By Nicholas H-J.
Oh, English class. Out of the many courses in high school, this is the one that they make you take for all four years. English class is the one constant, the one class that we all have to go through. Now, I’m not saying that I dislike English (quite the opposite, in fact), but I do get frustrated when I am forced to read a terrible book. There is nothing worse than being forced to study a book you dislike; it is dull and disheartening.
Being in grade 12, I have just finished the last novel I will ever have to read in English class at Lisgar. So, as a way to help YOU throughout your English classes, I have compiled a list of what I have thought were the top 10 novels/plays that I have been forced to read over the years.
(NOTE: I am not suggesting you skip over some of the lower ranked works entirely, but skimming would be perfectly acceptable.
NOTE 2: I have taken the gifted stream of English, so some of these choices might be different to what other classes read.)
10. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (Grade 10)
Set in a barren, dystopian future where religious extremists rule and where people with handicaps or deformities are shunned, The Chrysalids tells the story of David Strorm. David begins seeing vivid images in his head of bright cityscapes and cars, things that he has never seen. Then, after he meets a six-toed girl named Sophie, things take a turn for the worse…
The Chryalids offers an interesting setting, but the characters and plot are rather dry. Characters are, for the most part, cardboard cutouts: they complete a task or role in the narrative but are dry when it comes to realistic human emotion. The plot falls flat here as well, as the story seems to drag on and go in circles. Unless you are really into dystopian literature, I would recommend skimming this one.
9. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (Grade 9)
Twelfth Night tells the story of Viola, who, after being shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria, dresses up as a man to be allowed entrance to Duke Orsino’s court in search for her brother Sebastian. Duke Orisno is in love with the court woman Olivia, who refuses to see a suitor. However, after Viola comes to the court dressed up as the handsome Cesario, Olivia falls madly in love with him (her). Viola, meanwhile, falls in love with Duke Orsino.
It is a mad tale of love triangles, spying, gossip, and cross-dressing. The light romantic plot is fun, but the characters fall flat. There is little in the way of subtlety or hidden messages in this play, which makes it seem rather pointless to analyse. If you are looking for light, comedic entertainment, however, then this is the play for you.
8. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (Grade 10)
Ah, the famous tale of the “star-crossed lovers” from opposing families. Romeo and Juliet tells the romantic tragedy of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet as they try to love each other in a world that doesn’t want them to. Juliet’s father hates the Monatgues and Romeo’s father hates the Capulets. In a tragic ending, their two deaths bring the families together.
Let me start off by saying that the imagery in this play is phenomenal. Imagery sets include darkness, light, and weight. Symbolism is excellently handled as well, particularly in Romeo’s soliloquies. The story is fast paced and full of action. However, to a modern audience, the actions of the two protagonists come across as very childish and immature, and as result, it is hard to care about or sympathize with them.
7. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (Grade 12)
Possibly Hardy’s most famous work, The Mayor of Casterbridge tells the story of a man in the Victorian Era who can’t seem to get his way in life. When travelling through an English countryside, he sells his wife in a drunken fit. His wife and child leave him. Twenty years later, Henchard is a successful mayor and businessman in the town of Casterbridge. All is sent awry, however, when his wife and now-grown daughter return to him.
This novel is one of the most melancholic books in all of high school reading, I believe. There is not a moment of happiness in anyone’s lives. Because of this, the novel seems to drag on forever in the middle. The opening is fantastic, the ending nearly made me cry, but this novel as a whole is tiring to get through.
6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Grade 11)
Good old P&P. This is the first entry on the list that I would actually recommend to someone. Set in the Victorian Era, this novel follows the plight of the Bennett sisters as they try to get married in order to live secure and happy lives.
Hilarious, sarcastic, and emotional, this novel is truly one of a kind. The characters are, for the most part, amazingly rounded out, with interesting motivations and active decisions. The highlight of Pride and Prejudice is its dialogue. It is a rare thing to read a book with such excellent dialogue. It flows realistically and in an often hilarious manner. The only reason this novel is not higher on the list is that one has to be in a certain mindset before reading this novel. Be prepared for some old-style English and some difficult vocabulary. Do read this one though; it is awesome.
5. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Grade 12)
The longest, and possibly most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays follows the story of Hamlet, prince of Denmark. After the death of his father, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius is crowned king and decides to marry the old king’s wife, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Hamlet, distraught by the fact that his mother would marry her dead husband’s brother so fast, is plagued in grief. When a ghost of his father appears and tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him in his sleep, Hamlet becomes determined to take revenge.
Epic and complex, this play shows everything Shakespeare has to offer: great imagery, complicated characters, interesting plot, intrigue… It is the essential Shakespeare. However, this play is overly long. Hamlet is indecisive in his actions, and constantly wavers on them. There are scenes that don’t add anything to the play’s themes or plot, and seem to be entirely unnecessary. Read this play for the play’s sake, but be prepared for some long and drawn out scenes.
4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Grade 12)
Dark and disturbing, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian society called the Republic of Gilead. Women’s fertility has gone down for various reasons, and as a result, the government forces fertile women to become Handmaids, who produce children for sterile women. We follow the internal monologue of one such Handmaid, a woman now called Offred.
The Handmaid’s Tale is so profound because of how relevant it is to our modern world. The most recently published of all the required reading at Lisgar, it makes social comments on things we can understand, such as totalitarian regimes. Through Offred’s monologue, we learn many things about her past, her dreams, and her desires. I found it beautifully written and resonating.
However, I could see someone not enjoying this book for the fact that it does not possess a lot of action. Most of the novel is flashbacks and contemplation. If you want an excellent, serious novel, then this is the novel for you.
3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (Grade 10)
Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of school boys who are stranded on an island. Without food, water, or the supervision of parents, they must come up with ways to live together in a civilized manner until help arrives. However, as time goes on, the kids begin to descend into savagery and unruliness.
Out of all the works I had to read for high school, this one was the most “entertaining.” It was, for me at least, a roller coaster ride of tension and action. I greedily gobbled this book up in no time. What makes this novel so well done, though, is the pacing. Golding provides a good balance between exciting moments and pauses for the reader. An exciting novel from the start, I recommend this to anyone.
2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (Grade 11)
Macbeth, a high lord to the King Duncan of Scotland, is a man full of ambition. When he hears a prophecy recited by three witches saying that he will become the king, he makes sure that it comes true. With the help of his wife, Lady Macbeth, he kills Duncan in order to be named the new king. Together, the two become terrible and corrupt people.
Macbeth, unlike Hamlet, is brief and to the point. Not a moment is wasted in this exciting medieval tragedy. Shakespeare offers his entire platter here, with a fantastic plot and awesome use of literary devices. What makes the play, in my opinion, is the character of Lady Macbeth. The downfall from her striking ambition to a horrible madness is amazing. She is my favourite Shakespeare character, by far. Macbeth is a must-read.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Grade 9)
And finally, the number one required read at Lisgar is most likely the first ever assigned to you. This heartwarming tale by Harper Lee tells the story of Scout, a young girl, as she witnesses two terrible things in her town: the racism against African-American Tom Robinson and the mysteriousness of town recluse Boo Radley. We follow Scout through her daily life and problems.
I loved To Kill a Mockingbird; it has every element of a perfect novel. The characters are complex and ambiguous in nature, the plot is fascinating, the writing is flawless. The best thing about this novel is the perspective it was written through. Through the eyes of young Scout, we once again think back to our innocent childhoods when the world seemed like such a blissful and perfect place. To Kill a Mockingbird should warm the heart of any reader, for it has something to say to everybody.
I hope you get something out of that list. Remember, this is entirely based on opinion, so your choices might have varied from mine. If you want to begin a discussion about any of these works, go to the “Lisgarwrite” Facebook page and I’ll be happy to have one.