One thing the majority of literary classics tend to have in common is an engaging protagonist. Perhaps it’s the everyman character with whom readers can readily identify – the Tom Joads and Leopold Blooms – or the larger-than-life heroes whose adventures and obsessions draw us in – characters like Atticus Finch and Don Quixote. Regardless, these are characters we come to know, and often cherish, as we do the stories that contain them, stories that become so familiar to us and journeys we’ve been on countless times. While they certainly don’t feel tired, there is something to be said for a change in perspective, for seeing the same events through a different pair of eyes. After all, the classics are strewn with compelling characters standing just shy of the spotlight. Here are a few literary classics we’d love to see from a different perspective.
Mark Twain is a legendary writer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is arguably his most influential and best-known work – and with good reason. It balances insightful social commentary, adventure, and Twain’s trademark with and humor. More than that, it is filled with compelling characters beyond the titular Finn. Among these are the jocular con men known as the King and the Duke. Their shenanigans and overly complex schemes would prove fertile ground for more Twain-esque comedy.
or, The Whale
Herman Melville; Introduction by Andrew Delbanco; Commentaries by Tom Quirk; Cover illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith
It is a classic tale of obsession, fate and free will, of man’s constant struggle against the natural world. It is also a literary landmark and one of the finest novels of the nineteenth century. Most are familiar with the journey of Ishmael aboard the whaling ship Pequod and of Captain Ahab’s fanatical quest for the great white whale. Ishmael fits firmly in the everyman mold, which makes the idea of hearing the tale from the obsessive and maniacal point of view of Captain Ahab so enticing. Hearing in Ahab’s own words not only what drove him in his quest for Moby Dick but also his own rationalizations for the sacrifices made would certainly be a fresh and potentially exhilarating take on this time-worn tale.
George Orwell with a Foreword by Thomas Pynchon
While certainly not the first dystopian novel, it is arguably the most iconic. George Orwell’s chilling vision of a totalitarian surveillance state wherein a populace is controlled through propaganda and precise language is unnerving in both its prescience and plausibility. While Winston Smith is certainly a suitable protagonist – and his everyman presentation perhaps allowed readers to feel more fully engrossed in the story – his clandestine and ill-fated lover, Julia, may be the more intriguing character. Her overt sexuality is hidden just beneath a thin veneer of party loyalty. She, more so than Winston, has managed to eschew much of the indoctrination that defines Orwell’s imagined society. Seeing the story from her side and discovering her personal evolution in detail holds fascinating potential.
The Lord of the Rings: Part One
Saruman, to my mind, is one of the more fascinating figures in Tolkien’s epic fantasy. An immensely powerful wizard and chief of the White Council, it was his very prestige and power that led Saruman along the path to his ultimate destruction. He studied dark magic and the machinations of Sauron with an eye toward stopping the Dark Lord, but this fascination proved his downfall. Seeing the events of LOTR through Saruman’s eyes and watching this once great wizard fall under Sauron’s sway has all the makings of a powerful tragedy.
50th Anniversary Edition
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century and its boisterous protagonist, Randle P. McMurphy, one of the most compelling characters of all time. He is at once cunning, gleefully over-the-top, and charismatic – characteristics that made his ultimate fate land all the more powerfully. But every fantastic protagonist needs an equally compelling antagonist. Murphy certainly found one in Nurse Ratched. She ruled the ward of the psychiatric hospital with an iron fist. The question is: Why? What led her to her draconian tactics? Hearing the story from her point of view could shed some light on both her backstory and motivations, and that would very likely make for a fascinating read. After all: No one is the villain in their own mind.
Jane Austen’s famous examination of aristocracy, etiquette, and manners is also surprisingly timeless. Her ability to tease out the humor from otherwise stodgy goings-on was unparalleled as was her razor-sharp wit. While the story of Elizabeth Bennet’s growth over the course of the novel takes center stage, it could be equally as compelling to see the story through the initially aloof eyes of Mr. Darcy – a far more complex character than initially portrayed.
This sprawling novel is, in many ways, the very definition of Dickensian with its sprawling cast of eclectic characters, byzantine connections, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Dickens crafted some of literature’s most fascinating and oft-bizarre side characters and while many are ripe for their own tales, hearing a portion of the events of Great Expectations from the wonderfully eccentric and woefully tragic Miss Havisham definitely holds allure. Her machinations, driven by both her deep sadness and her hatred of men, are the center of one of the novel’s most engaging conflicts. Hearing her thought process as she moves to drive a wedge in the budding romance of Estella and Pip would be fascinating.