The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016


Heroes and legends • 3000BCE–1300CE


Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight • The Epic of Gilgamesh

To nourish oneself on ancient virtue induces perseverance • Book of Changes, attributed to King Wen of Zhou

What is this crime I am planning, O Krishna? • Mahabharata, attributed to Vyasa

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles • Iliad, attributed to Homer

How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there’s no help in truth! • Oedipus the King, Sophocles

The gates of hell are open night and day; smooth the descent, and easy is the way • Aeneid, Virgil

Fate will unwind as it must • Beowulf

So Scheherazade began… • One Thousand and One Nights

Since life is but a dream, why toil to no avail? • Quan Tangshi

Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams • The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

A man should suffer greatly for his Lord • The Song of Roland

Tandaradei, sweetly sang the nightingale • “Under the Linden Tree”, Walther von der Vogelweide

He who dares not follow love’s command errs greatly • Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Chrétien de Troyes

Let another’s wound be my warning • Njal’s Saga

Further reading

Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800


I found myself within a shadowed forest • The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri

We three will swear brotherhood and unity of aims and sentiments • Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Luo Guanzhong

Turn over the leef and chese another tale • The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

Laughter’s the property of man. Live joyfully • Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais

As it did to this flower, the doom of age will blight your beauty • Les Amours de Cassandre, Pierre de Ronsard

He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall • Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe

Every man is the child of his own deeds • Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

One man in his time plays many parts • First Folio, William Shakespeare

To esteem everything is to esteem nothing • The Misanthrope, Molière

But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near • Miscellaneous Poems, Andrew Marvell

Sadly, I part from you; like a clam torn from its shell, I go, and autumn too • The Narrow Road to the Interior, Matsuo Bashō

None will hinder and none be hindered on the journey to the mountain of death • The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, Chikamatsu Monzaemon

I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good family • Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others? • Candide, Voltaire

I have courage enough to walk through hell barefoot • The Robbers, Friedrich Schiller

There is nothing more difficult in love than expressing in writing what one does not feel • Les Liaisons dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Further reading

Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855


Poetry is the breath and the finer spirit of all knowledge • Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Nothing is more wonderful, nothing more fantastic than real life • Nachtstücke, E T A Hoffmann

Man errs, till he has ceased to strive • Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Once upon a time… • Children’s and Household Tales, Brothers Grimm

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn? • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

All for one, one for all • The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas

But happiness I never aimed for, it is a stranger to my soul • Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin

Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes • Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass

I am no bird; and no net ensnares me • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul! • Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

There is no folly of the beast of the Earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men • Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

All partings foreshadow the great final one • Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Further reading

Depicting real life • 1855–1900


Boredom, quiet as the spider, was spinning its web in the shadowy places of her heart • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

I too am a child of this land; I too grew up amid this scenery • The Guarani, José de Alencar

The poet is a kinsman in the clouds • Les Fleurs du mal, Charles Baudelaire

Not being heard is no reason for silence • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Curiouser and curiouser! • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

To describe directly the life of humanity or even of a single nation, appears impossible • War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view • Middlemarch, George Eliot

We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne

In Sweden all we do is to celebrate jubilees • The Red Room, August Strindberg

She is written in a foreign tongue • The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

Human beings can be awful cruel to one another • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

He simply wanted to go down the mine again, to suffer and to struggle • Germinal, Émile Zola

The evening sun was now ugly to her, like a great inflamed wound in the sky • Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it • The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

There are things old and new which must not be contemplated by men’s eyes • Dracula, Bram Stoker

One of the dark places of the earth • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Further reading

Breaking With Tradition • 1900–1945


The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes • The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle

I am a cat. As yet I have no name. I’ve no idea where I was born • I Am a Cat, Natsume Sōseki

Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin • Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori • Poems, Wilfred Owen

Ragtime literature which flouts traditional rhythms • The Waste Land, T S Eliot

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit • Ulysses, James Joyce

When I was young I, too, had many dreams • Call to Arms, Lu Xun

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself • The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

Criticism marks the origin of progress and enlightenment • The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

Like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars • The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

The old world must crumble. Awake, wind of dawn! • Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Dead men are heavier than broken hearts • The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

It is such a secret place, the land of tears • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Further reading

Post-war Writing • 1945–1970


Big Brother is watching you • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen • The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger

Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland • Poppy and Memory, Paul Celan

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

He leaves no stone unturned, and no maggot lonely • Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

It is impossible to touch eternity with one hand and life with the other • The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Yukio Mishima

He was beat – the root, the soul of beatific • On the Road, Jack Kerouac

What is good among one people is an abomination with others • Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings • The Tin Drum, Günter Grass

I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Nothing is lost if one has the courage to proclaim that all is lost and we must begin anew • Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt • Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Everyday miracles and the living past • Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney

There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

Ending at every moment but never ending its ending • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Further reading

Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present


Our history is an aggregate of last moments • Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino

To understand just one life you have to swallow the world • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another • Beloved, Toni Morrison

Heaven and Earth were in turmoil • Red Sorghum, Mo Yan

You could not tell a story like this. A story like this you could only feel • Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey

A historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment • Omeros, Derek Walcott

I felt lethal, on the verge of frenzy • American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

Quietly they moved down the calm and sacred river • A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

It’s a very Greek idea, and a profound one. Beauty is terror • The Secret History, Donna Tartt

What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are • Blindness, José Saramago

English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa • Disgrace, J M Coetzee

Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories • White Teeth, Zadie Smith

The best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn’t one • The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

There was something his family wanted to forget • The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

It all stems from the same nightmare, the one we created together • The Guest, Hwang Sok-yong

I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Further reading