By Megan Powell and Magali Prel
As February draws to a close, the classics team have decided to emulate the shortest month of the year by exploring some of our favourite short classics. These novellas and plays remain groundbreaking and impactful in the world of classic canonical literature. The form of the novella provides a bite size read of a classic piece of literature and therefore allows our recommendations to stand as the perfect introduction to the genre. We have selected a wide range of texts, but there are so many classic greats that also could have made our list. Classic novellas are a brilliant way to ease into classic literature and manage to impressively pack remarkable characters and plot into a short piece.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
In Orwell’s novella, Animal Farm, animals on a farm riot against humans in the hopes of creating a society where all animals are equal. Napoleon and the rest of the pigs convey this ideology to the other animals on the farm, but Napoleon acts increasingly in his own interests throughout the novel rather than that of the other animals. The uprising in Animal Farm develops from a desire for a better future in which farm animals can enjoy the fruits of their own labour, but these ideals transform into individualism and class-based self-interests. This novella, like many of George Orwell’s works, is a critical commentary on totalitarian governments (a form of government and political system that prohibits all opposition parties and exercises extreme control) and how a revolution can be corrupted into a totalitarian regime. This novella reflects on how humans are too greedy and individualistic to thrive in an isocratic government (a government where all citizens have equal political power). It is human nature to want more and to be the best, thus encouraging class differences that Orwell sees as inevitable.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men is a novella about two migrant ranch workers, Lennie and George, who move from place to place to find work during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This novella is a criticism of the American Dream, an ideal perpetuated in American society which describes an individual’s rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Steinbeck highlights how this dream is a mere illusion, but such dreams are necessary to make life in 1930s America more bearable. Throughout the novella, George and Lennie encounter hostility on their journey, portraying the gruesome reality of trying to make it as an itinerant worker in America during the Great Depression.
This novella also comments on the lack of rights and respect for minorities during the 1930s. Minorities were often scapegoated to give the dominant group some other group to blame for their own feelings of shame about failing in a crumbling system. The marginalised characters in Of Mice and Men represent the fear, uncertainty and distrust that permeated society during the Great Depression.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller published his play The Crucible in 1953, which dramatizes the Salem witch trials. There are fictionalised parts detailing the events during 1692 and 1693 which coincide with real life events and characters, creating a gripping play. The story follows the lives of people in a village which is consumed by suspicion over the practise of witchcraft and those who might be partaking. Abigail Williams is the first to formally name and accuse Elizabeth Proctor of performing witchcraft. This is done out of spite and vengeance as Abigail had an affair with her husband John. This accusation goes to court and begins the witch trials. Miller’s embellishment of fact and truth lent the play to controversy after its publication. The playwright's intention with The Crucible is a critical response to McCarthyism, which saw the play have a much shorter run than the rest of his repertoire. It is a powerful story of power, accusation and infidelity that will grip readers.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Published in 1899, The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a stunning exploration into Edna Pontellier’s struggle with her feminine identity of motherhood and sexuality against the attitudes of the American South. Set in New Orleans, the Pontellier family go on vacation to the gulf coast where Edna meets Robert Lebrun. The pair’s relationship progresses, but, before the connection can be fully kindled, Robert leaves for Mexico, acknowledging the difficulty the relationship might entail. After the vacation, Edna’s introduction to freedom and independence draws her from her marital and maternal duties, and the character continues to seek personal happiness. The struggle against societal expectation leaves Edna evaluating her priorities and desire for self-fulfilment. The political and social commentary that Chopin weaves throughout the novel is ahead of its time, with profound discussion into independent happiness that refutes the oppressive societal norms which continue to confine women.