Context Matters: Criticizing the Classics

I guess it was about a year ago now that I re-read Sense and Sensibility,. As I do, I went to goodreads to see what the popular reviews were saying. Most were pretty predictable Austen reviews, but one in particular snagged my attention. It made me so angry, and I’m still thinking about it a year later.

I’m keeping the author of the review anonymous, obviously, and I’m only going to quote here a small portion of the review. If you want to read more you’ll have to do your own digging on goodreads.

It said:

Reading Sense and Sensibility made me realize why I don’t like Jane Austen’s books, and probably never will: she was a brilliant author, and her novels are funny and well-written, but at the end of the day, her characters spend 90% of their time talking about boys. Nothing else happens: they go to a ball, where they worry about which boy isn’t dancing with them; they have tea, where they talk about which girls have snagged which boys; and they write letters about which girls have done scandalous things with boys. It’s just pages and pages of “I like you but you hate me!” “No, I really love you, you were just misinformed!” “My, what a silly misunderstanding!” “I agree! Let’s get married!” and all its variations and it bores me to death. I love the humor, and I love the characters, I just want them to do something interesting. This is probably why Pride and Prejudice and Zombies resonated so well with me – finally, the Bennett sisters got to do something besides sit around and mope about the various boys who weren’t talking to them for whatever reason!

Okay. Breathe.

  1. If you don’t like Jane Austen’s novels (or as she says at the beginning of her review, romantic comedies), then why are you reading one?
  2. Saying nothing else in this book happens other than they talk about boys is a gross exaggeration and just plain not true. The very first thing to happen, for example, is their father dies and they are forced out of their home before they are even done mourning him.
  3. Even if that was true and nothing else happens except for boy stuff, it is unfair to place your 21st century expectations for a novel on a book written in the early 19th century.

This third point is the one I want to talk about today.

It is a huge pet-peeve of mine when someone criticizes a classic novel because it offends their 21st century ideals. This is most often the a lack of feminist ideas, but there are endless variations. I’ve seen classic novels shamed for lack of LGBTQ representation, or lack of racial diversity. I’ve seen readers complain that protagonists were too young, too old, or too proper.

And like, if you have to have LGBTQ representation to enjoy a novel, I get it, that’s fine. But what are you doing reading something written 200 years ago? Were you really expecting an openly gay character in an Austen novel? 

As I said, most of the time it’s people expecting feminist ideas doing this to my favorite classic novels. I often read reviews, especially of Austen novels, complaining that are shallow, or too romance driven. As she says in this review, why can’t they do something interesting, like slay zombies? Because, guys, when Jane Austen was alive, it was inconceivable that a woman would do anything other than attend balls, have tea, and get married. Austen herself was a huge anomaly, simply by being an author. At the time it was something that only men were supposed to do. She published under a pen-name in order to be taken seriously. (Side note: Even JK Rowling shortened Joanne to JK because the publishers thought boys wouldn’t read books written by a woman.) Expecting the women in classic novels to behave like a modern heroine is as ridiculous as expecting there to be black characters in 19th century England!

Romeo and Juliet is another great example. Setting the love-at-first-sight bit aside for today, it’s really common to see people complain that Juliet, at age 15, was too young to fall in love. Which in today’s society is probably true. But let’s think about what things were like in the 1500s. Girls were regularly married off and expected to bear children as young as age 12. People in general had a life expectancy of less than half of what we have today. When most everyone dies by age 40, is 15 really so young? Even if we think so, the fact remains that a 16th century audience would have been scandalized by an 18 year-old Juliet. Why hasn’t she married yet? Is there something wrong with her? She must be hideously ugly. It wouldn’t have worked then.

I was talking with my husband about this last night, and he joked that it would be like someone reading a Game of Thrones style fantasy novel and complaining that there weren’t enough guns. EXACTLY!

Last example, because this one is close to my heart. Harry Potter.

I grew up in the generation that adored Harry Potter. Harry Potter is, in many cases, the only book or series that people I know have read. Literally. But lately I’ve seen a lot (and I mean a lot) of people, especially on Twitter, criticizing their lack of diversity. One tweet said something like “At least Rick Riordan realized that that’s what people wanted to read and started putting it in his books. Rick Riordan > JK Rowling.”

WOAH. Hold up.

The last Harry Potter book was published in 2007. Even Barak Obama didn’t come out in support of gay marriage until 2012, five years later. These folks are probably too young to remember what happened when Rowling said in an interview that Dumbledore was gay, but the backlash was HUGE. Can you imagine what would have happened if she had put it in a book? A good chunk of the evangelical Christian population was already boycotting and burning Harry Potter because of the “witchcraft”. It was a different time. And I get that Rick Riordan has changed with the times, but guess what. JK Rowling hasn’t written a book in ten years. That’s why the books haven’t changed.

I’m not saying that everyone has to like classic literature. (or Harry Potter.) Seriously, if it’s not your thing, I get it, that’s fine. But don’t criticize a book for being exactly what it was supposed to be. Don’t get upset when someone living 200 years ago doesn’t have the same point of view that you do. It’s not fair, and it doesn’t make sense.

If you are going to venture into the classic literature genre knowing that these sorts of things bother you, try read with an open mind. Don’t go in expecting characters to be feminist. OR anti-feminist. Instead, try to notice all the ways a Jane Austen character actually breaks free of gender-norms from the time. You might be surprised by what you find.

39 thoughts on “Context Matters: Criticizing the Classics

  1. I totally second you there! Generally speaking, I don’t like to lash out excessively just because the book bores me, or I don’t get to relate to the characters in books. Some say reviewing is totally subjective and we are entitled to say whatever we want to say, and I get that. BUT I just don’t like the idea of applying the ideas that are going around in our modern 21st century to Classic literature written more than 200 or even 500 years ago. The circumstances, the environment do change over time, and I don’t think it’s fair to criticize characters in Classic books just because they don’t act the way we do, or think the way we normally do. That’s nonsensical in my opinion. I think it is important to take the circumstances or backdrops of the time when the story is based on/or written into account whatever genre we read. I think that’s the respect that we can pay to authors.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh I so totally agree with you! To say anything about Austen other than she had a brilliant observational mind about the inter workings of society is ludicrous!! My daughter did the same thing when she talked to me about Kate Chopin “the awakening”. Also….I being to a tea society where we read a few books a year. Last year we did Austen. One of the people said that she Austen would never sell today because she’s need to be more like John Grisham. I don’t know how I stayed in my seat at the table!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ll have to school me on “The Awakening” then, because I just didn’t get that one. I just hated the main character and every decision she made. Like, I know it’s early feminist or whatever, but I must just know absolutely nothing about that because I am still scratching my head about what the big deal is.

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      1. Oh….that’s exactly what my daughter said. I agree she made some crappy decisions…especially if you compare it to a dolls house (which my daughter still doesn’t believe was written by a man) but for the year it was written, it was explosive. I admit it doesn’t hold up as well as other things, but she was one of the first American anti heroines…..

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        1. And that might be the problem for me too. The Awakening was written in like, 1900, right? That’s a dead time for me in American history. I have no idea what was going on or how society outside of Pioneers lived. So I just may not have the context I need to appreciate it. Jane Eyre, on the other hand, I have a good historical context for, and so I understand and appreciate the value of the “feminist” ideals presented.

          (I got in a fight with someone about this once. I always put feminist in quotes when referring to Jane Eyre because it wasn’t REALLY feminism yet. She got mad and told me I just think all feminists are femi-nazis. *shrug*)

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          1. That’s like when people get mad at me cause I put quotes around “romance” when discussing Wuthering Heights….. historically, 1900 was America, especially the south, trying to get its footing post civil war. Industry was vamping up and lots of new money do to that. People started to get showy. But it was still long dresses and chaperones….

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  3. This is such a cool topic to discuss and I totally agree! Interestingly, for uni I just wrote an essay which was kind of similar to this where I was arguing that representations of past and future in children’s literature always represent the present in which they were written so even when literature is imagining the future it’s always going to be based on and influenced by what’s happening in society at the time whether it’s trying to be or not! 🙂

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    1. Ooooo! Great point! I totally agree with you! I think that’s a big part of what makes Science Fiction so interesting to me. What the Sci-Fi 60 years ago was trying to say and thought would happen is SOOOO different from current Sci-Fi. Imagining the future is definitely influenced by today’s beliefs.

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      1. Yes exactly! One of the books I looked at was The Hunger Games and I think it will be so interesting to see how views and perceptions of that series change moving forward into the future!

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  4. It drives me nuts when people try to strip the context of a book’s historical setting from the book itself! I mean, thy wouldn’t expect diversity and feminism to show up in Beowulf, would you? Or would they? Context most definitely matters. It can’t be separated from the story.

    Equally frustrating are the calls to get rid of the canon- that is, the books that have defined Western culture for the past 400 years- because it’s mostly written by white men. Okay. I get it. For a long time, we’ve only read stuff by white men, and that needs to change. But to say, ‘Don’t teach Shakespeare or Dickens or Chaucer or Hemingway because they were white men’ devalues their contributions on the basis of color and race, as well as denying the value of their work. There is a reason Shakespeare and Chaucer have endured through the ages. So instead of trashing the canon of white men, let’s say we add to it? There are a wealth of stories from around the world. We have something to learn from everyone.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I 100% AGREE!!! I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Shakespeare may have been a white man, but he was also brilliant. (Equally relevant, Shakespeare might not have written a single word of what we study, but the literature is still worth studying.) Not reading Shakespeare because of his privilege is ludicrous! I agree, ADD to the canon, don’t take things off.

      Of course, as a musician this is something we talk about ALL THE TIME in music history. Many music historians are searching for music written by women so they can be better represented throughout history. But to me that doesn’t make sense, because the only people who ever heard Hildegard van Bingen’s music were the nuns at her convent, so it was hardly influential or relevant to the rest of the world. It makes more sense to study the music of someone who was influencing other musicians and affecting the direction music went. I think it’s the same thing with literature. Arbitrarily adding in, say, people of color to the canon only makes sense if the literature “mattered”.

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      1. Right? Perhaps we overlook, say, Timon of Athens in favor of, The Tale of Genji. That way, we’re not forgetting the canon, but instead are keeping the most significant works, and then adding the most significant works from the rest of world.

        I think it makes sense to search for women to add to the musical canon, even if they’re not as influential as a Bach or a Mozart. The mere fact that there were more women writing music than just Clara Schumann could inspire other women to write music, too, just as Nichelle Nichols’ presence on the bridge of the original Enterprise helped inspire young black women like Oprah in the 1960s.

        Besides. If you’re talking about Hildegard von Bingen specifically, I think her music is remarkable enough to deserve study on its own, just like Artemisia Gentileschi’s artwork is worthy of study, even if she didn’t influence whole schools of painters.

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        1. I just picked Hildegard off the top of my head because she was the first person I thought of. It’s too late at night to search the brain archives for some of the lesser known women we studied. I DO think Clara Schumann’s work is worth looking at for its own sake, lovely music. I just remember my profs throwing in some ladies, especially in the 18th century, who were maybe not worth spending the time on compared to, say, Hayden.

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  5. Very true. A lot of people misinterpret classics or have expectations on them that are just ridiculous. Not everything has to be catered for every person. That’s why we have genres. I think it’s good to have perspectives and ideas from other people and cultures, including our own history, as controversial it may seem to some at times. It’s good for us to know where we came from. I have to say I found the post thought provoking and intelligent.

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  6. Thank you!!! I always find this annoying. A lot of fans do this with Game of Thrones as well with Sansa Stark. Girls were expected to be feminine and well-behaved so she was. And then you’ll hear “Oh but Arya (her sister) doesn’t care!” So what? A true feminist would say she can be whoever she wants (as long as you’re not harming anyone). And once these characters do behave in accordance to a feminist standard, their hatred remains. I don’t understand how some people can operate on an absence of logic. Connect the dots, people.

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    1. “A true feminist would say she can be whoever she wants (as long as you’re not harming anyone).”

      YES!!!!!!!! Oh my goodness, it drives me CRAZY when the feminist-types, especially on twitter, criticize those who are more traditionally feminine, whether in books OR real life. The whole point of the feminist movement is to do YOU, whatever that might be. I like a good feminine hero from time-to-time, epecially as the Arya-types are getting common enough to almost be a trope.

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  7. Oh gosh- that review extract was bad (no I won’t be looking the rest up- I value my sanity 😉 ). On so many levels. And the fact that they ended talking about pride and prejudice and zombies- *simultaneously shuddering and raging*! I obviously agree with you about 1 and 2 (also Austen books *do not* just have people talking about boys- completely wrong- did they even read the book!?) And YES to the rest of this post. As you know, I’m on the same page as you about context- really it’s ludicrous to me that people can’t get their head around the idea of context- if they need it explained simply I would use the old adage “the past is like a foreign country, they did things differently there” (though knowing the sort of people that come up with this garbage, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were offended by that statement 😉 ) And YES about Romeo and Juliet- I *can’t stand* that sort of criticism of Shakespeare. Honestly I can’t stand it as criticism full stop- because not all book can have everything in it all the time and sometimes it’s not logical (which is basically why the guns in GOT point is so good) I think people need to give classics a break and realise they were written in the past. And it’d also be nice if people realised books don’t have to be an echo chamber for an individual’s beliefs *all the time*.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. YES to the echo chamber bit. Half the point of reading books is to expand your worldview and to put yourself in someone ELSE’S shoes. Which, of course, is exactly what Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both about, making that reviewer’s inability to relate to them in context even MORE ironic.

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  8. Absolutely love this post! I definitely would’ve gotten angry as well if I had read that review haha. I haven’t read Sense and Sensibility (yet) but I really enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion and really want to read the rest of her works.
    It seems ridiculous to me to complain about the fact that the women talk about men so much – wasn’t the entire point of Austen’s works that she criticised that?
    I love your husband’s comparison to complaining about the lack of guns in Game of Thrones haha
    And I agree with you on Harry Potter – would I have loved more diversity? Of course! But they were different times. The call for diversity wasn’t so loud yet, so I understand that Rowling, who herself is white, might not think about adding characters of colour. And we don’t know if she wanted to include Dumbledore’s sexuality in the book. For all we know she wanted to and her editor told her she couldn’t.
    Again, great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I hope you love the rest of Jane Austen as much as the first two!

      I didn’t really even think about how Austen was satirizing the man-talk. She was also, I think, annoyed that that’s all women were allowed to do, and so she often over-dramaticizes all of that to the point of silliness. It’s her way of making fun. ESPECIALLY the case in Sense and Sensibility. So the person writing that review missed the mark way worse than I was even thinking!

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