How do I write a comparative essay for English?
Comparative essays can be quite daunting. It’s difficult to achieve a balance between texts and to know where to start comparing them – sometimes they can be completely different after all. At A-level I had to write a comparative essay on Webster’s The White Devil and Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, which are completely different genres. Yet any differences or similarities you can pick up on. So I would definitely talk about the fact that these are different genres. The White Devil is a play so how would it be performed when it was published/now and how would this make a difference? Would we have sympathy with Flamineo because he talks directly to the audience? More sympathy than we might have for Satan in Paradise Lost?
Comparative essays raise a lot of questions about the texts and it’s difficult to know how you can include these in a sophisticated argument.
DON’T PANIC however.
Sometimes it’s a good thing when texts are so different because ‘comparative’ doesn’t JUST mean ‘what do they do the same?’ although you can address this but also ‘what do they do differently?’ You could look at how themes such as love or war are treated differently i.e. through different stylistic choices or how the writers have different responses to them (perhaps due to their differing contexts). You could use a quote by a critic and see how it applies to one text and not to another.
It’s also important to remember to meet all the criteria for an exam/coursework essay. For example, OCR A level English asks you to meet certain A0s or objectives in your work, so you have to spend a certain amount of time in your essay looking at the context of both texts and then in language analysis AS WELL AS in comparison between the texts. The best thing to do is use the context or language to support/argue with a comparison. So if you are talking about Flamineo compared to Satan you can discuss why the language of both texts makes the two similar/different (the adjectives used to describe them, the settings they’re found in) and why the writers might have presented them differently (Satan is a Biblical character, one who many contemporary readers would have instantly seen as evil – even if a modern audience don’t - whereas Flamineo is a more ambiguous character).
Using an example I’m going to talk you through how to answer an essay question which requires comparison between texts:
Choose a question. See how it applies to one text and then to another through making mindmaps/notes. I chose “ ‘In order to gain liberation women must use their feminine qualities or get rid of them’. Discuss with reference to the three texts you have studied.” and I would use the question with Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (a collection of short stories) and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Therefore I started off by thinking about the position of women in all three texts: in Duffy’s the women seem strong and the fact that she’s chosen historical figures and is rewriting their stories is important, whilst in Carter’s the women seem powerful and the rewriting of fairytales to change views of women is also important and in Shakespeare’s play women such as Beatrice are presented as highly intelligent and witty, but other characters such as Hero are virtually silent throughout the play and therefore seem problematic.
First pick apart the question ( when you actually go to write your essay you can acknowledge that you have done so in your introduction). What is a ‘feminine quality’? What do the writers see as feminine qualities? Duffy and Carter were writing as part of Second and Third Wave Feminism so for them a ‘feminine quality’ would have differed hugely from what Shakespeare thought of as a ‘feminine quality’. For them, ‘feminine qualities’ are often constructs of men, not “true” qualities really.
Examiners like it if you can show you have really thought about the question itself and whether the question itself is worth arguing with. Here you can also show your awareness of the different contexts the writers have: Shakespeare was writing in a century in which women were expected to conform to certain ideals and were seen as mothers, wives, daughters, not the heroes and powerful figures that people Carter and Duffy’s work.
However you must be careful not to lump any writers together – although Carter and Duffy seem to have similar views, make sure you signal that they are different writers with different aims.
I would look at motherhood in all three texts since it is a significant theme throughout – and could be called a ‘feminine quality’ as it is usually. It is quite a good idea to choose a theme that runs through all the different texts but then look at how it is presented differently. So, whilst in Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and Duffy’s ‘Thetis’ or ‘Queen Herod’ the mothers are hugely powerful (which you can show through in depth language analysis) which reflects the writers stances as feminists (bring in some context here), the mother in Much Ado About Nothing goes unmentioned. Instead women are vulnerable to men’s attacks, as when Hero is viciously humiliated and condemned by her father and fiancée. Women are therefore seemingly passive and submissive in Shakespeare’s texts, when they are strong and active in those of Duffy and Carter.
But it is worth always COMPLICATING your argument and being able to show that you have thought of all sides of the argument. Hero might be ‘passive’ in Much Ado About Nothing, but Beatrice is a completely different story (and whilst we’re on the theme of mothers, in some productions Antonio is played by a woman so there is some kind of mother figure, even if still ineffectual which is important). You could find instances where the language she/Shakespeare uses shows her power and intelligence.
In these instances she seems just as powerful as the women in Carter and Duffy’s work. Now bring in context once more: However, is this a good thing in Shakespeare’s view? Is Beatrice dangerous BECAUSE of her intelligence and is that why she has to be safely married off? In the two modern, female writers’ work the women don’t always even marry - their sexuality isn’t dangerous but empowering.
Integrate at least two texts into each paragraph – don’t do one paragraph on one text and then another on the other text so that it reads as para 1) Carter para 2) Duffy para 3) Shakespeare. This will force you to compare the two.
So if you’re struggling to find differences between Carter and Duffy for instance or another two very similar writers, to the point where your essay doesn’t seem to be advancing in terms of argument (this is a danger of only talking about similarities), talking about the differences between how the two have treated the same fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood, in ‘Little Red Cap’ and ‘Wolf Alice’ for example, could raise interesting issues.
It doesn’t have to be as specific as this – Duffy and Carter are really good for comparison and you might not have texts that have such a strong link (the fairytale). However you can always choose a theme that crosses both texts and stick to this. For instance, when comparing Paradise Lost and The White Devil, which don’t seem very similar at all, you could find similarities in the way the theme of corruption is treated and yet COMPLICATE your argument by finding differences underlying this (perhaps due to context as The White Devil is based in a courtly setting whereas Paradise Lost speaks of religious corruption – although it reflects the corruption in the government Milton had worked under).
You can also look at the specifics of the marking scheme: to achieve a good mark in A03 you must be able to compare the three texts, but you are also awarded marks from A03 for bringing in critics. So if you talk about Duffy’s work and then use a quote from a critic (or just an idea, you don’t have to quote them exactly especially in an exam), you would get marks. Therefore, don’t worry too much about constantly comparing the texts. Try always to link them, but if you’re struggling on a certain point or you want to show a difference between them, perhaps bring in a critics argument. This shows that you have read widely about the texts and can show specialist knowledge and it allows you to focus on the detail of a text.
This seems like a lot of information and you might be wondering how you could structure an essay that has to include all of this. But really, a good essay structure that you use all the time can be applied to a comparative essay too. So if you normally write 1) an intro 2) paras agreeing with the question 3) paras arguing against the question 4) a conclusion this could work here as well. Or you can find a new structure. The important thing is that you simply have to include more than one text in each paragraph. This is tricky but it’s supposed to be – and if you can achieve it you’ll get high marks.
So your essay might go something like this (you might have to split up paragraphs because obviously you’ll have a lot to say about each text but make sure you mention at least two authors in each para):
Para 1: Explore how Carter, Duffy and Shakespeare present mothers – women using their feminine qualities, which supports the question.
Para 2: Do any of the characters rid themselves of feminine qualities within these works? What are feminine qualities? You could talk about Beatrice compared to Little Red Cap and The Bloody Chamber – each possesses a violence not usually attributed to women. So does this argue against the question?
Para 3: Do the texts really show women either ‘using’ or discarding their ‘feminine qualities’? Or are they using their intelligence and sexuality, two qualities never previously seen as ‘feminine’, to gain real liberation? Argue that the question itself needs adapting.
Conclusion: Whereas Carter and Duffy show a new version of femininity as a kind of power, subverting old ideas about “feminine qualities”, this power is seen as dangerous in Much Ado About Nothing as Beatrice, the only powerful female figure in the play, is ultimately silenced by the power men possess over her and her complicity in this.
Please find below the selection of novels you may choose from for your A2 Literature coursework. They have all been picked by members of the English department, so no matter what you choose someone should be able to help you with it!
The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan
A perverse but enchanting book; beautifully written and perfectly constructed. This is a story about a family of children who find themselves orphaned while living in a house surrounded by a wasteland, an image that perfectly reflects the emptiness of their days. Finding themselves without adult guidance, it shows how they slide into sloth and then perversity. Being a writer of consumate skill and a gifted story-teller, McEwan describes this without purple prose but with a sharp eye on human nature.
Possession – A S Byatt
Literary critics make natural detectives”, says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser- known “fairy poetess” and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud’s discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long- forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte’s passion.
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed and the promise of new beginnings. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–” Gatsby’s rise to glory and eventual fall from grace be comes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
In an unforgettable depiction of war, Hemingway recreates the fear, the comradeship, the courage of his young American volunteers and the men and women he encounters along the way with conviction and brutal honesty. A love story of immense drama and uncompromising passion, A Farewell to Arms is a testament to Hemingway’s unique and unflinching view of the world and the people around him.
The Pursuit of Love/ Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
Following the amorous trajectories of Linda Radlett and of Polly Hampton, the first two books here are at once extremely funny and deeply serious, delineating the possibilities for love in a world circumscribed by the formal expectations and conventions of marriage. Mitford’s heroines dramatise the search for a true or ideal relationship, regardless of social institutions or sexual orientation.
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
Haunting and harrowing, as beautiful as it is disturbing, The English Patient tells the story of the entanglement of four damaged lives in an Italian monastery as the second world war ends. The exhausted nurse, Hana; the maimed thief, Caravaggio; the wary sapper, Kip: each is haunted by the riddle of the English patient, the nameless, burn victim who lies in an upstairs room and whose memories of passion, betrayal and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of sheet lightning. In lyrical prose informed by a poetic consciousness, Michael Ondaatje weaves these characters together, pulls them tight, then unravels the threads with unsettling acumen.
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys’s late, literary masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and is set in the lush, beguiling landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s. Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty. After their marriage the rumours begin, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness.
The French Lieutenants Woman – John Fowles
Haunted night and day by the face of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ (Sarah Woodruff) Charles Smithson struggles to forget her and concede to a life with the entirely more conventional Ernestina Freeman. Theirs is the expected and typical Victorian pairing, but as the action progresses, Charles finds his initial curiosity towards the enigmatic Sarah developing into attraction and eventual desire. In his novel, Fowles powerfully depicts Charles’s inner conflict between head and heart, painfully illustrating the consequences of allowing the heart to overrule in such a repressed, hypocritical society.
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
This is an astonishing and spellbinding book, a triumph of writing and storytelling. The first sentence is sufficient to draw the reader into a journey from a father’s deathbed to the wild plains of the American West. But the time could be the present with its drab towns, unemployment and men either too intelligent or too stupid for the lives they are trapped in. The author can describe the American landscape with an honesty and lyricism that echoes the finest ancient literature. He does this in a unique style that sounds like the voice of a hardened cowboy who understands deeply his horses and his land.
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Rebecca is a timeless classic in the gothic literature genre. Daphne Du Maurier weaves a tale full of tension and suspense that grips the reader from the start and doesn’t let go.
Max de Winter brings his new bride to Manderley, the home he shared with his beautiful first wife Rebecca, before her untimely death widowed him. Rebecca’s presence still seems to permeate Manderley, haunting the new Mrs de Winter and sapping her confidence. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers who loved Rebecca and resents her place being ‘usurped’ feeds the young brides insecurities at every opportunity and makes her doubt her husbands love for her. When whispers of murder start to be heard, Mrs de Winter starts to doubt her new husband as well as her own sanity.
Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey
Oscar Hopkins is a high-strung preacher’s kid with hydrophobia and noisy knees. Lucinda Leplastrier is a frizzy-haired heiress who impulsively buys a glass factory with the inheritance forced on her by a well-intentioned adviser. In the early parts of this lushly written book, author Peter Carey renders the seminal turning points in his protagonists’ childhoods as exquisite 19th-century set pieces. Young Oscar, denied the heavenly fruit of a Christmas pudding by his cruelly stern father, forever renounces his father’s religion in favour of the Anglican Church. “Dear God,” Oscar prays, “if it be Thy will that Thy people eat pudding, smite him!” Lucinda’s childhood trauma involves a beautiful doll bought by her struggling mother with savings from the jam jar; in a misguided attempt to tame the doll’s unruly curls, young Lucinda mutilates her treasure beyond repair. Neither of these coming-of-age stories quite explains how the grown-up Oscar and Lucinda each develop a guilty passion for gambling. Oscar plays the horses while at school, and Lucinda, now an orphaned heiress, finds comfort in a game of cards with an odd collection of acquaintances. When the two finally meet, on board a ship bound for New South Wales, they are bound by their affinity for risk, their loneliness and their awkwardly blossoming (but unexpressed) mutual affection.
A Room with a View – E M Forster
A variety of English tourists are gathered in a small Italian pensione in Florence when Lucy and Charlotte arrive. Both women had asked for and been promised rooms with a view. Upon arrival, they got just the opposite. Complaining over dinner about this, two men, a father and his son, immediately offer to exchange rooms. This offer breaks most rules of good manners at the time, and the women turn down the kind, well-intentioned offer. Thus far can manners cause one to go against one’s best interests. During their time in Florence, the women find themselves confounded and redirected by the honest helpfulness of the Emerson men. But the familiarity raises dangerous challenges for Lucy, and she flees their company.
Where angels fear to tread – E M Forster
When attractive, impulsive English widow Lidia takes a holiday in Italy, she causes a scandal by marrying Gino, a dashing and highly unsuitable Italian twelve years her junior. Her prim, snobbish in-laws make no attempts to hide their disapproval, and when Lidia’s decision eventually brings disaster, her English relatives embark on an expedition to face the uncouth foreigner. But when they are confronted by the beauty of Italy and the charm and vitality of the disreputable Gino, they are forced to examine their own narrow lives, and their reactions are emotional, violent and unexpected.
Sons and Lovers – D H Lawrence
It is full of deep psychological insight and it helps if you have a smattering of the ideas of Freud and Jung. With these ideas it’s possible to decode just how damaging it is to a child, when the mother switches the love she had for her husband to the son. Add to the already explosive mix a drunken and physically abusive father then there is no escape for Paul (the Lawrence figure in this highly autobiographical story).
After such a brutal upbringing, there is surprisingly, a positive ending, where the young man chooses life over death. His relationships with Miriam and Clara have allowed him some normal development, although, in particular, with Miriam there is much grief as the mother sees her as a rival for Paul’s love.
Atonement – Ian McEwan
We meet 13-year-old Briony Tallis in the summer of 1935, as she attempts to stage a production of her new drama The Trials of Arabella to welcome home her elder, idolised brother Leon. But she soon discovers that her cousins, the glamorous Lola and the twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, aren’t up to the task, and directorial ambitions are abandoned as more interesting preoccupations come onto the scene. The charlady’s son Robbie Turner appears to be forcing Briony’s sister Cecilia to strip in the Fountain and sends her obscene letters; Leon has brought home a dim chocolate magnate keen for a war to promote his new “Army Amo” bar; and upstairs Briony’s migraine-stricken mother Emily keeps tabs on the house from her bed. Soon, secrets emerge that change the lives of everyone present…
The Fourth Hand – John Irving
Irving’s latest novel kicks off with an extraordinary incident. Sent to cover a colourful “human interest” story in a circus in Gujarat, its protagonist – a New York TV journalist – becomes the story himself when he is mauled by a lion which takes his hand off at the wrist. The whole grisly thing is caught on camera and shown around the world. But that’s not all. A viewer in Wisconsin is moved to “donate” her husband’s hand as a replacement, in some pioneering surgery, The only problem being that her husband is still very much alive and well… Irving’s book mixes satire, black comedy, sexual picaresque (the journalist in question is an inveterate womaniser) with something else again. The mysterious painkiller which he is given in India opens unexpected vistas in the mind of the unfortunate main character. It’s an inventive, funny, sexy book which also gets serious about love, loss and fate.
Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
The novel’s narrator, Stevens, is a perfect English butler who tries to give his narrow existence form and meaning through the self-effacing, almost mystical practice of his profession. In a career that spans the second world war, Stevens is oblivious of the real life that goes on around him–oblivious, for instance, of the fact that his aristocrat employer is a Nazi sympathizer. Still, there are even larger matters at stake in this heartbreaking, beautifully crafted novel– namely, Stevens’ own ability to allow some bit of life-affirming love into his tightly repressed existence.
My Antonia – Willa Cather
Burden, a successful and cultured East-coast lawyer, is returning to his childhood home in Blackhawk, Nebraska for a visit. On the long train ride, he reminisces with an unnamed friend about the place where they had both grown up and about the people they knew – especially their dear friend Antonia, “who seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.”
When young Jim Burden was orphaned at age ten, he left his native Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm, just outside of Blackhawk. At almost the same time that Jim arrived, the Shimerda family settled on their land. Mrs. Shimerda had argued effectively for a move to America so that the children, especially Ambrosch, the eldest son, would have the chance to make a better life for themselves, with more possibilities of moving up in the social hierarchy and of acquiring wealth. The Bohemian newcomers were the Burden’s closest neighbors. Fourteen year-old Antonia Shimerda, the eldest daughter became a close friend of Jim’s. He was immediately drawn to her warmth and friendliness. When Antonia’s father, a sensitive, refined man, discovered that Jim was educated he asked the boy to teach his daughter to speak English. “Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Án-tonia!” he told/asked Mrs. Burden. Together the two young people worked the land and explored the glorious prairie. And Antonia began to learn English.
Women in Love – D H Lawrence
The book is insightful, superbly written and delves deep into the familiar Lawrence areas of sex, sexuality, love, social class, & materialism. It is also written before Lawrence became embittered with society, which shows in his later works.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is set in the early days of the second world war, before Benito Mussolini invaded Greece. Dr Iannis practices medicine on the island of Cephalonia, accompanied by his daughter, Pelagia, to whom he imparts much of his healing art. Even when the Italians do invade, life isn’t so bad–at first anyway. The officer in command of the Italian garrison is the cultured Captain Antonio Corelli, who responds to a Nazi greeting of “Heil Hitler” with his own “Heil Puccini”, and whose most precious possession is his mandolin. It isn’t long before Corelli and Pelagia are involved in a heated affair–despite her engagement to a young fisherman, Mandras, who has gone off to join Greek partisans. Love is complicated enough in wartime, even when the lovers are on the same side. And for Corelli and Pelagia, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate the minefield of allegiances, both personal and political, as all around them atrocities mount, former friends become enemies and the ugliness of war infects everyone it touches.
Portrait of a Marriage – Nigel Nicholson
The marriage was that between the two writers, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and the portrait is drawn partly by Vita herself in an autobiography which she left behind at her death in 1962 and partly by her son, Nigel. It was one of the happiest and strangest marriages there has ever been. Both Vita and Harold were always in love with other people and each gave the other full liberty without enquiry or reproach’, knowing that their love for each other would be unaffected and even strengthened by the crises which it survived. This account of their love story is now a modern classic.
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
The book’s hero, a 20-year-old Englishman named Stephen Wraysford, finds his true love on a trip to Amiens in 1910. Unfortunately, she’s already married, the wife of a wealthy textile baron. Wrayford convinces her to leave a life of passionless comfort to be at his side, but things do not turn out according to plan. Wraysford is haunted by this doomed affair and carries it with him into the trenches of the war. Birdsong derives most of its power from its descriptions of mud and blood, and Wraysford’s attempt to retain a scrap of humanity while surrounded by it. There is a simultaneous description of his present-day granddaughter’s quest to read his diaries, which is designed to give some sense of perspective; this device is only somewhat successful. Nevertheless, Birdsong is a rewarding read, an unflinching war story and a touching romance.
The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber
Michel Faber’s loose, baggy monster of a book captures the great narrative drive of classic Victorian storytellers, and wears its influences fairly openly. Sugar, the heroine, has an instinct for self-preservation as intuitive as Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp. The densely researched details of perfume manufacturing recall George Eliot’s quarrying for “Middlemarch”. And the frank sexual content will probably have Andrew Davies rubbing his hands with glee if he gets the chance to adapt it for the screen, as he’s done with Sarah Waters’ “Tipping the Velvet”.
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Structured rather akin to a Chinese puzzle or a set of Matrioshka dolls, there are dazzling shifts in genre and voice and the stories leak into each other with incidents and people being passed on like batons in a relay race. The 19th-century journals of an American notary in the Pacific that open the novel are subsequently unearthed 80 years later on by Frobisher in the library of the ageing, syphilitic maestro he’s trying to fleece. Frobisher’s waspish letters to his old Cambridge crony, Rufus Sexsmith, in turn surface when Rufus, (by the 1970s a leading nuclear scientist) is murdered. A novelistic account of the journalist Luisa Rey’s investigation into Rufus’ death finds its way to Timothy Cavendish, a London vanity publisher with an author who has an ingenious method of silencing a snide reviewer. And in a near-dystopian Blade Runner-esque future, a genetically engineered fast food waitress sees a movie based on Cavendish’s unfortunate internment in a Hull retirement home.
Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
Charles Frazier’s debut novel, Cold Mountain, is the story of a very long walk. In the waning months of the Civil War, a wounded Confederate veteran named Inman gets up from his hospital bed and begins the long journey back to his home in the remote hills of North Carolina. Along the way he meets rogues and outlaws, Good Samaritans and vigilantes, people who help and others who hinder, but through it all Inman’s aim is true: his one goal is to return to Cold Mountain and to Ada, the woman he left behind. The object of his affection, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Raised in the rarified air of Charleston society, Ada was brought to the backwoods of Cold Mountain by her father, a preacher who came to the country for his health. Even after her father’s death, Ada remains there, partly to wait for Inman, but partly because she senses her destiny lies not in the city but in the North Carolina Blue Ridge.
The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Traveler’s Wife tells the intruiging story of Clare and Henry, who meet when Claire is 6 and Henry is 36 but marry when Claire is 20 and Henry 28. It describes in dramatic detail, their unusual meeting, and their lives together and not. Their story is full of up and downs – Clare can never be sure when Henry will disappear next, where to, or when he will come back. This adds a certain fleetingness and intensity to their relationship, particularily the earlier parts. As the book continues, it adds more flesh and detail to the two central characters; their friends, family, and relationships before and after they met each other. This ensures that the characters are well developed and described – not just reflections of each other.
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Widely regarded as one of Edith Wharton’s greatest achievements, The Age of Innocence is not only subtly satirical, but also a sometimes dark and disturbing comedy of manners in its exploration of the ‘eternal triangle’ of love. Set against the backdrop of upper-class New York society during the 1870s, the author’s combination of powerful prose combined with a thoroughly researched and meticulous evocation of the manners and style of the period, has delighted readers since the novel’s first publication in 1920. In 1921 The Age of Innocence achieved a double distinction – it won the Pulitzer Prize and it was the first time this prestigious award had been won by a woman author.
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
In one of the most acclaimed and strange novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed . If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs. . . . .
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Beloved is a dense, complex novel that yields up its secrets one by one. As Morrison takes us deeper into Sethe’s history and her memories, the horrifying circumstances of her baby’s death start to make terrible sense. And as past meets present in the shape of a mysterious young woman about the same age as Sethe’s daughter would have been, the narrative builds inexorably to its powerful, painful conclusion. Beloved may well be the defining novel of slavery in America, the one that all others will be measured by.
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS tells the wonderful, intensely moving story of how two modern Afghan women overcome the great challenges that have faced women in Afghanistan and rise above their victimization. Khaled Hosseini has succeeded in capturing many important historical and contemporary themes in a way that will make your heart ache again and again. Why will your reaction be so strong? It’s because you’ll identify closely with the suffering of almost all the characters, a reaction that’s very rare to a modern novel.
Any Human Heart – William Boyd (He’s an OG!)
Logan Gonzago Mountstuart, writer, was born in 1906, and died of a heart attack on October 5, 1991, aged 85. Any Human Heart is his disjointed autobiography, a massive tome chronicling “my personal rollercoaster”–or rather, “not so much a rollercoaster”, but a yo-yo, “a jerking spinning toy in the hands of a maladroit child”. From his early childhood in Montevideo, son of an English corned beef executive and his Uraguayan secretary, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, Mountstuart traces his haphazard development as a writer. Early and easy success is succeeded by a long half-century of mediocrity, disappointments and setbacks, both personal and professional, leading him to multiple failed marriages, internment, alcoholism and abject poverty.
Strange Meeting – Susan Hill
John Hilliard, a young subaltern returning to the Western Front after a brief period of sick leave back in England, finds his battalion tragically altered. His commanding officer finds escape in alcohol, there is a new adjutant and even Hilliard’s batman has been killed. But there is David Barton. As yet untouched and unsullied by war, radiating charm and common sense, forever writing long letters to his family. Theirs is a strange meeting and a strange relationship: the coming together of opposites in the summer lull before the inevitable storm.
Regeneration – Pat Barker
Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, 1917, where army psychiatrist William Rivers is treating shell-shocked soldiers. Under his care are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as mute Billy Prior, who is only able to communicate by means of pencil and paper. Rivers’s job is to make the men in his charge healthy enough to fight. Yet the closer he gets to mending his patients’ minds the harder becomes every decision to send them back to the horrors of the front …
Enduring Love – Ian McEwan
Joe planned a postcard-perfect afternoon in the English countryside to celebrate his lover’s return after six weeks in the States. The perfect day turns to nightmare, however, when they are involved in freak ballooning accident in which a boy is saved but a man is killed
In itself, the accident would change the couple and the survivors’ lives, filling them with an uneasy combination of shame, happiness, and endless self-reproach. But fate has far more unpleasant things in store for Joe. Meeting the eye of fellow rescuer Jed Parry, for example, turns out to be a very bad move. For Jed is instantly obsessed, making the first of many calls to Joe and Clarissa’s London flat that very night. Soon he’s openly shadowing Joe and writing him endless letters. (One insane epistle begins, “I feel happiness running through me like an electrical current. I close my eyes and see you as you were last night in the rain, across the road from me, with the unspoken love between us as strong as steel cable.”) Worst of all, Jed’s version of love comes to seem a distortion of Joe’s feelings for Clarissa.
1984 – George Orwell
Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth in London, chief city of Airstrip One. Big Brother stares out from every poster, the Thought Police uncover every act of betrayal. When Winston finds love with Julia, he discovers that life does not have to be dull and deadening, and awakens to new possibilities. Despite the police helicopters that hover and circle overhead, Winston and Julia begin to question the Party; they are drawn towards conspiracy. Yet Big Brother will not tolerate dissent – even in the mind. For those with original thoughts they invented Room 101 …
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
The story travels through Jamaica, Turkey, Bangladesh and India but ends up in a scrubby North London borough, home of the book’s two unlikely heroes: prevaricating Archie Jones and intemperate Samad Iqbal. They met in the Second World War, as part of a “Buggered Battalion” and have been best friends ever since. Archie marries beautiful, buck-toothed Clara, who’s on the run from her Jehovah’s Witness mother, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad marries stroppy Alsana and they have twin sons: “Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical checks.”
Small Island – Andrea Levy
The ‘today’ of the novel is 1948, when Queenie Bligh has given up waiting for her husband Bernard to come back from his service in the Second World War, and to make ends meet has let rooms in her house out to immigrants from Jamaica, among them Gilbert Joseph and his wife Hortense. And that is Small Island in a sentence. But it takes us back through the four main characters’ lives before and during the war, each speaking to us in their own voice. The ventriloquism is elegant and brilliantly managed, making us sympathetic to all the characters in turn, and gripped by their flowingly told stories; so much so that when they come into conflict at the end of the novel, we are as torn as they are, and don’t know which way to turn.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
This is a vision of the future where the population is controlled by subtlety and manipulation, the basic premise being that if people are too doped up to realise that they have been conned by a tiny minority who have everything then that elite can remain in charge for ever.
In Huxley’s world the method of control is to program people to indulge only their most transitory and materialistic desires all of which can be fulfilled quite readily and in doing so suppress any idea that there “might be more to life than this” and this leaves the population with happy but trivial lives.
The morality of this is questioned through the introduction of an outsider to the society and his actions form the basis of the plot. To be honest I think the story isn’t as involving as the world it is set in but the questions the book raised easily merit this book classic status.
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
When the novel opens at the end of World War II, Capt. Charles Ryder and his troops, looking for a billet, have just arrived at Brideshead, the now-dilapidated family castle belonging to Lord Marchmain, a place where Charles Ryder stayed for an extended period just after World War I, the home of his best friend from Oxford, Lord Sebastian Flyte. The story of his relationship with Sebastian, a man who has rejected the Catholicism imposed on him by his devout mother, occupies the first part of the book. Sebastian, an odd person who carries his teddy bear Aloysius everywhere he goes, tries to escape his upbringing and religious obligations through alcohol. Charles feels responsible for Sebastian’s welfare, and though there is no mention of any homosexual relationship, Charles does say that it is this relationship which first teaches him about the depths of love.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D H Lawrence
Perhaps the most famous of Lawrence’s novels, the 1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover is no longer distinguished for the once shockingly explicit treatment of its subject matter–the adulterous affair between a sexually unfulfilled upper-class married woman and the gamekeeper who works for the estate owned by her husband. Now that we’re used to reading about sex, and seeing it in the movies, it’s apparent that the novel is memorable for better reasons: namely, Lawrence’s masterful and lyrical writing, and a story that takes us bodily into the world of its characters.
Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh
Sent down from Oxford in outrageous circumstances, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly surprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, rascals and fools, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and Captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds and the young run riot, no one is safe, least of all Paul.
Notes on a Scandal – Zoe Heller