When the Digital Age Invades Old Novels

Haim swiping

The plots of novels written before the digital age might have been quite different if smartphones, texting, websites, blogs, social media, etc., existed many decades or centuries ago. Let’s examine this, shall we?

After a thwarted engagement, made-for-each-other Anne Elliot and Capt. Wentworth have no contact for seven long years in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817). If only they had known each other’s cell numbers in order to text. (Messaging rates may have applied.)

Edmond Dantes was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and jailed in the miserable Chateau d’If island prison in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). If Edmond had been able to email the media from a dungeon computer…

Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel knows something fishy is going on in the Thornfield Hall attic. She could’ve learned the true story sooner if she had had a “nanny cam.”

The person who murdered two women in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is not known to the authorities for a long time. But what if Raskolnikov, during a late-night bout of self-confessional depression, posted about his guilt on Facebook?

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), there are two problematic marriages: that of Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon, and Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. If TMZ.com reported on those unfortunate unions, maybe the couples would’ve soon divorced from embarrassment.

Claude Lantier was a frustrated artist in Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (1886). He might have felt better if he posted his paintings on Instagram.

Things would have been better for Edna Pontellier if she made a TikTok video rather than doing what she did (I’m avoiding a spoiler here) at the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899).

In Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), the title character has a hard time becoming a published writer. It would have helped to gain some exposure by starting a blog.

In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), the foolishly enamored Philip Carey is stuck in an atrocious relationship with the unkind Mildred that goes on and on. If Philip had access to online dating apps, chances are he would’ve met someone more compatible many chapters earlier.

The trial in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was dramatic enough. Picture it trending on Twitter, with retweets galore!

Things would have been a lot less crazy in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) if a different piece of wardrobe furniture had been purchased on Craigslist.

Books burned in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451? Replace ’em with an Amazon order…

Sal Paradise and other characters drive all over the place in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). A good GPS might have kept them in Jersey or something.

Any scenarios you’d like to create by placing modern technology in old novels?

Here’s a 2020 song called “I Know Alone” by the three-sister band Haim. Why is it relevant to this blog post? Well, in the quirky dance the siblings do in this video, one of their moves is swiping on the screens of imaginary smartphones. ๐Ÿ™‚ An image taken from the video is atop this blog post.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning โ€œMontclairvoyantโ€ topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. My latest piece — about a misleading anti-rent-control campaign and more — is here.

69 thoughts on “When the Digital Age Invades Old Novels

  1. A very interesting read, technology has certainly altered the reality, secrets are no longer hidden, mystery no longer mysterious, reading no longer in quiet corners of libraries. From single dimensional plots of Austinโ€™s novels to third dimensional plots of Dostoevsky to may be 5 dimensional plots with the advent of emails and cell phones. Nanny cam would have certainly helped Jane Eyre to know about Bertha Mason. Bennet sisters could use tinder or other dating sites to find suitors than wooing potential suitors in debutant balls. Sherlock could have used modern forensics and digital camera to decode crime scenes. Great ๐Ÿ‘

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tanya!

      “…technology has certainly altered the reality, secrets are no longer hidden, mystery no longer mysterious, reading no longer in quiet corners of libraries” — great line!

      Actually, in the case of the Bennet sisters, using digital tools might have been a better thing than those elaborate debutante balls. ๐Ÿ™‚

      And, yes, Sherlock’s work would have been SO different in 2020!


  2. In Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night”, the early scene wherein the old gentleman,a retired general, is noted because, in a room of many, he alone seems to have repose– could never happen now, as all parties therein would be glued to their phones and never look up long enough to notice. And the general would probably be too agitatedly engaged with Angry Birds to have any repose.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Great scenario — and depressingly true that many people keep looking at their phones even when around other people. Plus a very funny surprise ending starring Angry Birds. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Hi Dave,

    I distinctly remember reading โ€œFahrenheit 451โ€ on my Kindle and loving how permanent it felt. Obviously devices can have their content erased, but somehow I felt safe from Bradburyโ€™s destruction.

    Even though I grew up without mobile phones, they very quickly became normal. I now take the immediacy of them for granted, so much so that when Romeo and Juliet had no idea what the other one was doing, I couldnโ€™t figure out why they wouldnโ€™t just text each other? It strikes me as just the tiny bit odd when characters are out of the touch with other characters and they seem to find that completely normal.

    Iโ€™m so glad Dostoevsky didnโ€™t have Facebook though. I loved the emotional roller coaster of Raskolnikovโ€™s will I/wonโ€™t which wouldnโ€™t have existed if he could have just updated his social media with no hesitation and no distraction.

    Another really fun post, Dave. Thanks so much for the laugh ๐Ÿ™‚


    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sue! Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Reading the book-burning saga “Fahrenheit 451” on a Kindle feels so meta, ironic, subversive, and a few other adjectives. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Great line about Romeo and Juliet! Hopefully Juliet would have paid for an Apple phone-replacement plan if she dropped her phone from the balcony while texting.

      And I know what you mean about how digital devices quickly feel like the norm — while one wonders how we ever existed without them.


  4. Two thoughts… Currently re-reading Bleak House, again ( it’s raining, it’s St Swithin’s Day ) – Honoria Barbary would either elope, or if the relationship failed, refer casually to ‘ the father of my child’ Immunised, of course, against everything…
    Almost all children’s literature. ?
    Would be destroyed by Health and Safety and.or Social Services.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Of course that was the movie, the Frankenstein in Shelley’s book was indeed hideous so a good plastics man and/or a little cloning would’ve gone a long way. Perhaps some microsurgery techniques as well..

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you!

        Ha ha! ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ “Frankenstein” the book, “Frankenstein” the movie, “Young Frankenstein” the movie… The first a great/pioneering horror and sci-fi work with a lot of philosophical content, the second riveting and poignant, and the third hilarious. As you might be alluding to, perhaps Frankenstein’s brain could be made with a 3D printer if the download has any problems? ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha yes. Idk but I have lately reimagined Frankenstein being introduced to the public and getting trolled on social media. And I have to say this about that although it’s off topic: Recently my daughter was on Good Morning America Book Club as a panelist to discuss Kevin Kwan’s new book, Sex And Vanity. Well it went well until a lot of the other bookstagrammers saw the broadcast and got hot because none of the panelists were Asian. My daughter has received a lot of hate mail and so have the others. Even though it was ABC GMA who selected them and Kevin Kwan was okay with them as well. What a world we live in. Now she has deleted her instagram book account after 2 years of reviewing books. As a book reviewer yourself, I’m sure you can appreciate how heartbreaking it is for her. And geezaloo, I just don’t know what to say about it. Thanks for letting me share this with you and your followers. That’s why I enjoy your blog so much because we are all readers and know that to comment on a particular literary work and to have a lively discussion about it is a thing to appreciate. Thanks again Dave.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks so much for the kind words about this blog and for your follow-up comment!

            Almost nothing is off-topic. ๐Ÿ™‚

            Very sorry to hear about what happened to your daughter. I think diversity (in all things, including the make-up of panels) is extremely important, but that’s a gross, cruel overreaction by the hate-mailers. For one thing, as you note, your daughter did not assemble the panel herself. Her having to delete her Instagram book account is a real shame. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ


            • Thanks for your kind words, Dave. And yes, GMA reached out to the panelists and told them how sorry they were and Kevin Kwan was upset about it as well. I post a comment in response to other commenters that Kwan was doing what authors do, promoting and marketing his book. That marketing is your capitalist dollars at work and capitalism is not often inclusive. As another author once said “And so it goes” So there’s that. I just think Kwan was okay with it because he wants everyone to know that white people read his book also, but that’s ascribing a darker element as to why they were selected. What’s really ironic here is that his book is based on EM Forster’s A Room With A VIew using Asian characters to retell the story. When we consider that Forster was gay and a part of that hoidy toidy English society, and in some ways attempting to throw a light on the hypocrisy of it all, which is the essence of art, being a reflection of society. I told her not to worry and reminded her that even this too shall pass, but by no means apologize for it because once we start apologizing for the circumstances of our birth everything from that point on gets wonky. That she should enjoy getting to speak to an author she liked and had something in common. As Kwan grew up in Houston as she had. Again, thanks for allowing me to share.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Thanks for the further details and thoughts about what happened. All well said.

                Almost any kind of marketing is better than no marketing for a book, and I can see the benefit of making it known that the book was of course aimed at all kinds of people — not just people of Asian descent. Heck, the best literature is often specific and universal at the same time.

                Yes, some irony there with the book being partly based on “A Room With a View” by an author also “outside” an un-diverse sector of society because he was gay.

                You offered good advice to your daughter!


    • Thank you, Becky! Interesting!

      I’ve read Sue Grafton’s first four alphabet mysteries — all originally published in the 1980s. (Finally tried and enjoyed her work just a few years ago.) I didn’t realize her more recent Kinsey Millhone novels written after the digital age began were kept in the pre-digital age. Smart move to avoid the could-ruin-a-mystery smartphone!

      Liked by 1 person

        • Old-fashioned leg work can definitely make a mystery novel more interesting! I love the way authors can make time slow down if they want. ๐Ÿ™‚

          If I’m remembering right, “For Better or For Worse” cartoonist Lynn Johnston dealt with time in her excellent comic strip by having the characters age one year for every three years in real life.

          Liked by 1 person

            • A really good comic strip. ๐Ÿ™‚ I got to meet Lynn Johnston many times when I covered cartooning for a magazine; she’s a very smart, funny person.

              I guess aging characters a year for every year of real life can create problems if a not-frozen-in-time comic ends up lasting many decades. There was a character in the “Gasoline Alley” strip who was WELL over 100 and still functioning pretty well — which required some suspension of belief. ๐Ÿ™‚

              Liked by 1 person

                • True, Becky — the “For Better or For Worse” site is excellent!

                  I think you’re right about “Gasoline Alley” being the first comic to age its characters. (That strip is more than 100 years old, and has been done by only three cartoonists during that time.)

                  Liked by 1 person

  5. This is brilliant and funny. I had this surreal image of Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice telling Darcy exactly what she thought of him on messenger and posting pics on instagram labelled ‘twat,.’ and George and Lennie texting each other in Of Mice and men. I’ll run with Lord Of the Flies though and Piggy finding a hiding place to text home re how the natives are starting to carry torches….

    Liked by 3 people

  6. For fiction set in the present (or recent past), all of this technology makes believable plotting that much more difficult. Then there is the connundrum of writers who have stories they’ve written several years ago and are still trying to get published. Do they attempt to force the current technology (and popular culture) into their now-dated story?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Liz! Two great observations!

      Especially in fiction with mystery/detective/crime elements, all this current technology makes it harder to plausibly keep things…well…a mystery.

      As for your second point, it sounds like those stories would need to be updated, if set in “the present.” But if they’re specifically set in, say, 2017, I guess there isn’t a problem. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I was thinking of those genres in particular. It’s like, “hasn’t anyone heard of the Internet!” ๐Ÿ™‚ Also several Dickens’ novels likewise would have his labyrinthine bureaucracies and mistaken identities completely and prematurely resolved.

        Liked by 2 people

        • “…hasnโ€™t anyone heard of the Internet” — ha! Yes, Mary Jo! One does wonder sometimes. I guess Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.) embraced the Internet Age to great effect via its computer hacker Lisbeth Salander character.

          Excellent line about Charles Dickens’ novels! They could indeed have been much shorter if written in our techie time. Not quite flash fiction, but… ๐Ÿ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

      • In movies recently made, I have long noticed that the first objects to look quaint and outdated are the computers, no matter how futuristic they may have appeared to art directors during the filming.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. This is hilarious! I’m still laughing 10 minutes after reading it. Jack Kerouac still in Jersey killed. Bwwaaahhh

    How about Nabokov’s “Lolita,” if Ronan Farrow had interviewed Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty on a podcast resulting in a trial and incarceration on charges of Pedophilia?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. And think about Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver Travels….if only, if only. We live in a digital age where communication thrives through the WIFI. I often wonder what the generation in the year 2120 will think of our writings and our communication style. I was reading that in the distant future, we may be able to communicate by sending our thoughts through a network directly into someone elseโ€™s brain. YIKES!!! I

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! Yes! Someone like Robinson Crusoe might have been rescued fairly quickly — if the island had WiFi. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Interesting thought. As cutting-edge as today’s tech seems, it could all look rather primitive in a hundred years. Brain-to-brain communication? Yikes indeed!

      Liked by 3 people

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