Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good. This maxim holds true for some of the most celebrated books in modern history, which may be acclaimed for certain aspects but, overall, are simply too problematic to be praised.
Here are 12 classic novels that we’re sorry to say actually suck.
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen was critiqued by renowned authors.
Jane Austen’s 1813 novel,“Pride and Prejudice,” follows the love story of Miss Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in provincial England in the late 1700s. Many authors, however, have since had bones to pick with the story.
Author Charlotte Brontë, for example, thought the book offered merely a surface-level look of society at the time.
According to the British Library, in a letter to writer and critic George Henry Lewes, Brontë said she found Austen’s portrait of life in “Pride and Prejudice” to be like a photograph of “a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed her sentiments and had a distaste for Austen’s novels in general.
Reporter Lee Siegel wrote for The Atlantic that, “Austen irritated Emerson: he found her novels ‘vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society.’ All that her characters cared about was ‘marriageableness.’ ‘Suicide,’ the great Transcendentalist proposed, ‘is more respectable.'”
“Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell eclipses the perils of slavery.
Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Civil War drama, “Gone with the Wind,” has come under fire for its romanticized portrayal of slavery and the Confederacy. Although the book features some slaves as fully formed characters, none of those characters ever complain about their servitude or welcome freedom. Cass R. Sunstein wrote for The Atlantic that, “Mitchell doesn’t exactly celebrate slavery, but she doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with it. In her account, there is nothing particularly good about emancipation.”
Furthermore, Mitchell described freed slaves as “monkeys or small children turned loose” and “childlike in mentality, easily led and from long habit accustomed to taking orders.” To put the nail in the coffin, she arguably portrays the Northerners – and not the slave-owning Southerners – as the bigots of the story.
“The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis is problematic.
First published in 1950, C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” is a popular fantasy series about the war between good and evil. Author Philip Pullman, who penned the “His Dark Materials” fantasy trilogy, is a harsh critic of the books. According to the Guardian, at a 2002 festival, he said, “it is monumentally disparaging of girls and women. It is blatantly racist. One girl was sent to hell because she was getting interested in clothes and boys.”
He also took umbrage with the thinly veiled Christian metaphors throughout the novels: “I realised that what he was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in.” Subliminal messaging in a children’s book? Not cool.
Not everyone is a fan of “Ulysses” by James Joyce.
James Joyce’s 1922 novel “Ulysses” has been hailed as one of the most important works of modernist literature, but not everyone agrees that the book is so great.
Four years after reading it, author Virginia Woolf summed up her view of the novel in a 1922 letter, according to Yale’s Modernism Lab. “Far otherwise is it with ‘Ulysses;’ to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished – My martyrdom is over,” she wrote. “I hope to sell it for £4.10.”
“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens has some serious problems.
Charles Dickens’ 1838 book “Oliver Twist,” about the trials and adventures of an orphan boy in London, has been criticised for its anti-semitic portrayal of the villain Fagin. Throughout the book, Dickens describes Fagin as “the Jew” 257 times in the first 38 chapters; on the other hand, the religion and race of Bill Sikes, another villain, are never mentioned, according to the Independent.
The Jewish Chronicle published an article in 1854 questioning why “Jews alone should be excluded from ‘the sympathizing heart’ of this great author and powerful friend of the oppressed.”
To make matters worse, Dickens didn’t respond kindly to complaints about Fagin, according to the Independent. “Fagin had been described as a Jew, he explained, ‘because it, unfortunately, was true of the time to which that story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew,'” he wrote. “If Jews were offended, he said, then ‘they are a far less sensible, a far less just, and a far less good-tempered people than I have always supposed.'”
“Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes isn’t easy to get through.
Miguel de Cervantes’“Don Quixote,” which was published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, is a literary classic that follows the adventures of iconic hero Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.
Despite its genius, author Martin Amis found it unpalatable and, according to the Guardian, wrote that “While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, ‘Don Quixote’ suffers from one fairly serious flaw – that of outright unreadability. … The book bristles with beauties, charm, sublime comedy; it is also, for long stretches (approaching about 75% of the whole), inhumanly dull.”
“Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce has been called a “snore.”
Yes, Joyce is on this list twice.
“Finnegans Wake,” his 1939 follow-up to “Ulysses,” was roundly denounced as a bore by “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov (who has his turn on this list next). In a 1926 interview, published in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, he said that “Finnegans Wake” “is nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac!”
The story of “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is not appropriate.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel “Lolita” has been called a masterpiece and changed the connotation of its titular name forever. Although the main character, Humbert Humbert, eventually comes to develop true feelings for the “nymphet” Dolores Haze – his 12-year-old stepdaughter – it’s not a story to be celebrated by any means.
As Rebecca Solnit writes in her essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me” on Literary Hub: “I read many Nabokov novels back in the day, but a novel centered around the serial rape of a kidnapped child, back when I was near that child’s age, was a little reminder how hostile the world, or rather the men in it, could be. Which is not a pleasure.”
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger has an unlikable protagonist.
Anyone who’s read Salinger’s 1951 coming-of-age novel, “The Catcher in the Rye,” has to admit that the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, can be insufferable.
Hillary Kelly agreed in this review in The New Republic: “In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [his] explicitness, repetition, and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself. And this reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was.”
“The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway is arguably anti-semitic.
Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises”, which examines the post-World War I generation, also known as “Lost Generation,” has been called anti-semitic for its portrayal of the character Robert Cohn. Throughout the book, the author refers to Cohn as a “kike” and a “rich jew.”
Adding insult to injury, the character was, according to Forward, inspired by Hemingway’s friend, Harold Loeb, who helped him get published early on. The bald-faced anti-semitism ruins the entire story.
“Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder has problematic themes.
If you grew up reading the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, about family life on the frontier, you might’ve missed some of its problematic elements – particularly in the 1935 book, “Little House on the Prairie”.
But those problems weren’t lost on a young Grace Lin, now a children’s author, as she told NPR: “When I was about eight, all my friends were reading ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ … Well, one of the lines repeated throughout the series is, ‘Ma hates Indians.’ Anytime Pa tries to say something good about Indians, Ma bristles. She just hates them that much. … If Ma hates Indians, what would she think of me, an Asian-American girl? If Ma hates Indians, wouldn’t she probably hate me too? And, at eight years old, I felt the impact of that racism.”
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo focuses too much on the setting.
Although Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is an uplifting tale about outcasts, the storyline about Quasimodo and Esmeralda is nearly overshadowed by the author’s obsession with the Cathedral of Notre Dame and its Gothic architecture.
Mari Ness wrote for Tor.com, “As the opening lines betray, his real interest was in the many historical buildings in France that, after the French Revolution, were falling into decay…”
Unless you’re interested in architecture, the book can get quite boring.
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