The Unexpected in Famous Novels

When people crack open a famous novel, they often have certain expectations. But sometimes surprises are in store.

Part of the reason is that many of us (myself included) try not to read too much about iconic books before starting them for the first time. This means not clicking on Wikipedia entries, ignoring Amazon summaries and reviews, and skipping the forewords and introductions in the novels themselves — all of which avoids spoilers and allows for the books to unfold in a fresh way.

My most recent experience with a classic novel that surprised me was D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). Just about all I knew of it was that its original publisher deleted a number of passages that were “risque” or otherwise “controversial” — passages that were fairly tame by today’s standards. But I was struck by how much more there was to the excellent novel than sexual references. A portrait of a working-class family, an exploration of a mismatched marriage, a depiction of a frustrated mother and her emotionally too-close relationship with her second son, a chronicle of that son’s complicated romantic life, etc.

Then there are those challenging classics that have a reputation for being SERIOUS, yet one discovers when reading them that they contain moments of hilarity — as with the devil “cameo” in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the Ishmael/Queequeg room-share scene in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Then there’s Silas Marner, which has been the bane of some high school students who found it (allegedly) tedious, moralistic, and not something to be read unless assigned by a teacher. But I thought George Eliot’s short novel was warm, affecting, inspiring, and more.

Or Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, who has a reputation for writing excellent novels set in New York City’s high society. But EF pulls us in with a tale of far-from-rich folk in rural Massachusetts.

I knew a little something about Of Human Bondage‘s plot before I read W. Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece, but was still shocked by just how much the would-be-doctor protagonist degraded himself with a woman totally wrong for him.

I also knew that Cormac McCarthy’s riveting Blood Meridian was going to be violent. But the intensity of the mayhem (very graphic for a literary novel) took me aback.

Another big surprise was the sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish character (Rebecca) in a novel published in 1820, when anti-Semitism was rampant. The book: Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Along those lines, Alexandre Dumas’ 1843 novel Georges contains exceptionally positive portrayals of black characters for its time. Then again, I shouldn’t have been that surprised given that Dumas was partly black himself, though he usually focused on white characters (as in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers).

All those unexpected things mentioned above are examples of why reading literature can be so wonderful.

What surprises have you found in famous novels?

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.