Recently, while having a conversation with a friend about books, the subject turned to reading what is generally considered to be “classic” literature. These are the books that are taught in high schools, university courses, and other academic circles. While I personally appreciate the academic reasons and approach to examining this kind of literature (which most people characterize as Literature proper), my friend brought up a very valid point: they’re not only a major chore to get through at times, but contain narrative devices and plot points that would be heavily criticized if done today.
What comes to my mind immediately is how a number of Victorian novels I read in university, regardless of their quality, often had the story conveniently wrap itself up in a neat little package, having circumstances end in the protagonist’s favour thanks to a slew of rather uncanny coincidences.
I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to outright devalue older literature. I love a lot of old books, and understand the value of reading such materials to earn a greater understanding of the context they were written in. I also understand that in a lot of cases the devices being used were very new at the time, and not overdone or cliché like they are considered to be now. However, taking into consideration I am a modern reader, I know where my friend is coming from when they consider these stories to be substandard in the modern context.
This became most apparent to me recently while reading The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells. I’ve read several other Wells’ novels before, and have actually owned the novel for a long time, but only just now read through it. I enjoyed the story a lot and did find it very interesting, but I couldn’t get past some aspects of the story that I found underwhelming.
For those who do not know, the story is about a man who is shipwrecked and ends up on the titular island, where Dr. Moreau is performing surgical experiments on animals, turning them into humanoid creatures. It’s a model for a story all too familiar to me, having grown up as a fan of science fiction and horror. Scientists create monsters, and then lose control. Knowing that this is one of the first, if not the first, novels to tell a story like this made the whole thing fascinating. The problem I had was the novel read like it was far more interested in the idea itself, rather than going deeper with the narrative.
There are plenty of contemplative ideas at play, such as what it means to be human and the nature of humanity, but a lot of it is told to the reader through the protagonist’s narration rather than being shown through the narrative itself. Huge spans of time that I thought could have otherwise been interestingly utilized to expand the narrative and the characters within it are instead glossed over, keeping the overall experience a lot more brief.
The Island of Dr. Moreau may have been one of the first of its kind over 100 years ago, but today the basic model for the story simply isn’t. It’s a type of story I know has been done numerous times and in vastly different ways, touching science fiction and horror across many mediums. The novel is definitely a classic and I would never denounce its importance, but this reading experience for me was a definitive moment where a classic novel simply was enough of what I wanted to read. The ideas were rock-solid, but the characters undeveloped. It dug into the disturbing and fascinating ideas it presented, but not nearly deep enough, or as deep as I know it could. Science fiction has expanded a lot since the novel’s time, and I know something more recent could give me more.