50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Marriage

Rebecca

Hello again, class.

Most of the novels on the list require a bit of work—especially the older ones. This 50-books library is the kind of selection that focuses on the great works, not the most entertaining ones. There’s entertainment in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet, but that’s not why you need to read them before you die—you need to read them because they do what no other piece of entertainment did before, and significantly changed what literature was and could be. In almost every book on the list, entertainment may be there, but it’s always secondary.

Rebecca is one of the exceptions to this trend—it seems to be entertainment first. It delights in its own extravagant writing and startling twists, and the story is melodramatic and absorbing. It’s not a happy story—it’s more like a nightmare, honestly—but it exists somewhere between a classy horror movie and a turbulent romance. It’s not great art—but it’s not simple, either. It plays with its plot for dramatic effect and was more engrossing than I could have predicted. Rebecca belongs on the list because of the simplest reason of all: it’s exciting and suspenseful, and it made its mark on literature and popular culture of the time.


With most of the novels from the list, I don’t worry much about spoilers—I couldn’t really “spoil” The Divine Comedy, if you know what I mean—but I have to be very careful about Rebecca. This is the story of a newly married woman, who is beginning a new life with her husband. One thing I appreciated early on: this woman goes unnamed for the entire novel. I can barely imagine how difficult that might have been for the author—her protagonist is referred to ambiguously for the opening chapters and, after marrying, is referred to by last name only: Mrs. de Winter. We never learn her first name or her maiden name, and all we know of her identity is in character traits, not details. She is a complete character, but one without identity.

Actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter in the movie adaptation of Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This nameless woman marries a widower, Maxim de Winter, whose first wife is the eponymous Rebecca. Rebecca died before the narrator met Maxim, and Rebecca is some hideous unspoken secret in their new marriage. Nonetheless, they attempt to live happily in de Winter’s estate of Manderley, a large and beautiful house that is as much a character as the narrator—it’s given personality and even agency in what happens to the characters living there. The servants and guests at Manderley all seem to know something about Rebecca that they want to keep from the narrator, and because of that, Rebecca herself seems to haunt Manderley. She is around every corner, threatening to ruin the narrator’s marriage and life.


More than once, I wondered if this was a supernatural thriller—a literal haunting, with Rebecca’s spirit poisoning the house. While the narrator never sees the ghost of Rebecca walking down the halls, that seems to be the only difference between the haunting in Rebecca and something like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. This story is the closest you can get to the supernatural while still existing in the real world.

Author Daphne du Maurier

And even though it’s not quite fantasy, either, it’s got a healthy dose of the unrealistic. Everything is hyper-characterized and played for drama or suspense, not to the point that it’s unnecessary, but entertaining for certain. It uses melodrama like it uses hints of the supernatural—instead of getting in the way of the story, they make the story fuller.

The author, Daphne du Maurier, seems to have gone to the Stephen King school of storytelling (or, rather, King went to the du Maurier school of storytelling). King believes that story matters above all. The best stories aren’t about character pieces or technical brilliance, but about telling the best story you can. Rebecca is the perfect example of an author telling the best story she can, and it’s such a good story that it earned its way onto the list of 50 books to read before you die.


Next up, I’m finishing Catch-22, which does exactly what Rebecca doesn’t—and to fantastic result. Catch-22 is almost an anti-story, with plot that folds in on itself and character-driven vignettes that refuse to bear a story. And yet, it’s every bit as thrilling as Rebecca, and infinitely funnier. Though I certainly loved RebeccaCatch-22 is more my speed—but let’s drive down that route next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘Americans make the best husbands,’ the American lady said to my wife. I was getting down the bags. ‘American men are the only men in the world to marry.'”

—from “A Canary For One” by Ernest Hemingway

Anna Karenina

Hello again, class.

The first thing you notice about Anna Karenina is how long it is. Hopefully, the second thing you notice is how short the chapters are—all of them, two or three pages a pop. It’s really easy to read a chapter a day, and most chapters pick up in the exact spot where you left off last—that’s why, for the past 15 books I’ve written about for this blog, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina on the side. It’s hardly made a dent in my time, even though it took several months to read.

I’ve heard that Anna Karenina is the best novel ever written. Though my vote for that spot is still Ulysses, I can see why Tolstoy’s novel is preferable—Anna Karenina uses a large cast of characters and their diverse inner thoughts to tell the kind of story you can’t look away from, where passion leads to terrible decisions and societal systems punish everyone, without regard to right or wrong. For that, Anna Karenina makes the list of books to read before you die.


Actress Greta Garbo as Anna in one of the several movie adaptations of Anna Karenina.

The novel follows two major stories that intersect and branch out from each other. One story is focused on Anna, a married woman who falls in love with another man and begins an affair, setting in motion the events of the novel. The other story focuses on the landowner Konstantin Levin and his relationship and eventual marriage with the noble Katerina (Kitty). It’s almost like reading two different novels, except for the moments when one story affects the other.

In Anna’s story, her life falls apart almost immediately—once she meets Alexis Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, her marriage collapses like wet paper. Her attachments to her extended family, her love for her son, her standing in Russian society . . . all are kindling for the fire that consumes her life. Levin’s story is more traditional—he pines for Kitty, learns to live without her, happily regains his relationship with her, and, once married to her, begins the life expected of a husband. But the subtleties of his story reveal contradictions ingrained in marital expectations.

If the entire novel could be boiled down into one thought, that’s it: Anna Karenina is about the flaws of marriage, and in other systems that society puts so much importance on. More than anything, Tolstoy seems determined to point out how complicated and convoluted the ideas and expectations of marriage are, and to condemn it as part of the problem.


Author Leo Tolstoy

The novel is praised for realism, but be warned: I don’t mean present day realism, I mean 1800’s realism (which means that Tolstoy doesn’t linger on the gory details, but they’re still there). Anna Karenina has that same quality that Modernism abides by—the need to break down traditions and widely held values for the sake of shifty truths. Tolstoy does this in a way that shows off every character and their uniquely flawed perspectives, warts and all. No one character has a complete picture of the events, so it’s up to the reader to decide what the truth is, despite any one character’s beliefs or morals.

Tolstoy’s determination makes Anna Karenina challenging and important. It doesn’t hold back anything—that’s the kind of realism it brands itself with, which works to the novel’s credit.


Next up, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Of what I’ve read so far, there could be several comparisons between the protagonist Esther and Tolstoy’s Anna—I can’t share more detail without spoiling either novel, but suffice it to say that mental illness in women is misrepresented in most literature, and that what Tolstoy didn’t get right in Anna Karenina is sure to be corrected by Plath’s personal experience. I don’t look forward to a happy ending with The Bell Jar. And that’s okay.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

“The Karenins, husband and wife, continued living in the same house, met every day, but were complete strangers to one another. Alexey Alexandrovitch made it a rule to see his wife every day, so that the servants might have no grounds for suppositions, but avoided dining at home. Vronsky was never at Alexey Alexandrovitch’s house, but Anna saw him away from home, and her husband was aware of it.”

—from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Wuthering Heights

Good morning, class.

It’s easy to see the similarities between Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In both stories, the swampy moors of the English countryside set an atmosphere of oppressive weariness and longing. The romances tracked in both novels have drama seeping through the pages—lies, betrayal, terrible passion, and a man too mysterious to ever fully trust.

But I think it’s easier to talk about Jane Eyre, at least in terms of plot—our heroine Jane begins as an orphan, and we follow her journey into adulthood and into her romance with Mr. Rochester. Wuthering Heights is much murkier. Instead of any hero, we get a cluster of characters surrounding the villainous Heathcliff, one of the more disgusting characters I’ve ever read in a novel. He enters the narrative, destroys almost everything around him, and remains a mysterious stain on everyone’s happiness until the final pages of the novel, where a happy ending barely scrapes by from the debris in his wake. And so Wuthering Heights leaves its mark.


Heathcliff and Catherine, portrayed by Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939)

The main narrative follows Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in a tortured romance. Heathcliff is brought back to the Wuthering Heights estate as a child by Mr. Earnshaw, where he meets the young Catherine and her brother Hindley. They grow up together, and Catherine and Heathcliff realize their attraction to each other, but obstacles get in the way. Heathcliff runs away, and Catherine decides to marry their neighbor Edgar Linton instead. When Heathcliff returns, he has enough money to enact revenge on those who kept him and Catherine apart.

Heathcliff swindles Wuthering Heights from Hindley (and from Hindley’s son Hareton) while marrying Edgar’s sister to punish both Edgar and Catherine. They each have children: Linton is Heathcliff’s son, and Catherine’s daughter is named Catherine (simply to confuse matters further). The elder Catherine dies while giving birth, and Heathcliff prays that her soul never rest—that she haunt him until he dies.

Fast-forward about 18 years, and Hareton, Catherine, and Linton have all grown up. They are the product of tortured love, revenge, and heartbreak, with Heathcliff the only surviving member of the first generation. Without giving too much away, the three of them try to right the wrongs of the past and revolt against Heathcliff’s tyranny—to be what their parents couldn’t be.


Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939)

Heathcliff is the reason to read Wuthering HeightsI called him one of the more disgusting characters I’d ever read in a novel, and that’s because there so much villainous life breathed into him by Emily Brontë that he’s stood the test of time. His origins are unknown—both his heritage and his means of getting money—and hatred seems to come easier to him than love.

His relationship with Catherine is simply a mess. They seem to enjoy each other in childhood, both a little more unkempt and uncontrollable than most children. As outsiders they grow fond of each other. But in adulthood they punish each other as signs of love. They wrap up the Lintons into their mess and ruin the Lintons’ happiness—Edgar is in a loveless marriage and must compete with Heathcliff’s rage, while his sister Isabella is tricked into marrying Heathcliff who cares nothing for her.

After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff regularly digs up Catherine’s corpse and cries over it. He is ultimately disgusted with his son Linton and forces him to marry the younger Catherine so that he can inherit Edgar’s estate. Without a doubt, Heathcliff is a nightmare. Characters speculate if he is some kind of demon or imp. He has no pity for the people he hurts and delights in suffering. His obsession with Catherine is only matched by her obsession with him, and the only real question about his motivations is whether or not their relationship does more damage than he himself does.

Emily Brontë

Is Brontë’s writing strong? Absolutely—ahead of its time, even. Is the story worth reading? I’d say so—the plot is intricate and chaotic, in the best way. But Heathcliff is what makes Wuthering Heights special, and he’s why it made the list.


I like to think there isn’t a moral to the story, but if there is one, it’s about a bad kind of love vs. a good kind. The bad kind of love is the one that destroys and poisons, that’s so passionate and full of emotion that it can’t survive. Then there’s a patient, practical love—one that doesn’t hurt, and yet still wins out against obstacle. The love between Heathcliff and Catherine is destructive, but maybe the next generation can share a better love, despite the effects of the the generation before.


Up next, I’m reading E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India—one of the few books on the list I’ve never heard of before. Let’s hope it’s good!

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.'”

—from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Pride and Prejudice

Welcome back, class.

I was once gushing about my newfound favorite novel, Ulysses by James Joyce (blog post pending), to a professor who could gush just as easily over Jane Austen’s novels. I explained that Ulysses broke all the rules and changed literature like nothing ever had, and my professor didn’t hesitate; she said “Jane Austen did that already, about 100 years before Ulysses was published.”

She had a point. Since then, I may have only read one Austen novel, but it really did call every rule into question. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the novels that break the rules are my favorite ones.


Elizabeth and Mr Darcy (played by Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen, respectively)

Chances are good that you know the story: an unlikely love develops between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth is a lower class girl who speaks her mind, often against others’ wishes, and is more concerned with her own happiness than anyone else’s. Mr. Darcy is a very proud, very rich man, who is so bad at conversation and social obligations that he comes off as a terrible person. Mr. Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice against her first impression of him are the road blocks they must overcome (hint, hint).


Beyond these personal road blocks, there are the general expectations of 19th century society that stand in their way, and Austen is ruthless in criticizing them. The famous opening lines do this best: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” For most of the men in the novel, this is accurate; for Mr. Darcy, pinning down a wife is the furthest thing from his mind. Falling in love with Elizabeth is the only thing that changes his position.

Depiction of Jane Austen

Most of Austen’s criticisms come through Elizabeth’s mother—an incredibly foolish woman whose only desire is to see her daughters married. For instance, when her middle daughter runs away with a man, she is driven to constant bed rest and hysterics from the shame . . . until she finds out her daughter and this man will be married, and it becomes the happiest day of her life. Elizabeth narrowly dodges the bullet of becoming like her mother, but some of her sisters—uncontrollably silly, uneducated, and trapped by skewed perspectives—aren’t so lucky.

These flaws are not one character’s fault—Austen’s criticism is of a society that perpetuates those flaws. This is why Elizabeth is such an amazing character: she not only sees most of these flaws, but also acts against them. She denies the rules that mean nothing to her, and adheres to the ones that she chooses to adhere to. She isn’t perfect—her first impressions of Mr. Darcy can prove that—but she is herself, more than most literary characters and more than most people in the real world.


As some supportive evidence, Pride and Prejudice is based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which I wrote about last week. Elizabeth strives to be herself in a world of disguises, which happens to be a major motif of Twelfth Night. And, of course, Elizabeth’s mother is the Fool from the play—except the Fool is much wiser. Plus about a thousand other connections.

I’d also like to add that for me, it took me several chapters of Pride and Prejudice before I became impressed. If you pick it up, know that it’s the kind of novel where you need to invest yourself—the drama is only DRAMATIC if you let it be. Otherwise, it’ll feel like hundreds of pages of “Good heavens!” which, personally, I can only take so much of.


Up next, I’m picking up what I think is the exact opposite kind of novel—The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another that I’d never heard of before the 50-books list. All I know is that a dog is murdered and we’re going to solve the mystery. That’s a good enough place to start.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey