20 Classic Books for English Literature Students to Read
Literature has depicted, commented on, and helped shape the world as we know it today. Filled with everything from classic love stories and tales of heroism to contemporary criticisms on changes in society and dystopian tales – there are a wealth of exciting and nail-biting stories to read out there. One of the most difficult decisions can be to decide which ones to read!
For students, especially those studying creative subjects, it can be hard to find the time or inspiration to read novels other than those on their syllabus. It comes as no surprise that English Literature students need to be well-read, and if you wish to study this subject at university, this is something that will be looked at during university interview questions. While it’s good to discuss books you may have studied in your A-Level class, it’s more important to demonstrate your initiative to have read further afield and explored some of the other prominent texts of Literature’s history.
Whether you’re planning to study English Literature or just want to reminisce about your days back at school, be inspired with our list of 15 classic books to read. The list is by no means exhaustive, but it should just give you the inspiration you need to start exploring some new authors. You never know, perhaps you may just find yourself a new favourite novel!
1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby has long been considered a classic novel to read, and often ranks among the top pieces of fiction of all time.
The tale follows Jay Gatsby, a man who lives his life in chasing for his one desire: to be reunited with his one true love, Daisy Buchanan – a love he lost five years before we meet him at the start of the novel. During his quest for love, Gatsby – unsurprisingly – faces many peaks and lows, including a journey from poverty to wealth; from love to heartache, and ultimately, to tragedy.
Capturing a cross-section of American society at the time, Fitzgerald’s novel explores themes around class, gender, and unsurprisingly, of triumph and tragedy. Students will enjoy having detailed discussions and learning more about the decline of the 1920s, prohibition, and other social issues of the time, while dissecting how Fitzgerald cleverly uses recurring symbols to best reflect the characters’ thoughts and feelings around these contexts.
2. The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
Set in London in the late 19th Century, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an important examination of class, perspective, and the purpose of art – which was a noticeable talking point for society at the time.
At the start of the novel, we meet three central characters: when talented painter Basil Hallward and his close friend Lord Henry Wotton are discussing the subject of Hallward’s latest portrait: a charming and captivating young man named Dorian Gray. Impressed by the painting and the apparent buoyant and innocent nature of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry asks Hallward if he can meet him.
Despite his initial hesitancy, Hallward introduces Dorian to Lord Henry, who, after a few hours in his company, totally transforms his perspective on the world – instead of innocence and gratitude, he begins to see life as Lord Henry does, as a succession of pleasures, irrelevant of good and evil. What ensues is a life full of thrill-seeking and impulsive decision-making, which ultimately, leads to Dorian’s downfall.
For students, The Picture of Dorian Gray offers so many interesting points of discussion, including the superficial nature of societies and the negative consequences that influence can have. As such, it’s quite rightly earned itself recognition as one of the must-read books for English Literature students.
3. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.”
It would be impossible not to include Wuthering Heights on a list of must-read books for English Literature students. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if you have already studied or at least heard of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, as it’s a popular text selected for those studying English Literature at GCSE and A-Level.
The story is one of love and revenge, which revolves around those who live in the desolate farmhouse, named ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Mainly, it centres around Heathcliff, an orphan boy, and Catherine, who are both raised at the property. Despite the difference in their social positions, they eventually fall in love. However, what follows is a story of heartache; with Catherine choosing to marry a wealthy neighbour named Edgar Linton and Heathcliff leaving Wuthering Heights.
We follow the pair over the years, including some traumatic events within the family which prompt Heathcliff to act vengeful towards those who destroyed his and Catherine’s young romance.
4. 1984, by George Orwell
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
No matter who you ask, 1984 will always rank as one of the best books for English Literature students to read during their studies. Exploring themes of totalitarianism, dictatorship, and mass media control, it offers plenty of interesting themes for discussion and debate.
This dystopian novel is considered one of the greatest works of art by writer George Orwell, who is famous for other works including Animal Farm. Published in 1949, follows the life of Winston Smith – a low-ranking member of ‘the Party,’ a new societal group overlooked by the ruler ‘Big Brother.’
In this classic, we learn that ‘Big Brother’ controls every aspect of people’s lives. From choosing what its residents read, speak, say and do, cameras circulate everywhere to monitor the residents’ every action. The language ‘Newspeak’ is created in an attempt to completely eliminate any possibility of political rebellion, with ‘Thoughtcrimes’ created as a way to stop people even thinking about things which are considered rebellious.
5. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.”
As one of the greatest coming-of-age stories ever told, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations had to be the one novel of his included on our list of classic books to read, thanks to its wit, carefully crafted language, and unique tales.
The story follows the tale of Pip, an orphan who learns a valuable lesson in life after a sudden change in wealth is granted to him from a secret benefactor. However, what follows is a tale of learning and understanding our morals.
In his own greed and selfishness, Pip drives away those who have ever loved him, losing touch with the man he once was. Along the way, he meets many colourful characters, including the eccentric Miss Havisham, an old lady who had been left at the altar many years ago, and has refused to move on from the past. In a sad, but poignant message, Dickens depicts an image of her wedding cake, which still sits on the table, covered in mould, but reminds us to reflect on how our actions affect others.
6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
“Not a word passes between us, not because we have nothing to say, but because we don’t have to say anything.”
The Kite Runner is one of the newest on our list of best books for English Literature students, but it’s still considered one of the greatest classic novels.
Written in 2003, The Kite Runner is a stellar example of postcolonial literature. This important novella explores the devastating legacy which is left behind after the effects of an empire. Told from the perspective of a young Afghan boy named Amir, we begin in the year 1985, when twelve-year-old Amir is trying to win the local kite-fighting tournament with his friend Hassan.
However, the events that unfold that day are nothing that either of the boys foresee; the Soviet military invades their country and changes their lives forever. In an attempt to save their lives, Amir’s family flee to America. However after a considerable amount of time in America, Amir decides that one day he must return to Afghanistan while under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new life cannot give him: redemption.
7. Emma, by Jane Austen
“Nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be.”
For those who have never read a Jane Austen novel before, Emma is the perfect start – a funny, romantic, and easy-to-read novel. Set in the early 19th Century, the novel centres on Emma Woodhouse, a precocious young woman whose misplaced confidence in her ability to matchmake others leads to several romantic misadventures of her own.
Jane Austen’s Emma recently rose to fame once again when the blockbuster film hit our screens in 2020. However, Emma has long been hotly contested as the best work by Jane Austen and rightly earned itself on the list as one of the classic books to read for literature students. It’s also starred in other adaptations, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma, and the 1995 film Clueless, which surrounds the lives of the ‘handsome, clever, and rich,” with the modernised lead character Cher Horowitz, playing matchmaker at her high school.
8. The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
*“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.” *
Having studied at Exeter College in Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien was one of the original members of “The Inklings,” a notable group of budding writers, including C. S. Lewis, who met for conversation, drinks, and readings from their works-in-progress. Taking inspiration from his almighty circle of companions, his works have gone on to earn him international fame and have had him considered one of the greatest writers ever.
In particular, his collection of books, The Lord of the Rings are his best-known collection of work. Not read the series? Then you must have almost certainly seen or at least heard about the epic three-part movie adaptation of the original books written by Tolkien. However, as great as movies are, they’re often never as well-received as the original book.
To summarise, in the novels we follow the protagonist and Hobbit, Frodo, who has to undertake a terrifying and dangerous mission to the Dark Land of Mordor to destroy the powerful ‘One Ring’ – a weapon so powerful it can corrupt everyone who comes under its power. As simple as the plot may sound, you’ll find yourself lost in the magnificent details of the 1137 page trilogy, with quirky characters, intricately-detailed worlds, and rich backstories immersing you in this truly fantastical world that Tolkien has created. It’s a must-read for anyone wanting to understand how to master the craft of writing, including those interested in pursuing Creative Writing themselves in the future.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Set in the 1930s in the small and sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Scout Finch, a six-year-old tomboy who lives with her ten-year-old brother, Jem, her father Atticus – who is a lawyer in the local community.
Exploring complex themes such as civil rights and racism in the segregated southern United States in the early 20th Century, we follow a case Atticus is working on, who is striving to prove the innocence of a black man who has been unjustly accused of a crime he hasn’t committed. Through the eyes of Scout, we also explore traditional roles of class and gender, and how these affect judgement in our daily lives.
We also follow Scout and Jem, along with their friend Dill, as they obsess over an abandoned house which once belonged to the mysterious Boo Radley. Through courageous acts of kindness, this unique side-story offers another perspective on injustice and race at the time, encouraging you to think critically about the treatment of others under the lens of different identities.
10. The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
This coming-of-age tale is a classic book to read, and one which has featured on many UK GCSE and A-Level syllabi. Written by J.D. Salinger in 1950, the novel – which is set in the same decade – follows the life of Holden Caulfield, who we don’t learn much about other than that he is undergoing some mental health treatment in a hospital, which we are quickly shied away from as he recounts a previous tale.
The events Holden narrates are about his sixteen-year-old-self, after recently being expelled from Pencey Prep, a private school in the USA for fighting with his roommate, Stradlater.
Illustrating the emotional turbulence of ‘growing up,’ Holden chooses to spend two days exploring in New York before he returns home to his parents and admits to his expulsion. During this time, he meets and interacts with people of all different backgrounds; teachers, nuns, an old girlfriend, and even his sister along the way. The story ends with Holden about to return home. He leaves the story here, as he doesn’t want to recount how he got ‘sick.’ Instead, we end with Holden’s optimistic outlook at the prospect of starting a new school in the autumn and looking at future prospects.
11. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
“It was a place of brilliant sunlight, never undappled. Shafts of lemon-gold brilliance lanced down to the forest floor between bars and pools of brown-green shade; and the light was never still, never constant, because drifting mist would often float among the treetops, filtering all the sunlight to a pearly sheen and brushing every pine cone with moisture that glistened when the mist lifted. Sometimes the wetness in the clouds condensed into tiny drops half mist and half rain, which floated downward rather than fell, making a soft rustling patter among the millions of needles.”
Philip Pullman’s trilogy named His Dark Materials is a compilation of three classic novels, inspired by the beautiful city of Oxford. Written in the late 1990s, Pullman’s novels are a fantasy fiction collection, which follows the adventures of Lyra, a young woman who has been brought up in ‘Jordan College.’ During her time here, we learn that her mysterious college is undertaking lots of research into a new particle named Dust, while a secret organisation in the area seems to be kidnapping local children – there are lots of questions for the reader to journey along with.
Feeling confused? The plot elevates further throughout the trilogy and explores complex ideas on theology, physics, and philosophy. It’s deeply intricate and filled with exquisite details and side-stories to keep you inspired – making it one of the best books for English Literature students to read, analyse, and enjoy falling deeply into discussion about.
12. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a tale almost everybody knows – thanks to films, media, and all the derivations from Halloween. But not many students have ever read the original text, unless it’s featured on their English Literature syllabus.
For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, Frankenstein tells the story of gifted scientist Victor Frankenstein, who succeeds in bringing to life a being of his own creation. However, what he ends up creating isn’t the perfect specimen he once imagined, but instead a hideous creature that is rejected by both Victor and the wider society in which he exists.
Fans of science fiction will appreciate the novel for its inspiring themes and future-forward perspective for the time (it was written in 1817), while students with an eye for critical detail will enjoy diving into Shelley’s important points for discussion; Shelley was writing at a time of great industrial change, and this Gothic novel explores a myriad of themes including humanity, robotics, and life and death.
13. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an’ maybe he’s disappointed that nothin’ he can do ‘ll make him feel rich.”
One of the best-known novels of John Steinbeck’s is The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939. Evoking the harshness of the Great Depression and arousing sympathy for the struggles of many migrant farmworkers of the time, it’s no surprise that the novel has come to be regarded as an American classic.
The plot follows the life of Tom Joad and his family, who are forced from their family farm in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during America’s Great Depression years. Along with thousands of others in their community, the family set out in search of job opportunities, land, and hope for a brighter, more prosperous future.
As a story filled with hardship, worry, and determination, Steinbeck explores many interesting themes around humanity; of unity and love, as well as the need for collaboration across communities during difficult times. The universal shift from an emphasis on “I” to “we” teaches readers an important lesson on what it means to preserve selflessness, even in times when we may be most in need.
14. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
“It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant to inanimate things; trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one, in a sense were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself.”
Vivid, impressionistic, and a novel which requires a lot of concentration, To the Lighthouse is a must-read book for English Literature students who want to explore the art of those who go against the ‘rules’ of writing.
This daring novel holds little regard for the traditional theories of what it means to produce a ‘great’ story; there’s no consistent narrator, it’s filled with scant dialogue, and there’s almost no coherent plot – making it a really interesting book to dissect and discuss in class.
The overarching plot follows the Ramsay family, who have spent each summer in their holiday home in Scotland. Expecting summers to follow this trajectory of years to come, the integrity of the family is suddenly changed as WWI looms on them. The novel is deeply introspective, using memory and reminiscence to depict much of the plot, while giving it a deeply intimate feel for the reader.
15. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”*
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a timeless children’s classic, and a must-read for any English Literature student. At over 150 years old, the tale has truly stood the test of time, and become a much-loved staple of British literature.
For those unfamiliar with the title, the charming tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland begins on an ordinary summer afternoon, when Alice tumbles down a hole and begins an extraordinary adventure. What follows is a strange world with even stranger characters; on her journey she meets a rabbit with a pocket watch, attends a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and even plays croquet with the Queen! Alice finds her curiosity leading to even more discovery, before waking up dazed and confused, only to discover she has returned home happy with her family.
The novel is inspired by Alice Liddell, who was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford in the 1860s. It was here that Carroll both studied and worked as a mathematician in Oxford, where he spent much of his life dedicated to research and teaching. His passion for sharing and adapting theory for students can be traced in the novel, where numbers and complex riddles dominate much of the complexity of the text. It’s a deeply unique and interesting read and demonstrates the fantastical craft of another Oxford writer.
16. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
“Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law.”
Dating back to 1954, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of schoolboys from Britain who wind up stranded on an uninhabited island after their evacuation from their war-torn hometown goes wrong.
During the course of the book, we watch the boys establish themselves as a group and as residents on the island; we see roles be delegated amongst them; we watch them learn how to forage; how to hunt; how to defend themselves, and overcome their fears. Ultimately, we watch these young boys learn the most basic elements of adulthood (in a rather historic sense) and the demands that come with this newfound responsibility.
It’s a deeply fascinating fiction about the psyche of young adults and their ideas on the future world; there are themes such as morality, rationality, and groupthink explored in the book, often rather complex themes for school children to comprehend.
The story symbolises how dependent we as individuals are on social structure - in fact, it’s the only thing that distinguishes us from ‘savagery.’ Whilst on the island, the children need to learn how to overcome their anxieties around the most basic elements of survival - of hunting and defense. We see that they’re capable of doing things that can go against human nature when the threat of punishment is removed from their understanding of the world.
For anyone with an interest in philosophy, psychology and sociology, it will open up plenty of interesting discussions for future classes, especially when examined against the context of when it was written - shortly after the Second World War. A great read on this list!
17. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
“For thirty years," he said, "I've sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o' goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don't bite; them's my views—amen, so be it.”
One of the oldest books on our list is Treasure Island, an 1881 tale written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Set in the days of sailing ships and active pirate expeditions, it tells of the adventures of Jim Hawkins and his search for the buried treasure of an evil old pirate, Captain Flint.
Jim, a young boy, who helps his mother and ill father run their family inn, sets on the adventure after a new guest at the inn, Bill, is descended upon by his enemy pirates in an effort to murder him and ransack his belongings. However, just before the pirates burst in, Jim and his mother are able to escape with a number of coins and a pouch which has a treasure map hidden inside.
What ensues is an exciting adventure on the sea, with Jim joined by a number of men to head the voyage to find and share the treasure. Of course, they are met with disorder, especially as they reach closer to where ‘X’ marks the spot to find a mini fort-like structure.
It’s definitely a story that explores the satisfaction of desires, and, indeed, the motivation of greed. Everyone wants the treasure, and it’s a tale of whose desires can out-play the others in a conquest for wealth.
18. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
“If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be.”
Number eighteen on our list is one of our favourite books, featuring not only in this article, but also on our list of recommendations for students looking to read a selection of books set in Oxford.
Set between the First and Second World War, Brideshead Revisited is a tragicomedy set at the University of Oxford which explores themes of classism, wealth, and happiness.
The book tells the story of Charles Ryder – a history graduate at Hertford College – who meets the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. Ryder becomes fascinated by Flyte and his family’s freedoms and privileges - which undoubtedly leads to certain challenges.
Touching on the old preconceptions of snobbery and elitism that once circled the University of Oxford, the book stands as testament to the advances we have made to a fairer society, as well as a more accessible and inclusive educational system.
It’s a great early twentieth century novel for fans of that period, capturing a quintessentially British Oxford from back in the day. But it’s also an interesting insight into the class system which ruled over the country for many years. Another great read for fans of period fiction.
19. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”
Despite being primarily aimed at younger children, The Wind in the Willows rightfully earns itself a place on our list of classic literature recommendations for students.
Published in 1908, Kenneth Grahame found motivation to write the book when he retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England and moved to Berkshire, where had lived as a child.
Spending much of his time relaxing by the River Thames, doing much as the characters in his book do - “simply messing about in boats,” he took his newfound freedom to expand on the animal bedtime stories he used to tell his son Alastair and transform them into a finished manuscript.
The Wind in the Willows shares the adventures of several animal friends and neighbours in the English countryside - primarily Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad. Although each of them are animals with their own distinctive habits and behaviours, they converse, philosophise and behave like humans with one another - even driving their own cars and eating sit-down meals - their resemblance to the human profile is quite uncanny.
On top of this, Grahame writes some beautifully descript passages about the natural area in which the novel is set. With hints to the lush green landscapes and portraits of Edwardian life here in the Britain, the incredible writing craft of Grahame is what has really allowed it to stand the test of time.
20. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
"I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, 'a little woman,' and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else."
Finally, for English Literature students looking for classic books to read during their A-Levels or even university studies, Little Women is a must for your list! Not only is it a great book in itself, but it’s also a coming-of-age novel for four sisters on the path from childhood to adulthood - something we’re sure will strike a chord with many readers.
Alcott took inspiration for the book from her own life, loosely basing the characters on the lives of herself and her three sisters, making it a semi-autobiographical read. This authenticity is perhaps what led the release of the book to have such success when first published, with Alcott immediately requested to write a part two, named Good Wives.
The book starts at the sisters’ family home in Massachusetts at Christmas time. where they live at home with their mother in genteel poverty. Having lost all his money, their father is serving as a chaplain in the American Civil War, far from home. As such, the sisters struggle to support themselves and ensure the household keeps running - a process which leads them to become close friends with their wealthy neighbour, Theodore Laurence, known informally as “Laurie.”
As we watch the girls grow older, each faces their own personal struggles and moral decision-making. Jo, the beloved protagonist, must learn to become more ladylike while pursuing her ambition to become a published author; Meg, the oldest, must put her yearning for wealth to one side in order to follow her heart; Beth, the shy one, must conquer her bashfulness; while Amy, the youngest, needs to overcome her aristocratic pride.
It may seem to some a simple story; four young women’s development through adolescence, centred around societal obligations and personal growth. But the character tropes, small plot developments and beautiful written prose make it a popular read for many today, especially thanks to the recent film re-vamp starring A-List celebrities including Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Timothée Chalamet.
##Summary The authors and titles in this list have quite rightly, earned themselves the title of classic novels in the heart of modern English Literature. From classic love stories to unique and status-quo-questioning novels each book can teach us something new about the study and writing of Literature, and help us to unearth more insight into our own interests and writing skills.
We’ve seen works from some of the world’s most recognised authors, many of whom have been crafted by some of the world’s greatest writers here in Oxford. For more reading inspiration and discovery, why not take a look at our list of 11 must-read books set in Oxford?
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Looking for reading inspiration? Take a look at our list of 20 classic books for English Literature students to read.