50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Villain

Frankenstein

Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.


The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.


It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.


That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Welcome back, class.

From the start, I was comparing Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both focus on characters with mental illness, as well as the concept of mental illness, while tackling loosely related problems like American culture, sexism, and the conflict between the individual and society. But that’s it. Beyond that, the books are as different as The Diary of Anne Frank and the Harry Potter Series.

And what makes them so different? Kesey’s novel is only about mental illness on the surface. There are clearly characters who are mentally ill, including the narrator, but that illness is simply the backdrop for a larger story—a story about oppression, anarchy, identity, and society. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t about curing those who are ill, but about freeing those who are enslaved. There are issues with that approach, but the story is good enough to rise above those issues.


First of all, the writing is SOLID. Everything about Kesey’s style is original, enjoyable, clever . . . it’s audible and graphic and is meant to immerse you into the vivid and uncomfortable world of a mental ward. On this ward, tragedy and terror happen without warning, and the smallest of details cause the biggest impact—the writing reflects that, and the few peaceful scenes that occur take such sharp turns into chaos that, after a while, the reader realizes there aren’t any peaceful scenes at all . . . only anarchy and the build-up to it. The genius of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in Kesey’s portrayal of the story’s events, and if there’s only one reason it made the list, look no further. Knowing full well I can’t do his amazing style justice, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what I mean.

Then, there’s the story itself—Randle P. McMurphy is a criminal who pleads insanity in the courtroom, and winds up on the ward with the actual mentally ill. Within hours, he sees that the situation on the ward is a step above prison, but the countless restrictions make life about as flexible as concrete, and he decides that he won’t stand for it. The leader of the ward is Nurse Ratched, a domineering woman whose sole pleasure seems to be rigidity and order—every move she makes is to perfect the lives of her patients whether they want it or not. McMurphy and Ratched become fast enemies, and the rest of the patients get caught in the crossfire.


It’s easy to see McMurphy as the hero and Ratched as the villain, and while Ratched has next to no redeemable qualities, McMurphy is a far cry from a great leader or liberator in any scenario. His criminality alone isn’t a series of innocent slips—it’s implied he’s done some terrible things. He has moments of kindness, most of which are veiled maneuvers to try to get what he wants—more freedom on the ward for something trivial, or at least the ability to upset the power dynamic and throw Ratched off her game. But there are moments of rebellion on behalf of the other patients, and those moments make McMurphy more complicated and more interesting. Kesey refuses to let McMurphy fall into labels that trap him like “hero” or “anarchist” or “revolutionary.”

One of the flaws of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is its Hemingway-esque focus on masculinity—this is a novel about men and for men, with a sexualized woman as the villain. In this world, men are celebrated for things that are crass and inexcusable, disguised as rebellion against the established order. But, to be fair, in a world where the established order is a specific kind of oppressive—sexless, muted, inflexible—performing revolutionary acts that flaunt morality or social code may be inherently good. What bothers me is that these acts tend to be for men at the expense of women, and Kesey created a story that allows for that, knowing that to soften the backward-ness of these dynamic characters would be to weaken the story. The good and powerful themes of this novel come at that cost, so be willing to pay it when you pick it up.

Despite that backward-ness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a violent wit and a very, VERY well-told story. It may be played for crazy at the expense of the mentally ill, but it’s a novel that presents the distinction between society and its marginalized individuals with force and flare. I encourage others to read it with eyes open for the good, the bad, and the ugly.


That’s FORTY BOOKS DONE. Only ten more to go! There are some books in this final round that I’ve already read, and some that I know absolutely nothing about, so we’re not going into unfamiliar territory but we are reaching the end of our journey. I feel more enlightened already.

Next up is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, similarly controversial for very different reasons. I hope I can do it justice, because I’ve read this novel several times, and I’ve loved it and hated it, and even felt a high-school-indifference to it. We’ll see how it goes.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

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