted that it be published.
Wuthering Heights was released pseudonymously under the name Ellis Bell, published in an edition that included her sister Anne’s lesser known work, Agnes Grey. Emily was to die just 12 months later, in December 1848.
As Brontë biographer Juliet Barker writes, the writer stubbornly maintained the pretence of health even in the final stages of consumption, insisting on getting out of bed to take care of her much loved dog, Keeper. She resisted death with remarkable self-discipline but, “her unbending spirit finally broken”, she acquiesced to a doctor’s attendance. It was by then too late; she was just 30.
After her sister’s death, Charlotte Brontë wrote two biographical prefaces to accompany a new edition of Wuthering Heights, instantiating the mythology both of her sister – “stronger than a man, simpler than a child” – and her infamous novel: “It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”
It is that property of wildness that has compelled artists from Sylvia Plath to Kate Bush, whose 1978 hit single, Wuthering Heights, was representative of the magnetic pull of Brontë’s fierce heroine, Catherine. The novel has maintained its relevance in popular culture, and its author has risen to a feminist icon.
The elusiveness of the woman and the book that now seems an extension of her subjectivity, gives both a malleability that has seen Wuthering Heights transformed into various mediums: several Hollywood films, theatre, a ballet and, perhaps most incongruously, a detective novel. Brontë’s name is used to sell everything from food to dry-cleaning products.
Film versions have tended to indulge in a surfeit of romanticism, offering up visions of the lovers swooning atop windswept hills, most famously in the 1939 movie, with Laurence Olivier as a dashing Heathcliff, a heavily sanitised re-telling of what the promotional material billed as “the greatest love story of our time – or any time!” Andrea Arnold’s gritty, pared-back 2011 film is the notable exception; bleak and darkly violent, the actors speak in an at times unintelligible dialect, scrambling across a blasted wilderness as though they are animals.
Contrary to Charlotte Brontë’s revisioning, however, Wuthering Heights was not purely the product of a terrible divine inspiration, emerging partially formed from the granite rock of the Yorkshire landscape, to be hewn from Emily’s simple materials.
Instead, it is the work of a writer looking back to past Romantic forms, specifically the German incarnation of that aesthetic, infused with folkloric taboos and primal longings. Her tale of domestic gothic is housed in an intricately complex narrative architecture that works by repetition and doubling, at the fulcrum of which stands Catherine, the supremely defiant object of Heathcliff’s obsession.
At the novel’s core is the corrosiveness of love, with the titanic power of Shakespearean tragedy and the dialogic form of a Greek morality play. Two families, locked in internecine war and bound together by patrilineal inheritance, stage their abject conflict across the small geographical space that separates their respective households: the luxury and insipidity of the Grange, versus the shabby gentility, decay, and violence of the Heights.
A claustrophobic novel
It is a distinctly claustrophobic novel: although we read with a vague sense of the vastness of the moors that is its setting, the action unfolds, with few exceptions, in domestic interiors. Despite countless readings, I can conjure no distinct image of the Grange. But the outline of the Heights, with each room unfolding into yet another set of rooms, labyrinthine and imprisoning, has settled into my mind. The deeper you enter into the space of the Heights – the space of the text – the more bewildering the effect.
The love between Heathcliff and Catherine exists now as a myth operative outside any substantial relationship to the novel from which the lovers spring. It is shorthand in popular culture for doomed passion. Much of this hyper-romance gathers around Catherine’s declaration of Platonic unity with her would-be lover: “I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind.” Yet their relationship is never less than brutal.
What is it about their unearthly union, with its overtones of necrophilia and incestuous desire, that so captivates us, and why does Emily Brontë privilege this form of explicitly masochistic, irrevocable and unattainable love?
Brontë’s great theme was transcendence, and I would suggest that it is the metaphysical affinity that solders these two lovers that so beguiles us. The greediness of their feeling for each other resembles nothing in reality. It is hyperreal, as Catherine and Heathcliff do not aspire so much as to be together, as to be each other. Twinned in that shared commitment and to the natural world that was the hunting-ground of their childhood play, they try, with increasing desperation, to get at each other’s souls.
This is not a physically erotic coupling: the body is immaterial to their love. It is a very different notion of desire to that of Jane Eyre and Rochester, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which is very fleshy indeed. Both Catherine and Heathcliff want to get under each other’s skin, quite literally, to join and become that singular body of their childhood fantasies. It is a dream, then, of total union, of an impossible return to origins. It is not heavenly in its transcendence, but decidedly earthly. “I cannot express it”, Catherine tells her nurse Nelly Dean, who is our homely, yet not so benign, narrator:
But surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries … my great thought in living is himself. I all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be.
This notion of the self eclipsing its selfish form seems impossible for us to conceive in an age where one’s individuality is sacred. It is, however, the essence of Catherine’s tragedy: her search for her self’s home among the men who circle her is futile. Nevertheless, Emily Brontë’s radical statement of a shared ontology grounds the eroticism between the pair so that we cannot look away; and neither it seems, can the other characters in the novel.
The book’s structure is famously complex, with multiple narrators and a fluid style that results in one focalising voice shading into another. The story proper begins with Lockwood, a stranger to the rugged moorlands, a gentleman accustomed to urban life and its polite civilisations.
The terrifying nightmare he endures on his first night under Heathcliff’s roof, and the gruesomely violent outcome of his fear sets in motion the central love story that pulls all else irresistibly to it. Heathcliff’s thrice-repeated invocation of Catherine’s name, which Lockwood finds written in the margins of a book and mistakenly believes to be “nothing but a name”, works as an incantation, summoning the ghost of the woman who haunts this book.
Emily Brontë speaks of dreams, dreams that pass through the mind “like wine through water, and alter the colour” of thoughts. If the experience of reading Wuthering Heights feels like a suspension in a state of waking nightmare, what a richly-hued vision of the fantastical it is.
The early trailers for Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) were released last (northern) summer, which means my favourite season in life as a medievalist academic is coming: the season of The Truth About King Arthur. It doesn’t matter if the movie itself is good or bad: the question I will be getting is “but how accurate is it?” Does it represent the “real” legend of King Arthur?
Knowing Guy Ritchie’s films, the answer is going to be a glorious “no, and it’s not even trying”, but modern audiences often seem to be attracted to the idea of an adaptation that is more true than others.
The 2004 film King Arthur, a glorious romp featuring Kiera Knightley in an impractical outfit fighting hand-to-hand with an even more impractical short bow, billed itself as telling the “real” story of King Arthur as we’d never seen it before. Set, ostensibly, in the 5th century, it promised the story of a beleaguered Briton warlord rallying his people against the Saxons – but it also gave us a love triangle featuring Arthur, his wife Guinevere, and the knight Lancelot; a tale which first appeared in the 12th century, in France.
Can you tell a King Arthur story to a modern audience without including the royal love triangle? The Australian animated series Arthur! And His Square Knights of the Round Table (1966), aimed at young audiences who presumably weren’t supposed to comprehend a complicated narrative of love, betrayal and sin, is nevertheless peppered with in-jokes about the Queen’s devotion to the comically inept Lancelot.
The BBC’s Merlin (2008), a delightful festival of historical inaccuracies, made the triangle a key part of Guinevere’s character arc for several seasons, ending with poor Lancelot as the tool of necromancy and plots against the throne.
Interestingly, Guy Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword seems to have cast no Lancelot; it remains to be seen if modern audiences will accept a Lancelot-less Camelot as “real” Arthuriana. But whether they do or do not, Ritchie’s work will be compared to an imagined true story of King Arthur, which never existed, even in the Middle Ages. The medieval sources dealing with King Arthur are numerous, inconsistent, and wildly ahistorical in and of themselves.
The historical sources
The name Arthur first appears in the work of the 9th century Welsh historian Nennius, who lists twelve battles this Arthur fought against invading Saxons. Similarly, the Welsh Chronicles (written down in the 10th century) make some references to battles fought by Arthur. On this shaky foundation, along with a scattering of place-names and oblique references, is an entire legend based.
Ask any scholar of Arthurian literature if King Arthur really existed, and we’ll tell you: we don’t know, and we don’t really care. The good stuff, the King Arthur we all know and love, is entirely fictional.
The “Arthurian Legend” really kicked off in the early 12th century, with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138), which purported to describe the entire history of Britain from the day dot until about the 7th century.
He describes the founding of Britain by the (mythical) Trojan warrior Brutus; he covers a lot of the historical events described in Nennius’ earlier work; and his account is the first to really describe King Arthur’s reign, his wars against the Saxons, and the doings of the wizard Merlin. Some elements, like the part where Merlin helps Arthur’s father Uther deceive and sleep with another man’s wife, thus conceiving Arthur, remain key parts of the Arthurian legend today. Other elements modern audiences expect, like the Round Table, are still absent.
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Latin, and his book was read and treated as a history book in the Middle Ages. But very quickly, the material was re-worked into French and English poetry. The Norman poet Wace, whose audience included people living in both France and England, based his Roman de Brut (1155) on Geoffrey’s History. He added many things to the story, including the Round Table itself.
Around the turn of the thirteenth century, an English poet named Layamon took both Geoffrey and Wace’s works, combined them, and added more in his long English poem Brut. Arthur is not the only subject covered in the Brut, but it’s the first treatment of King Arthur in English.
These versions, and some of the later English romances like Of Arthur and of Merlin, focus on battles and political tensions. Aside from Merlin they feature few supernatural elements, and do not usually devote much attention to love. In these versions, the traitor Mordred who defeats Arthur at the battle of Camlann is usually his nephew, not his illegitimate son; and Guinevere may willingly marry him after Arthur’s death.
Arthurian romance is where things really start getting fun, from the 12th century onwards. The earliest romances did not focus on Arthur himself, but on various heroes and knights associated with his court.
The very first might be the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen, the events of which rarely make an appearance in later Arthurian works, but which share with them a common basic plot structure: a young man needs to prove himself to win the hand of a fair lady, goes to Arthur’s court, undergoes a series of supernatural adventures, and is eventually able to marry his lady and settle down.
The earliest surviving French Arthurian romances are by an author named Chrétien de Troyes. He wrote five romances, of which the most fun, in my humble opinion, is The Knight of the Lion (1176). The most famous is The Knight of the Cart (1180), which introduces Lancelot and his love affair with Queen Guinevere.
Hot on its heels came The Story of the Grail (1181), which introduces Perceval and the Grail quest – although Chrétien himself never finished that work. At around about the same time, a separate tradition of romances about the knight Tristan and his affair with Queen Isolde of Cornwall was also circulating.
Over the 13th to 15th centuries countless romances were written in French and in various other European languages, telling tales of the adventures of individual knights associated with King Arthur.
For instance, in the 14th century English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1390), a young Gawain is challenged to cut off the head of the Green Knight, in return for which the Green Knight will cut off Gawain’s head a year later. Unfortunately for Gawain, the green knight has supernatural headless-survival powers which Gawain lacks, and so the adventure unfolds as Gawain seeks to keep his bargain and his head.
After Chrétien de Troyes’ day, the Grail quest story became extremely popular: there are several continuations of his unfinished poem, a complete reworking in German by a Wolfram von Eschenbach, and many translations. In these, Perceval is the hero who becomes keeper of the Grail. In the complex French prose version known as The Quest of the Holy Grail (1230), Lancelot’s illegitimate but extraordinarily holy son Galahad takes that honour.
The death of Arthur
If you read no other piece of medieval Arthuriana, read the 13th century French prose romance The Death of King Arthur (1237). The Penguin translation by James Cable is eminently readable, and cheap too. This romance circulated in the middle ages as the last of a “series” of Arthurian works beginning with the Grail’s arrival in Britain and ending with the break-up of the Arthurian court and Arthur’s own death. We call this whole series the Vulgate Cycle, or the Lancelot-Grail Cycle.
This series, rather like many modern fantasy series, was written out of order: the long romance known as the Lancelot Proper and the Quest of the Holy Grail (the one with Galahad, mentioned above) were composed first, by different authors; very quickly afterwards the Death of King Arthur was added, and then the prequel material dealing with the origin of the Grail and the birth of Merlin was added.
In the Death of King Arthur, the Arthurian court is aging. Lancelot has lost his chance at the Grail, the court’s harmony is shattered as Guinevere’s adultery comes to light, Mordred betrays Arthur, and everything falls to pieces.
Fast forward to the 15th century, and an English knight named Thomas Malory, serving time in prison in Calais for attempting to abduct a young heiress, gets hold of the Vulgate Cycle, the Tristan romances, and a range of other material, and produces the most famous piece of English-language (despite its French title) Arthuriana: Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory, whatever else he might have been, was a completist, and he tried very hard to make a single coherent story out of the many contradictory he sources he had.
Chances are, if someone in an English-speaking country says to you they’ve read the “original” story of King Arthur, it’s Malory they mean. Its great popularity is explained by the fact that William Caxton put out a printed edition in the late fifteenth century. You can find that for free online, but the best reading version is the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Helen Cooper.
The ‘real’ Arthur today
Very few people get their first idea of King Arthur from a medieval text, today. When I taught Arthurian classes at Sydney Uni I used to ask the group to describe their first encounter with the Arthurian legend – it got oddly confessional at times, liking asking people to describe their religious conversions or coming-out experiences.
I was reading Arthurian stories long before I learned that the way we’re supposed to judge an adaptation in the modern world is its “fidelity” to its source. I loved Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur (1903) and the 1998 miniseries Merlin and the ridiculous BBC children’s show Sir Gadabout (2002), and the last thing I worried about was whether or not they incorporated exactly the same plot elements.
There’s a distinct pleasure, though, in reading your favourite story told again in new ways: Sir Gadabout was so funny to me precisely because it plays fast and loose with elements that are treated as sacred in the solemn Victorian style of Howard Pyle, or the serious moralising of T.H. White’s Once and Future King (1958).
Ask a group of medievalists what the best Arthurian movie is, and 95% of us will answer Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (1975). The reason for that is not, as anyone who has seen it can guess, because it is exceedingly faithful to Thomas Malory’s monumental work, or to any other particular text.
What Monty Python did so brilliantly was take the cultural “idea” of Arthur (perhaps at that time best encapsulated in the musical Camelot (1967)), along with a broad knowledge of Arthurian traditions both medieval and modern, and have fun with it on various levels. You don’t need to have read the weird romances dealing with the Questing Beast to laugh at the Black Beast of Argh, for instance, but if you have, knowledge of the “original” can only improve your appreciation of the adaptation.
And so I contend that whether or not Guy Ritchie includes Lancelot is immaterial. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a real Arthurian movie unless it contains the Beast of Argh, and that’s the stance I’m sticking to.
Readers interested in the history and development of Arthuriana could consult the second edition of The Arthurian Handbook (Routledge, 1997), or explore the texts, images and mini-histories at The Camelot Project.
Every festive season guarantees a television re-run of the National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, with the deflating turkey, incinerated tree, and extreme Griswold household lighting display that is now sufficiently commonplace for the joke to be compromised.
Most modern Christmas films angle for comedy with a touch of sentimental schmaltz. In contrast, literary Christmases frequently tap into the anxiety and sadness that often accompany the “happiest time of year”.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) is the quintessential Christmas tale. Even for those who have never read any Dickens, the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge has permeated our culture, from 1940s Scrooge McDuck cartoons to the Muppets adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 1992.
Money-lender Scrooge’s greed extends to denying the pleasures of Christmas to himself and his employees. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come aid Scrooge in reconciling his pain at the loss of a past love and redeeming himself among the living, so that he can find a welcoming place in the world on Christmas day.
As Tara Moore explains, Dickens and other writers in the Victorian period shaped “a certain version of urban Christmas—plum pudding, mourning the lost, holly and hearth-love” that we continue to idealise and reproduce.
Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story A Christmas Memory (1956) transports the theme of mourning happier times and beloved people from the snowy cobblestone streets of London to small-town Alabama.
The seven-year-old narrator, Buddy, describes the pleasures of a poor – but loving and inventive – Christmas with his elderly cousin, complete with scandalous nips of whisky after baking fruitcakes.
This is Buddy’s last Christmas with her, as he subsequently moves to military school. As time passes, dementia erases the cousin’s memories of Buddy and a November finally arrives,
when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”
Other literary Christmases struggle to even find a bittersweet strand to the holiday. Dostoyevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding (1848) is a disturbing story in which the narrator recalls a past Christmas party in which a male landowner watches a rich girl playing with a doll.
The landowner calculates that when the girl is old enough marry that her dowry will total half a million roubles; he attempts to kiss the girl and extract a promise of love from her. The wedding of the title, which the narrator has just attended, is revealed to be that of the landowner and the rich girl, held five years after their Christmas meeting.
Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas (1823) popularised an idyllic children’s vision of Christmas rendered magical by Saint Nicholas and his flying reindeer. In several of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales with festive settings, however, he does not soften his trademark melancholy for the sake of Christmas cheer.
In the little-known story The Fir Tree (1844), a tree is impatient for the day when it will be tall enough to take the exciting journey that other trees in the forest enjoy each December.
The fir tree is blissful when he is felled, transported, and decorated with candles and a gleaming star for a family’s Christmas Eve celebrations. He is then discarded in the household attic and eventually chopped to pieces and tossed on a fire. “Past! past!” the tree cries as he burns, realising that he should have taken pleasure during his lifetime in the forest, rather than eyeing an unknown future.
The Little Match Girl (1845) is similarly heart-rending, as a hungry, barefooted girl attempts to sell matches on snowy streets on New Year’s Eve.
She lights several matches to warm herself and is comforted by a series of visions, including a Christmas scene with a tree shining with “thousands of candles” and a stuffed goose that jumps from its dish,
and waddle[s] along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl.
The girl freezes to death on the street. As is typical of Andersen, her lonely death is intended to be a happy ending, as she will join with her grandmother and God in heaven.
Christmas is a backdrop for confronting feelings of isolation, strangeness and escalating family tensions in a range of fiction. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988), set in the 19th century, is a striking example of Christmas serving as a lightning rod for intergenerational conflict.
Oscar’s father, Theophilus, is a fundamentalist Christian preacher who shuns Christmas feasting and celebration as pagan in origin. The servants covertly cook a plum pudding for Oscar, but his father catches him eating the “fruit of Satan” after one life-changing spoonful.
Theophilus strikes his son, forcing him to spit out the forbidden pleasure. Oscar, seeking a divine sign, asks God “if it be Thy will that Thy people eat pudding, then smite him!”. His father is soon bleeding with an injury and Oscar’s rejection of his father’s religion is set in motion.
In literature, as in our lived experiences of Christmas, the expectations of family, togetherness, and plenitude can heighten a sense of loneliness, loss, and conflict.
While there are many cheerful stories of Christmas, for children in particular, a significant number of literary Christmases scratch away at its twinkling veneer of tinsel and goodwill.
There’s an element of humbug in the mythology of Christmas, as Scrooge would have it, after all.