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Classic Novels From the 1800s: Study Guides, Notes & More!

By Peter Boysen

Whether you're reading Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter, the information in these guides helps prepare you for writing an essay, taking a test, or just understanding the flow of the story.

How to Use This Guide

The nineteenth century marked the advent of the novel as a major genre in literature. While there are novels that predate 1800s such Student 

as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the early giants of the genre (Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the Bronte sisters, among others) all started writing during this time period.

The purpose of this list is to assist you with the reading of these novels. You'll find articles to help you understand significant quotations, follow plot lines, and interpret symbols and motifs in the stories. You'll get insight into the major characters, and you'll read some questions (and answers) to help you in class discussions.

British Novelists: Wilde and Stevenson

Much of the most enduring British literature outside Shakespeare comes from the novelists of the 19th century. Many of their works appeared serially (a month at a time) in literary magazines of the day or on their own before being published as novels upon completion of the series. These novels carried great power when it came to social transformation, especially the writings of Charles Dickens, which were instrumental in bringing about improved working conditions for the poor.

Oscar Wilde in his favorite coat Oscar Wilde was one of the more open dissidents in the history of British letters. His writings all push the boundaries when it comes to social mores, and his works display a blend of comedy and satire.

Robert Louis Stevenson wove masterful tales of imagination and creativity. Many of these such as Treasure Island are more suited for elementary-age students, but The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde commonly appears on high school and some undergraduate reading lists.

British Novelists: Charles Dickens

Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse In many ways the father of the modern novel, Charles Dickens started out in life gluing labels to shoe polish tins because his father was thrown into debtor's prison. His experiences are reflected in the social protest at work in most of his novels.

Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol are all commonly read in secondary classrooms and are common targets of undergraduate study.

British Novelists: Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters

Jane Austen's family heraldic arms One of the first female novelists to see her works in publication, Austen's writing remains relevant and popular because the characters that walk her period landscapes face the same struggles that readers in our own time encounter: the search for love, the struggle of strong women against the roles that confine them, and the battles among generations.

Commonly read in high school, Pride and Prejudice is a popular choice in junior and senior English literature classes, while works such as Sense and Sensibility and Emma often show up in British Lit syllabi in college courses.

Emily Bronte only wrote one novel: Wuthering Heights. The rich interweaving of themes and symbolism makes it a common choice in undergraduate English classes, and it will occasionally appear in senior English in high school.

American Novelists: Mark Twain

Mark Twain's Appleton's journal Although a far younger country, the United States featured some iconic novelists of its own. Mark Twain (the pen name for Samuel L. Clemens) was one of the foremost satirists and novelists in nineteenth-century American letters. His novels are widely read in high school and in undergraduate classes.

This section focuses on Twain's most widely studied novel at the secondary level, which is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

American Anti-Transcendentalists: Hawthorne and Melville

The Transcendentalist movement, led by Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in the United States, held that people would ultimately choose to do good when left unburdened by laws and rules. These ideas led to the formation of several utopian communes in the United States, which were designed to allow individuals to live off the land and to leave social structures behind.

Most of these communities quickly folded, and one disgruntled utopian, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was so disgusted by what had happened that he wrote The Scarlet Letter. Herman Melville was so inspired by this novel that he not only wrote Moby-Dick to echo Hawthorne's sentiments, he dedicated that novel to Hawthorne.