The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics

This is one of the 213 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Aeneid by Virgil

    This epic poem tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travels to Italy, where he becomes the ancestor of the Romans. It includes a series of prophecies about Rome's future and the deeds of heroic individuals, and is divided into two sections, the first illustrating the hero's journey and the second detailing the wars and battles that ensue as Aeneas attempts to establish a new home in Italy. The narrative is deeply imbued with themes of duty, fate, and divine intervention.

  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

    The novel tells the story of a young German soldier, Paul Bäumer, and his experiences during World War I. The narrative explores the physical and emotional toll of war, the camaraderie between soldiers, and the disillusionment of a generation thrown into a brutal conflict. The protagonist and his friends grapple with survival, fear, and the loss of innocence, providing a stark and poignant critique of the futility and destructiveness of war.

  • All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

    "All the King's Men" is a political drama that revolves around the rise and fall of a Southern governor, loosely based on Louisiana's Huey Long. The story is narrated by a journalist who becomes the governor's right-hand man, offering an inside perspective on the political machinations, corruption, and personal tragedies that accompany the governor's climb to power. The novel explores themes of power, corruption, and the moral consequences of political ambition.

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell

    "Animal Farm" is a satirical fable set on a farm where the animals revolt, overthrow their human farmer, and take over the running of the farm for themselves. The story is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, and the tale is told by the animals that inhabit the farm, primarily pigs who become the ruling class. Despite their initial attempts at creating an equal society, corruption and power ultimately lead to a regime as oppressive as the one they overthrew.

  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

    The narrative unfolds through the eyes of 15 different characters over 59 chapters. It is the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her poor, rural family's quest and motivations—noble or selfish—to honor her wish to be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. As the Bundren family undertakes a journey to fulfill Addie's last wish, they face many hardships and personal revelations. The novel explores themes of existentialism, death, and the nature of family relationships.

  • As You Like it by William Shakespeare

    This classic play is a pastoral comedy set in the Forest of Arden, where the banished Duke Senior and his followers live in exile. The plot revolves around various forms of love and mistaken identities. The main character, Rosalind, is the Duke's daughter who disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede to escape her uncle's court. She falls in love with Orlando, who is also in exile, and through a series of comedic and romantic events, they end up together. The play is famous for its exploration of love, freedom, and life in nature.

  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin

    "The Awakening" is a novel set in the late 19th century New Orleans, which explores the life of a young woman trapped in societal and marital expectations. She embarks on a journey of self-discovery and independence, defying the norms of her time. The protagonist challenges the traditional roles of women as she seeks personal fulfillment, experiences sexual awakening, and struggles with her desires and responsibilities. The book is a critique of the repressive social norms, particularly regarding women and marriage, of the Victorian era.

  • Beowulf by Unknown

    "Beowulf" is an Old English epic poem that tells the story of the eponymous hero, a Geatish warrior who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose mead hall is under attack by a monster known as Grendel. Beowulf fights and defeats Grendel and his mother, earning the gratitude and friendship of Hrothgar. Later in his life, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and faces his final battle with a deadly dragon. The poem explores themes of heroism, fate, and mortality, and is considered one of the most important works of Old English literature.

  • Billy Budd by Herman Melville

    Set in the late 18th century, this novel tells the story of Billy Budd, a handsome, charismatic, but uneducated sailor who is forced to leave his merchant ship and join the crew of a British warship. Despite his popularity among the crew, he inadvertently makes an enemy of the master-at-arms, who falsely accuses him of mutiny. In a moment of panic, Budd accidentally kills his accuser, leading to his own court-martial and execution, despite the captain's reluctance and the crew's support. The novel explores themes of innocence, corruption, and the complexities of moral judgment.

  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

    The novel is a poignant tale of an African American girl named Pecola Breedlove who grows up during the years following the Great Depression. Living in a society that values beauty in terms of light skin and blue eyes, Pecola develops an inferiority complex and wishes for blue eyes, believing that it would make her beautiful and loved. The story explores themes of racial self-loathing, the standards of beauty, and the dynamics of power and oppression.

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel explores a society where human beings are genetically bred and pharmaceutically conditioned to serve in a ruling order. The society is divided into five castes, each with its specific roles. The narrative follows a savage who rejects the norms of this new world order and struggles to navigate the clash between the values of his upbringing and the reality of this technologically advanced, emotionless society. His resistance prompts a deep examination of the nature of freedom, individuality, and happiness.

  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London

    This book tells the story of a domesticated dog named Buck who is stolen from his home in California and sold into service as a sled dog in Alaska. As he faces harsh conditions and brutal treatment, Buck must learn to adapt to the wild and harsh environment, ultimately reverting to his ancestral instincts in order to survive. The book explores themes of nature versus nurture, civilization versus wilderness, and the struggle for dominance.

  • Candide by Voltaire

    "Candide" is a satirical novel that follows the adventures of a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism by his mentor. When he is expelled from the paradise for kissing a baron's daughter, he embarks on a journey around the world, witnessing the horrors of war, natural disasters, and human cruelty. Throughout his journey, Candide maintains his optimistic philosophy, despite the constant hardships he faces, ultimately concluding that one must cultivate their own garden, a metaphor for taking control of one's own destiny.

  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

    The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories that follows a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Told in Middle English, the tales are narrated by a diverse group of pilgrims, including a knight, a miller, a reeve, and a pardoner, who share their stories to pass the time during their journey. The tales, which range from chivalrous romances to bawdy fabliaux, provide a colorful, satirical, and critical portrayal of 14th century English society.

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

    The book is a satirical critique of military bureaucracy and the illogical nature of war, set during World War II. The story follows a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier stationed in Italy, who is trying to maintain his sanity while fulfilling his service requirements so that he can go home. The novel explores the absurdity of war and military life through the experiences of the protagonist, who discovers that a bureaucratic rule, the "Catch-22", makes it impossible for him to escape his dangerous situation. The more he tries to avoid his military assignments, the deeper he gets sucked into the irrational world of military rule.

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker

    Set in the early 20th century, the novel is an epistolary tale of a young African-American woman named Celie, living in the South. She faces constant abuse and hardship, first from her father and then from her husband. The story unfolds through her letters written to God and her sister Nettie, revealing her emotional journey from oppression to self-discovery and independence, aided by her relationships with strong women around her. The narrative explores themes of racism, sexism, domestic violence, and the power of sisterhood and love.

  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    A young, impoverished former student in Saint Petersburg, Russia, formulates a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker to redistribute her wealth among the needy. However, after carrying out the act, he is consumed by guilt and paranoia, leading to a psychological battle within himself. As he grapples with his actions, he also navigates complex relationships with a variety of characters, including a virtuous prostitute, his sister, and a relentless detective. The narrative explores themes of morality, redemption, and the psychological impacts of crime.

  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller

    Set during the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th century, this play explores the hysteria, deceit, and religious extremism that plague a small Puritan village in Massachusetts. The protagonist, a flawed but essentially good man, is caught in a web of accusations when young girls in the town start displaying strange behavior and accusing others of witchcraft. The ensuing trials reveal not only the dangers of mass hysteria and false accusations, but also the destructive power of societal pressures and the human capacity for both cruelty and heroism.

  • Daisy Miller by Henry James

    "Daisy Miller" is a novella that explores the social differences between American and European society in the late 19th century. The story follows a young, affluent American woman named Daisy Miller, who defies societal norms while traveling in Europe. Her flirtatious behavior and disregard for European customs create a scandal among the upper-class expatriate community, particularly catching the attention of a young American man who is both attracted to and repulsed by her nonconformity. Ultimately, Daisy's refusal to conform to societal expectations leads to her downfall.

  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

    This novel follows the life of its titular protagonist from his childhood to maturity. Born to a young widow, David endures a difficult childhood when his mother remarries a harsh and abusive man. After his mother's death, he is sent to a boarding school before being forced into child labor. As he grows, David experiences hardship, love, and loss, all the while meeting a colorful array of characters. The novel is a journey of self-discovery and personal growth, showcasing the harsh realities of 19th-century England.

  • Death Of A Salesman by Arthur Miller

    This classic play explores the life of a failing salesman who, in his quest for the American Dream, struggles with his relationships and his own sense of reality. The protagonist's life spirals into despair as he grapples with his unfulfilled ambitions, strained family dynamics, and ultimately, his own mortality. The narrative delves deep into the themes of identity, illusion, and the destructive nature of the American Dream.

  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

    This book is a real-life account of a young Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis during World War II, written in diary format. The girl and her family are forced to live in a secret annex in Amsterdam for two years, during which she writes about her experiences, fears, dreams, and the onset of adolescence. The diary provides a poignant and deeply personal insight into the horrors of the Holocaust, making it a powerful testament to the human spirit.

  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

    In this epic poem, the protagonist embarks on an extraordinary journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and his beloved Beatrice, he encounters various historical and mythological figures in each realm, witnessing the eternal consequences of earthly sins and virtues. The journey serves as an allegory for the soul's progression towards God, offering profound insights into the nature of good and evil, free will, and divine justice.

  • The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

    This classic work of literature revolves around the character of Doctor Faustus, a scholar who is dissatisfied with traditional forms of knowledge and yearns for more. In his quest for ultimate power and understanding, he makes a deal with the devil, selling his soul in exchange for 24 years of service from the devil's agent, Mephistopheles. Despite the pleasures and knowledge he gains, Faustus eventually regrets his deal as he faces eternal damnation, symbolizing the human struggle between ambition and morality.

  • A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen

    This classic play focuses on the life of Nora Helmer, a woman living in a seemingly perfect marriage with her husband, Torvald. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Nora has been hiding a significant secret related to their finances. The revelation of this secret, and the subsequent fallout, challenges societal norms and expectations of the time, particularly in regards to gender roles and the institution of marriage. Nora's eventual decision to leave her husband and children in pursuit of her own independence serves as a powerful commentary on individual freedom and self-discovery.

  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

    This classic novel follows the adventures of a man who, driven mad by reading too many chivalric romances, decides to become a knight-errant and roam the world righting wrongs under the name Don Quixote. Accompanied by his loyal squire, Sancho Panza, he battles windmills he believes to be giants and champions the virtuous lady Dulcinea, who is in reality a simple peasant girl. The book is a richly layered critique of the popular literature of Cervantes' time and a profound exploration of reality and illusion, madness and sanity.

  • Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

    Set in a bleak New England landscape, the book tells the story of Ethan Frome, a poor, hardworking farmer who is married to a sickly, bitter woman named Zeena. When Zeena's young cousin Mattie comes to live with them, Ethan becomes infatuated with her, leading to a tragic love triangle. The narrative explores themes of passion, duty, and the oppressive nature of rural poverty.

  • Euthyphro by Plato

    "Euthyphro" is a philosophical dialogue that takes place in the weeks leading up to the trial of Socrates, where Socrates and Euthyphro engage in a conversation about the nature of piety. The dialogue begins with Socrates questioning Euthyphro about his decision to prosecute his own father for the murder of a slave. This leads to a discussion about what is considered holy and the nature of the gods. Despite their lengthy conversation, the two philosophers never arrive at a definitive answer, leaving the question of what constitutes true piety unresolved.

  • Apology by Plato

    This philosophical text is a dialogue of Socrates' defense in 399 BC against the charges of 'corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel.' The dialogue is Socrates' defense at his trial and is his final public statement before his execution. In it, he discusses the moral and philosophical justification for his actions and beliefs, ultimately leading to his conviction and death.

  • Crito by Plato

    "Crito" is a philosophical dialogue where the main character, a renowned philosopher, is in prison awaiting execution and is visited by his friend, Crito, who urges him to escape. The philosopher argues that since the laws of Athens have given him life, education, and many other benefits, it would be unjust for him to break those laws by escaping. The dialogue explores themes of justice, law, obligation, and the social contract.

  • Phaedo by Plato

    "Phaedo" is a philosophical dialogue that takes place in ancient Greece, where the main character, a philosopher, is awaiting his execution. The story is a discussion on the nature of the afterlife, the immortality of the soul, and the theory of forms. The philosopher argues that the soul is immortal and that we should not fear death. He also discusses his theory of forms, stating that the world we perceive is merely a shadow of the true world of forms. The dialogue ends with the philosopher calmly accepting his fate, illustrating his belief in the immortality of the soul.

  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

    Set during World War I, the novel follows an American ambulance driver in the Italian army and his love affair with a British nurse. The story is a first-person account of the protagonist's experiences in war and his struggle to survive amidst chaos and destruction. The narrative explores themes of love, war, and the fragility of life, culminating in a tragic ending that underscores the futile nature of war and the inevitable suffering it brings.

  • Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    The book is a tragic play in two parts that tells the story of a scholarly man named Faust, who becomes dissatisfied with his life and makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles. In exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, Faust agrees to give his soul to Mephistopheles after death. The narrative explores themes of ambition, despair, love, and redemption, ultimately leading to Faust's salvation.

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

    Set in the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, the novel follows the story of an American dynamiter, who is assigned the task of blowing up a bridge during a crucial attack on the city of Segovia. Alongside the war narrative, the story also explores his relationships with various characters, including his love affair with a young Spanish woman. The narrative beautifully encapsulates themes of love, war, death, and the transient nature of life.

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

    This classic novel tells the story of a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. The scientist, horrified by his creation, abandons it, leading the creature to seek revenge. The novel explores themes of ambition, responsibility, guilt, and the potential consequences of playing God.

  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

    A memory play set in St. Louis during the Great Depression, it follows the story of the Wingfield family. The protagonist, Tom, struggles with his role as the breadwinner for his overbearing mother, Amanda, and his physically and emotionally fragile sister, Laura, who spends her time with her collection of glass animals. The family's life takes a turn when Tom invites a gentleman caller home for dinner to meet Laura, causing tensions to rise and secrets to unfold.

  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

    This novel tells the story of a poor farmer in rural China, who struggles to survive and prosper. Over time, he manages to build a life for himself and his family, eventually becoming a wealthy landowner. However, his newfound wealth and status lead to a moral decline, as he becomes disconnected from the land that gave him everything. The narrative explores themes of wealth, poverty, and the human connection to the earth.

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

    The book follows the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers displaced from their land during the Great Depression. The family, alongside thousands of other "Okies," travel to California in search of work and a better life. Throughout their journey, they face numerous hardships and injustices, yet maintain their humanity through unity and shared sacrifice. The narrative explores themes of man's inhumanity to man, the dignity of wrath, and the power of family and friendship, offering a stark and moving portrayal of the harsh realities of American migrant laborers during the 1930s.

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

    A young orphan boy, living with his cruel older sister and her kind blacksmith husband, has an encounter with an escaped convict that changes his life. Later, he becomes the protégé of a wealthy but reclusive woman and falls in love with her adopted daughter. He then learns that an anonymous benefactor has left him a fortune, leading him to believe that his benefactor is the reclusive woman and that she intends for him to marry her adopted daughter. He moves to London to become a gentleman, but his great expectations are ultimately shattered when he learns the true identity of his benefactor and the reality of his love interest.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Set in the summer of 1922, the novel follows the life of a young and mysterious millionaire, his extravagant lifestyle in Long Island, and his obsessive love for a beautiful former debutante. As the story unfolds, the millionaire's dark secrets and the corrupt reality of the American dream during the Jazz Age are revealed. The narrative is a critique of the hedonistic excess and moral decay of the era, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

  • Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

    This classic satire follows the travels of a surgeon and sea captain who embarks on a series of extraordinary voyages. The protagonist first finds himself shipwrecked on an island inhabited by tiny people, later discovers a land of giants, then encounters a society of intelligent horses, and finally lands on a floating island of scientists. Through these bizarre adventures, the novel explores themes of human nature, morality, and society, offering a scathing critique of European culture and the human condition.

  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare

    This classic play revolves around the young Prince of Denmark who is thrown into a state of emotional turmoil after his father's sudden death and his mother's quick remarriage to his uncle. The prince is visited by the ghost of his father who reveals that he was murdered by the uncle, prompting the prince to seek revenge. The narrative explores themes of madness, revenge, and moral corruption as the prince navigates the complex political and emotional landscape of the Danish court.

  • Hard Times by Charles Dickens

    This novel presents a social critique of industrial Victorian England through the story of the Gradgrind family. The patriarch, a staunch believer in the practicality of facts and statistics, raises his children in a sterile, emotionless environment, causing his daughter to enter a loveless marriage and his son to become a dissipated gambler. The narrative explores themes of industrialization, utilitarianism, and the dehumanizing effects of mechanization on the working class, ultimately advocating for a balanced education that includes both facts and feelings.

  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

    This classic novel follows the journey of a seaman who travels up the Congo River into the African interior to meet a mysterious ivory trader. Throughout his journey, he encounters the harsh realities of imperialism, the brutal treatment of native Africans, and the depths of human cruelty and madness. The protagonist's journey into the 'heart of darkness' serves as both a physical exploration of the African continent and a metaphorical exploration into the depths of human nature.

  • Henry IV, Part I by William Shakespeare

    This classic play revolves around the life of King Henry IV, his son Prince Hal, and their turbulent kingdom. The kingdom is in chaos due to rebellions, and the king is disappointed with his son's irresponsible behavior. The prince, however, spends his time in taverns with the amusing and deceitful Falstaff. As the rebellion against the king grows, Prince Hal shows his true potential and bravery by not only saving his father in battle but also killing the leader of the rebellion, proving himself to be a worthy heir to the throne.

  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

    The novel delves into the life of a young Native American man named Abel who returns home to his New Mexico Pueblo reservation after serving in World War II. Struggling with the trauma of war and the cultural dislocation caused by years away from his traditional tribal life, Abel tries to find his identity and place in a world that is torn between ancient tribal traditions and the modern white society. His journey of self-discovery and redemption is poignantly narrated, highlighting the struggles faced by Native Americans in the contemporary world.

  • The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

    This novel revolves around the cursed Pyncheon family, who live in a gloomy New England mansion, cursed due to the actions of their ancestor who had an innocent man hanged as a witch to seize his property. The story explores themes of guilt, retribution, and atonement, and the narrative is interspersed with the author's philosophical musings. The present-day Pyncheons include an old maid, a daguerreotypist, and their elderly, reclusive cousin who returns to the house after a mysterious absence of many years.

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    The novel follows the journey of a young boy named Huckleberry Finn and a runaway slave named Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft. Set in the American South before the Civil War, the story explores themes of friendship, freedom, and the hypocrisy of society. Through various adventures and encounters with a host of colorful characters, Huck grapples with his personal values, often clashing with the societal norms of the time.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

    This memoir recounts the early years of an African-American girl's life, focusing on her experiences with racism and trauma in the South during the 1930s. Despite the hardships she faces, including sexual abuse, she learns to rise above her circumstances through strength of character and a love of literature. Her journey from victim to survivor and her transformation into a young woman who respects herself is a testament to the human capacity to overcome adversity.

  • The Iliad by Homer

    This epic poem focuses on the final weeks of the Trojan War, a conflict between the city of Troy and the Greek city-states. The story explores themes of war, honor, wrath, and divine intervention, with a particular focus on the Greek hero Achilles, whose anger and refusal to fight have devastating consequences. The narrative also delves into the lives of the gods, their relationships with humans, and their influence on the course of events.

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    The novel is a poignant exploration of a young African-American man's journey through life, where he grapples with issues of race, identity, and individuality in mid-20th-century America. The protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout the story, considers himself socially invisible due to his race. The narrative follows his experiences from the South to the North, from being a student to a worker, and his involvement in the Brotherhood, a political organization. The book is a profound critique of societal norms and racial prejudice, highlighting the protagonist's struggle to assert his identity in a world that refuses to see him.

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

    The novel follows the life of Jane Eyre, an orphan who is mistreated by her relatives and sent to a charity school. As she grows up, Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with the brooding and mysterious Mr. Rochester. However, she soon learns of a dark secret in his past that threatens their future together. The story is a profound exploration of a woman's self-discovery and her struggle for independence and love in a rigid Victorian society.

  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

    This novel explores the complex relationships between four Chinese-American mothers and their American-born daughters. The narrative switches between the perspectives of the eight women, revealing their pasts, their struggles with cultural identity, and the misunderstandings that have grown between the generations. The mothers, who all experienced hardship in their native China, want their daughters to have better lives and thus push them to excel in America. The daughters, in turn, struggle to reconcile their American surroundings with their Chinese heritage.

  • Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

    This classic play dramatizes the political and personal machinations surrounding the assassination of a powerful leader. The narrative follows the conspirators' plot, their execution of the plan, and the resulting chaos and war. The themes of ambition, loyalty, and the struggle for power are explored through complex character interactions and memorable soliloquies. The play also examines the consequences of political violence and the unpredictable nature of history.

  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

    This novel exposes the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants in the United States in Chicago and similar industrialized cities. The protagonist, a young Lithuanian immigrant, works in the meatpacking industry and experiences the extreme poverty, poor working conditions, and lack of social services. The narrative explores the corruption of the American meatpacking industry in the early 20th century and the hardships faced by the working class, leading to significant public outcry that contributed to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

  • King Lear by William Shakespeare

    This classic tragedy revolves around the aging King Lear, who decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters based on their declarations of love for him. The two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him with insincere praises, while the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to play the game and is disowned. As the king's sanity deteriorates, his kingdom falls into chaos under the rule of his deceitful elder daughters. The play explores themes of power, loyalty, madness, and justice, culminating in a tragic ending where almost all the main characters, including King Lear and Cordelia, die.

  • Light in August by William Faulkner

    Set in the American South during the 1930s, this novel explores complex social and personal issues through the intertwining stories of its characters. The narrative primarily follows a man of ambiguous racial identity on a quest to find his father, a pregnant woman searching for the father of her unborn child, and a disgraced minister attempting to navigate his own moral compass. The book delves into themes of identity, race, and the human struggle for understanding and redemption, all set against the backdrop of the deep-rooted prejudices and social norms of the time.

  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

    The novel revolves around a young, idealistic British seaman, who commits a crime of cowardice at sea. He abandons his ship, leaving hundreds of passengers to their fate. He is publicly censured for this act and spends the rest of his life in shameful obscurity in the South Seas, trying to repress the guilt of his past and regain his lost honor. His quest for redemption leads him to a remote island where he gets a chance to prove his courage, but his tragic flaw ultimately leads to his downfall.

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding

    A group of British boys are stranded on an uninhabited island after their plane crashes during wartime. Initially, they attempt to establish order, creating rules and electing a leader. However, as time passes, their civility erodes, and they descend into savagery and chaos. The struggle for power intensifies, leading to violence and death. The novel explores themes of innocence, the inherent evil in mankind, and the thin veneer of civilization.

  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

    This epic high-fantasy novel centers around a modest hobbit who is entrusted with the task of destroying a powerful ring that could enable the dark lord to conquer the world. Accompanied by a diverse group of companions, the hobbit embarks on a perilous journey across Middle-earth, battling evil forces and facing numerous challenges. The narrative, rich in mythology and complex themes of good versus evil, friendship, and heroism, has had a profound influence on the fantasy genre.

  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare

    This classic play follows the tragic tale of Macbeth, a Scottish general whose ambition is sparked by a prophecy from three witches that he will one day become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred on by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne. However, guilt and paranoia plague him, leading to a reign of terror and further bloodshed. His desperate attempts to cling onto power lead to his downfall, illustrating the destructive power of unchecked ambition.

  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

    Madame Bovary is a tragic novel about a young woman, Emma Bovary, who is married to a dull, but kind-hearted doctor. Dissatisfied with her life, she embarks on a series of extramarital affairs and indulges in a luxurious lifestyle in an attempt to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Her desire for passion and excitement leads her down a path of financial ruin and despair, ultimately resulting in a tragic end.

  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

    The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragic novel set in the fictional town of Casterbridge, based on Dorchester in the English county of Dorset. The story follows the life of Michael Henchard, a skilled hay-trusser who, in a fit of drunken anger, sells his wife and daughter at a fair. When he sobers up, he is filled with regret and swears off alcohol for 21 years. He works hard and eventually becomes a successful businessman and the mayor of Casterbridge. However, his past returns to haunt him when his wife and daughter come back into his life, leading to a series of events that result in his downfall.

  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

    This classic play follows the story of a merchant in Venice who is in dire financial straits and borrows money from a Jewish moneylender, promising a pound of his own flesh as collateral. When he is unable to repay the debt, the moneylender demands his due, leading to a court case and moral dilemma about mercy and justice. Meanwhile, the moneylender's daughter elopes with a Christian, further complicating the relationships between characters. The narrative explores themes of prejudice, love, and the law.

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

    In this classic play, the Duke of Athens is preparing for his marriage when the lives of two young couples become complicated by the meddling of fairies. The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, are quarreling, causing chaos in both the fairy world and the world of mortals. Puck, a mischievous sprite and servant of Oberon, causes further confusion and comic misadventures by casting spells that lead to mistaken identities and misplaced affections. Eventually, all is resolved, and the play ends with three happily married couples.

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville

    The novel is a detailed narrative of a vengeful sea captain's obsessive quest to hunt down a giant white sperm whale that bit off his leg. The captain's relentless pursuit, despite the warnings and concerns of his crew, leads them on a dangerous journey across the seas. The story is a complex exploration of good and evil, obsession, and the nature of reality, filled with rich descriptions of whaling and the sea.

  • Native Son by Richard Wright

    This novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man living in Chicago's South Side during the 1930s. Bigger's life takes a tragic turn when he accidentally kills a young white woman. The incident leads to his arrest and trial, revealing the deep-seated racial prejudices and injustices prevalent in American society at the time. The narrative explores themes of poverty, systemic racism, fear, and the effects of oppression.

  • Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell

    Set in a dystopian future, the novel presents a society under the total control of a totalitarian regime, led by the omnipresent Big Brother. The protagonist, a low-ranking member of 'the Party', begins to question the regime and falls in love with a woman, an act of rebellion in a world where independent thought, dissent, and love are prohibited. The novel explores themes of surveillance, censorship, and the manipulation of truth.

  • The Odyssey by Homer

    This epic poem follows the Greek hero Odysseus on his journey home after the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. Along the way, he encounters many obstacles including mythical creatures, divine beings, and natural disasters. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus fend off suitors vying for Penelope's hand in marriage, believing Odysseus to be dead. The story concludes with Odysseus's return, his slaughter of the suitors, and his reunion with his family.

  • Oedipus the King by Sophocles

    "Oedipus the King" is a tragic play that revolves around the life of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, who is prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother. Despite his attempts to avoid this fate, Oedipus unknowingly fulfills the prophecy. When he discovers the truth about his actions, he blinds himself in despair. The play explores themes of fate, free will, and the quest for truth, highlighting the tragic consequences of human hubris and ignorance.

  • Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

    "Oedipus at Colonus" is a tragic play that follows the final days of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. Oedipus, now blind and exiled, arrives at the town of Colonus where he is initially rejected due to the curse that follows him. However, after revealing a prophecy that his burial place will bring prosperity to the city that hosts it, he is allowed to stay. The play explores themes of fate, guilt, and redemption, ending with Oedipus's peaceful death and ascension to a semi-divine status.

  • Antigone by Sophocles

    This ancient Greek tragedy follows the story of Antigone, a young woman who defies the king's edict in order to bury her brother according to their religious customs. The king, her uncle, sentences her to death for her disobedience, leading to a series of tragic events including his own son's suicide. The play explores themes of loyalty, honor, obedience, and the conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of the gods.

  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

    The book is a tragic tale of two displaced ranch workers during the Great Depression in California. The two main characters, an intelligent but uneducated man and his mentally disabled companion, dream of owning their own piece of land. However, their dreams are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control, leading to a heart-wrenching conclusion. The book explores themes of friendship, dreams, loneliness, and the harsh realities of the American Dream.

  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

    An aging Cuban fisherman struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream, isolated from the world and from human help. For days, he fights the marlin alone, admiring its strength, dignity, and faithfulness to its identity—its destiny is as true as his as a fisherman. He finally kills the marlin, but sharks attack and devour it before he can return to the shore. The fisherman returns home empty-handed but remains undefeated, having proven his abilities to himself.

  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

    This classic novel follows the life of a young orphan named Oliver Twist, who endures a miserable existence in a workhouse and then is placed with an undertaker. He escapes and travels to London where he meets the Artful Dodger, a member of a gang of juvenile pickpockets led by the elderly criminal, Fagin. Despite numerous adversities, Oliver remains pure at heart and is eventually saved from a life of crime, revealing his true identity and claiming his rightful inheritance.

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

    Set in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, the novel is narrated by a half-Native American patient known as Chief Bromden, who pretends to be deaf and mute. The story follows the arrival of a new patient, a boisterous, rebellious man who challenges the oppressive and dehumanizing system of the hospital, particularly the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. The book explores themes of individuality, rebellion, and the misuse of power, ultimately leading to a tragic conclusion.

  • Othello by William Shakespeare

    "Othello" is a tragic play about a Moorish general in the Venetian army who is manipulated by his ensign into believing that his wife is unfaithful. Consumed by jealousy, the general kills his wife, only to discover that she was innocent. Filled with remorse, he then takes his own life. The play explores themes of love, jealousy, betrayal, and racism.

  • Paradise Lost by John Milton

    "Paradise Lost" is an epic poem that explores the biblical story of Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. It delves into their temptation by Satan, their subsequent expulsion, and the consequences of their disobedience. The narrative also provides a complex portrayal of Satan as a rebellious angel, who, after being cast out of Heaven, seeks revenge by causing mankind's downfall. The poem is a profound exploration of free will, divine justice, and the human struggle with good and evil.

  • The Pearl by John Steinbeck

    A poor pearl diver's life is turned upside down when he discovers a giant, magnificent pearl. Initially seen as a blessing, it quickly becomes a curse as the man and his family are consumed by greed and paranoia. Despite their dreams of a better life, the pearl brings them nothing but misfortune and tragedy, leading them to question the true value of wealth and the destructive power it can hold.

  • The Plague by Albert Camus

    The novel is set in the Algerian city of Oran during the 1940s, where a deadly plague sweeps through, causing the city to be quarantined. The story is told through the eyes of a doctor who witnesses the horror and suffering caused by the disease. The narrative explores themes of human resilience, solidarity, and the struggle against the absurdities of life. It also examines how individuals and society respond to death and disease, creating a profound meditation on the nature of existence and human endurance.

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

    This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man's intellectual and artistic development in late 19th-century Ireland. The protagonist struggles with issues of identity, faith, and nationality, ultimately rejecting the traditional values of his Catholic upbringing to pursue his own path as an artist. The book is renowned for its innovative narrative style and its exploration of themes such as individuality, freedom, and the nature of art.

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    Set in early 19th-century England, this classic novel revolves around the lives of the Bennet family, particularly the five unmarried daughters. The narrative explores themes of manners, upbringing, morality, education, and marriage within the society of the landed gentry. It follows the romantic entanglements of Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter, who is intelligent, lively, and quick-witted, and her tumultuous relationship with the proud, wealthy, and seemingly aloof Mr. Darcy. Their story unfolds as they navigate societal expectations, personal misunderstandings, and their own pride and prejudice.

  • The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

    This classic work of political philosophy provides a pragmatic guide on political leadership and power, arguing that leaders must do whatever necessary to maintain authority and protect their states, even if it means compromising morality and ethics. The book explores various types of principalities, military affairs, the conduct of great leaders, and the virtues a prince should possess. It is known for its controversial thesis, which suggests that the ends justify the means in politics.

  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

    "The Red Badge of Courage" is a novel set during the American Civil War, focusing on a young private in the Union Army who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound, a "red badge of courage," to counteract his cowardice. When his regiment once again faces the enemy, he acts as the standard-bearer, proving his courage. The book explores the themes of heroism, manhood, and the illusion versus reality of war.

  • The Republic by Plato

    "The Republic" is a philosophical text that explores the concepts of justice, order, and character within the context of a just city-state and a just individual. It presents the idea of a utopian society ruled by philosopher-kings, who are the most wise and just. The dialogue also delves into theories of education, the nature of reality, and the role of the philosopher in society. It is a fundamental work in Western philosophy and political theory.

  • The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

    This classic novel is set in the rustic rural backdrop of Egdon Heath and revolves around the life of Clym Yeobright, a successful diamond merchant who returns to his native land from Paris. His return sparks a chain of events involving love, ambition, betrayal, and tragedy. His love interest, Eustacia Vye, dreams of escaping the monotonous rural life, while his mother disapproves of their relationship. The novel explores the themes of love, fate, chance, and the clash between individuals' aspirations and societal expectations.

  • Richard III by William Shakespeare

    "Richard III" is a historical play that follows the Machiavellian rise to power and subsequent short reign of its titular character. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is depicted as a ruthless, power-hungry man who will stop at nothing to take the throne of England, resorting to manipulation, deceit, and even murder. However, his reign is plagued by guilt and insecurity, and his tyranny eventually leads to his downfall and death in battle. The play explores themes of power, corruption, morality, and the consequences of unchecked ambition.

  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

    This classic play tells the tragic love story of two young individuals from feuding families in Verona, Italy. Despite their families' ongoing conflict, the pair secretly marry and vow to be together, no matter the cost. Their commitment leads to a series of unfortunate events, including misunderstandings, banishments, and ultimately, their untimely deaths. Their demise, however, reconciles their feuding families, leaving a poignant message about the destructive power of hate and the redemptive power of love.

  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, this novel tells the story of a woman who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. She is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress as a sign of her adultery while her lover, a revered local minister, remains unnamed and unpunished. Throughout the book, themes of sin, legalism, and guilt are explored.

  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles

    Set in a New England boarding school during World War II, this novel explores the tumultuous friendship between two boys, a charismatic and daring athlete and his introverted, intellectual roommate. The story delves into themes of envy, identity, and the loss of innocence, culminating in a tragic accident that forever changes their lives. The backdrop of the war adds a layer of tension and urgency, reflecting the inner turmoil of the protagonists.

  • Silas Marner by George Eliot

    Silas Marner, a weaver, is wrongfully accused of theft and excommunicated from his community in Lantern Yard. He moves to the village of Raveloe, where he lives as a recluse, hoarding his money. After his money is stolen, he adopts a young girl named Eppie, who was abandoned near his home. Eppie's presence transforms Silas's life, and he becomes a cherished member of the community. The novel explores themes of betrayal, redemption, and the transformative power of love.

  • Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence

    "Sons and Lovers" is a semi-autobiographical novel that explores the complex relationships between a miner's wife, her husband, and their two sons. The story focuses on the intense emotional and psychological bonds between the mother and her sons, as well as the struggles they face in their romantic relationships due to their deep attachment to their mother. The novel delves into themes of class, love, sexuality, and the oedipal complex, presenting a vivid picture of working-class life in early 20th century England.

  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

    The novel is a complex exploration of the tragic Compson family from the American South. Told from four distinct perspectives, the story unfolds through stream of consciousness narratives, each revealing their own understanding of the family's decline. The characters grapple with post-Civil War societal changes, personal loss, and their own mental instability. The narrative is marked by themes of time, innocence, and the burdens of the past.

  • Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

    The novel presents a poignant exploration of a man's struggle with his dual nature. The protagonist, a middle-aged man, finds himself torn between his humanistic, intellectual tendencies and his more primitive, wolf-like instincts. As he navigates his way through the surreal and sometimes hallucinatory world, he encounters various characters who challenge his views and push him towards self-discovery and transformation. The narrative delves into themes of alienation, the subconscious mind, and the search for meaning in life.

  • The Stranger by Albert Camus

    The narrative follows a man who, after the death of his mother, falls into a routine of indifference and emotional detachment, leading him to commit an act of violence on a sun-drenched beach. His subsequent trial becomes less about the act itself and more about his inability to conform to societal norms and expectations, ultimately exploring themes of existentialism, absurdism, and the human condition.

  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

    The novel is a poignant tale set in the 1920s post-World War I era, focusing on a group of American and British expatriates living in Paris who travel to Pamplona, Spain for the annual Running of the Bulls. The story explores themes of disillusionment, identity, and the Lost Generation, with the protagonist, a war veteran, grappling with impotence caused by a war injury. The narrative is steeped in the disillusionment and existential crisis experienced by many in the aftermath of the war, and the reckless hedonism of the era is portrayed through the characters' aimless wanderings and excessive drinking.

  • The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

    This classic play is a comedic tale of love, deception, and transformation. It focuses on the courtship of Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, and Katherina, the headstrong, obdurate shrew. Initially, Katherina is an unwilling participant in the relationship, but Petruchio breaks down her resistance with various psychological torments. The play ends with the tamed Katherina the most obedient wife among three couples, raising questions about the roles of men and women.

  • The Tempest by William Shakespeare

    "The Tempest" is a classic play about a sorcerer and rightful Duke of Milan who has been stranded on an island for 12 years with his daughter after being betrayed by his brother. Using his magical powers and the help of an airy spirit, he conjures a storm to shipwreck his brother and other enemies on the island. The narrative explores themes of revenge, power, magic, and forgiveness as the sorcerer manipulates events on the island to regain his dukedom and secure a good future for his daughter.

  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

    This is a tragic tale of a young woman named Tess who comes from a poor family in rural England. Tess is sent to work for a wealthy family, where she is seduced by a man who abandons her after she becomes pregnant. The baby dies, and Tess is ostracized by her community. She falls in love with a kind man, but when she confesses her past, he rejects her. Desperate and heartbroken, Tess murders her former seducer and is eventually captured and executed. The novel explores themes of fate, injustice, and the oppressive sexual morals of its time.

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

    This novel follows the life of Janie Crawford, a young African-American woman, in the early 20th century. She embarks on a journey through three marriages and self-discovery while challenging the societal norms of her time. The narrative explores her struggle for personal freedom, fulfillment, and identity against the backdrop of racism and gender expectations, ultimately emphasizing the importance of independence and personal growth.

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Editor W. John Campbell provides explanations and summaries for 100 of the world's best books.

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