-- Anthony M. Briggs, Jr.
I have recently been devouring classics via audio book. Although the pacing and beginnings of most of these stories are not in vogue with today's commercial fiction tactics, there are other critical parts that made me realize - okay, this is why this book is considered a classic. This is why I'm reading - or rather listening to this over a hundred years after it was written.
The amount of books being written and published or self-published today probably exceeds collective writer output at any other point in history. But I wonder which books written in 2012 will be drawing laughs, tears or stunned gasps by a reader in 2112? Which will even be doing that in 2022? To stand out among this incredible herd of books and survive whatever technological changes remain to be seen will be a supreme feat.
Looking at the classics that I'm reading, I take note of what is it about them that is impacting me so heavily that when I close the book I look at it and say, "Your reputation is well-deserved, my friend." In this post I’ll write about the extraordinary levels of passion some of the characters reach and the artistic ways in which such is portrayed. The number one couple for this effect that I’ve seen so far is Heathcliff and Catherine. Beyond question. I'm not much of a romance or tragedy reader, but those two had lines that made my eyes open and my finger press pause on the audiobook app.
Lite-spoiler alert, for Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
When Catherine discovers Isabella has feelings for Heathcliff, she laughs and tells Isabella to give it up. Isabella shoots back something to the effect of "you're a dog in the manger," afraid he will love me or afraid I'll get him, which makes Catherine laugh even more. She tells Isabella drop the idea, Heathcliff is a merciless wolf devoted to Catherine, and whom only Catherine knows how to control. Then, the line. I'm going to write it in a contemporary tone: "Look, Isabella. If he had any interest in you, it would be to marry you for your money and toss you aside like a cleaned off bone. And if I thought he was contemplating such a move, I wouldn't even warn you - I'd actually encourage you to get with him so he could proceed to skin you alive for fun. Understand?"
That line made me pause the record. The fact that Heathcliff really is such a wolf, that Catherine knows it, and knows how obsessed he is with her - in that one line it all became crystal clear. Repeat: "I would push you into his arms if he had a taste for you because I know there is no one else in existence that he wants other than me - unless it’s to chew them apart and spit pieces of them off a cliff." This, she said while happily married to Isabella's brother.
I had never seen such a pair of characters.
The second line that made me stop was from Heathcliff. Just how devoted is this cruel man to Catherine, in his own words? When Catherine dies and Nelly says something like, may she rest in peace in heaven, Heathcliff responds in anguish, “may that never be.” Let her go neither to heaven nor to hell, but let her become a ghost and haunt him, like a victim haunts a murderer. “Haunt me until I die, so I will not remain here without her!”
What type of person says they don't want the person they love to go to heaven? That they would rather be tormented by that person's ghost than be without them? (Yes, I know, ‘they’ is plural, it just flows better.)
I had never seen such a passionate and conflicting character, displaying both fanatical love and intense hate.
These are just a few elements of this classic novel that spoke to me and said, “classic.” I don’t see characters to that degree in novels I read today, but then again, contemporary romance and literature are not my usual selection. Still, such compelling characters shouldn’t be limited to a certain genre. As I continue to read/listen through these classics, I think about how to inform my own writing and blend these high impact elements into genres I enjoy writing, such as YA, fantasy and adventure. For I believe it is a conundrum of elements like this in a perfect storm that produces something worthy of being called a classic, worthy of being read and marveled over a hundred years after the writer is gone.
The next classic I would like to discuss in my next post will be one that has an equally powerful impact, but on the opposite side of the character-plot spectrum. The author of this book gave me moments in which I stopped listening and wondered how dare I call myself a writer? This author is a writer. The man is Charles Dickens. The book…
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