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Maggie by Stephen Crane
3 stars, 9 reviews
Written before but published after The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets offers a stark image of the underbelly of urban American life at the end of the nineteenth century. Maggie Johnson, a lovely innocent too slight to carry the weight of poverty, dreams of escaping New York’s Bowery and the casual cruelty of her alcoholic family.
After her younger brother dies, she runs off with Pete, a bartender with pretensions to wealth and culture. But Pete himself is easily seduced by the seemingly sophisticated Nellie, and Maggie finds herself abandoned in the unforgiving metropolis.
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
4.5 stars, 6 reviews
Set amid the violent social upheaval of the Revolution of 1848, the novel tells of young Frédéric Moreau’s idealistic attraction to a married woman some years his senior. Smitten by his first sight of Madame Arnoux, Frédéric idolizes her for many years, despite her refusal to encourage him and his own indecision. He befriends her husband, an art dealer, in order to be near her, and soon finds himself drawn first into Jacques Arnoux’s heady social circle and then into his disastrous financial speculations.
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
4 stars, 10 reviews
When small-town Carrie Meeber arrives in 1890s Chicago, she cannot know what awaits. Callow, beautiful, and alone, she experiences the bitterness of temptation and hardship even as she sets her sights on a better life. Drawn by the seductive desire to rise above her social class, Carrie aspires to the top of the acting profession in New York, while the man who has become obsessed with her gambles everything for her sake and draws near the brink of destruction.
Wings of the Dove by Henry James
4.5 stars, 2 reviews
One of three masterpieces from Henry James’s final, “major” phase, The Wings of the Dove dramatizes the conflict between nineteenth-century values and twentieth-century passions. Born to wealth and privilege, Kate Croy’s mother threw it all away to marry a penniless opium addict. After her mother’s death, Kate is offered an opportunity to return to the opulent lifestyle her mother gave up—on one condition.
Kate must renounce the man she loves: the witty, good-looking, but poor, Merton Densher. Reluctantly agreeing, Kate finds herself becoming friends with “the world’s richest orphan,” Millie Theale. When Kate learns that Millie is dying, she devises a plan of dizzying possibility for herself and Merton that should solve all their problems, but instead leads them down a path strewn with tragic, unexpected consequences.
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
4 stars, 23 reviews
Less celebrated than her older sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne Brontё was also less interested in spinning wildly symbolic, romantic tales and more determined to draw realistic images of conditions in Victorian England that need changing. While Charlotte’s Jane Eyre features a governess who eventually and improbably marries her employer, Agnes Grey deals with the actual experiences of middle-class working women, experiences Anne had herself endured during her hateful tenure as a governess.
The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
4 stars, 3 reviews
In 1855 Charlotte Brontë, pregnant and married less than a year, fell ill and died of tuberculosis—the same disease that had killed her sisters and brother. Two years after Charlotte’s death, her friend Elizabeth Gaskell, herself a well-known novelist, completed work on The Life of Charlotte Brontë, a biography that was met with immediate acclaim by readers curious to discover more about the enigmatic author of Jane Eyre.
Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3.5 stars, 22 reviews
The novel chronicles the relationship of Anthony Patch, a Harvard-educated, aspiring writer, and his beautiful young wife, Gloria. While they wait for Anthony’s grandfather to die and pass his millions on to them, the young couple enjoys an endless string of parties, traveling, and extravagance. Beginning with the pop and fizz of life itself, The Beautiful and the Damned quickly evolves into a scathing chronicle of a dying marriage and a hedonistic society in which beauty is all too fleeting.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
4 stars, 56 reviews
Using richly poetic language to frame a shattering narrative of love, seduction, betrayal, and murder, Hardy tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful young woman living with her impoverished family in Wessex, the southwestern English county immortalized by Hardy. After the family learns of their connection to the wealthy d’Urbervilles, they send Tess to claim a portion of their fortune.
She meets and is seduced by the dissolute Alec d’Urberville and secretly bears a child, Sorrow, who dies in infancy. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer Tess love and salvation, but he rejects her—on their wedding night—after learning of her past. Emotionally bereft, financially impoverished, and victimized by the self-righteous rigidity of English social morality, Tess escapes from her vise of passion through a horrible, desperate act.
Les Miserables (abridged) by Victor Hugo
4.5 stars, 67 reviews
This newly abridged edition of Les Misérables tells the story of the peasant Jean Valjean unjustly imprisoned, baffled by destiny, and hounded by his nemesis, the magnificently realized, ambiguously malevolent police detective Javert. As Valjean struggles to redeem his past, we are thrust into the teeming underworld of Paris with all its poverty, ignorance, and suffering. Just as cruel tyranny threatens to extinguish the last vestiges of hope, rebellion sweeps over the land like wildfire, igniting a vast struggle for the democratic ideal in France.
Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson
4 stars, 70 reviews
Dickinson’s poetry is remarkable for its tightly controlled emotional and intellectual energy. The longest poem covers less than two pages. Yet in theme and tone her writing reaches for the sublime as it charts the landscape of the human soul. A true innovator, Dickinson experimented freely with conventional rhythm and meter, and often used dashes, off rhymes, and unusual metaphors techniques that strongly influenced modern poetry. Dickinson s idiosyncratic style, along with her deep resonance of thought and her observations about life and death, love and nature, and solitude and society, have firmly established her as one of America s true poetic geniuses.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
4 stars, 32 reviews
Alternately self-confident and self-effacing, torn between ambition and idleness, the self-absorbed, immature Amory yearns to run with Princeton’s rich, fast crowd and become one of the “gods” of the campus. Hopelessly romantic, he learns about love and sex from a series of beautiful young “flappers,” women who leave him both exhilarated and devastated. Fitzgerald describes it all in intensely lyrical prose that fills the novel with a heartbreaking sense of longing, as Amory comes to understand that the sweet-scented springtime of his life is fragile and fleeting, disappearing into memory even as he reaches for it.
Ethan Frome & Selected Stories by Edith Wharton
3.5 stars, 23 reviews
Unhappily married herself, Edith Wharton projected her dark views of love onto people far removed from her social class in Ethan Frome. Her sensitivity to natural beauty and human psychology, however, make this slim novel a convincing and compelling portrait of rural life. A powerful tale of passion and loss—and the wretched consequences thereof—Ethan Frome is one of American literatures great tragic love stories.