How does a literary work become classic?

The giants could only be windmills, but if there is one real adversary that Don Quixote managed to defeat, it was time. Published for the first time in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote of La Mancha is a classic that has lasted more than four centuries and has enchanted dozens of generations.

But, after all, what makes a work classic? The literary quality? Historical relevance? How was it received? This is a debate that also spans the years and sparks a series of polemics. We explain.

What is canon?

What is canon?
The idea of canon comes from the ancient period, when most people were illiterate and the educated were responsible for curating the existing production. (Source: Izoca/Pixabay/Reproduction)

Throughout history, the word “canon” has already served different meanings, as a ruler for various measures and for books allowed by the Catholic Church. But the meaning is always related to what is reference in a genre, and this is true for Literature. The literary canon is composed of works that are considered “sacred”, that is, they are perennial, they do not mix with the others.

There is a lot of debate about the legitimacy of this idea. After all, the reason why there are more European works in the canon involves political issues (do Brazilians write worse than them or do they simply write in a non-hegemonic language?) And today there are other ways of assessing literary quality, like the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But while experts, writers and readers advance in this discussion, the canon remains a benchmark for marking the most important works in the history of humanity.

What makes a book a classic in literature?

What makes a book a classic in literature
Shakespeare is among the authors who most discuss human nature. (Source: NottmpicturesPixabay/Reproduction)
  1. Capturing the spirit of a time

Jane Austen released Pride and Prejudice in 1813. The story deals with a drama set in the English countryside. In addition to Austen’s own literary quality, who had already written Reason and Sensibility, the book celebrated its 200th anniversary in excellent health thanks to its ability to reflect the historical environment in which it was written. Modernity made it possible to present a new subject, and Austen knew how to capture this opportunity.

The English rural society of the period was marked by a series of social conflicts that the novel was able to record: agrarian disputes, social inequality, difficulty of social mobility, among others. Thus, it is a document on the spirit of its time, and its characters were able to give life to the subjectivity of an era.

Germinal, by the Frenchman Émile Zola, is also able to capture the social debates of his time and present the situation of a miserable population, who worked 16 hours a day to survive.

Thus, strikes and political projects of European society of the late nineteenth century were described by the French writer in detail, allowing glimpses of the horizon of that historical period through realistic and naturalistic features.

2. Record of the human condition

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another work that crosses centuries and remains current. The secret to all this success is that, although the context changes, some of the central elements of human dramas remain everyday. Passion, pride, envy and greed are long-term companions in human history.

3. Aesthetic creation

In Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, Machado de Assis takes a genial tone in giving voice to a corpse. He doesn’t come back to life to remember, to thank or to give great teachings; instead, the work begins like this: “to the worm that first gnawed the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with nostalgic remembrance these Memórias Póstumas“.

The irony accompanies the entire work. The narrator does not tell his biography with pride but presents a mediocre scenario. A life with failures, stumbles, misunderstandings. And the option of allowing the dead man himself to present an apathetic existence is an interesting aesthetic option.

The writer from Rio de Janeiro also innovates by writing Dom Casmurro in small passages, some of them tiny. Different from other novels of the period, in which the chapters were regular because they were published in newspapers, the work presents a series of chapters of only one paragraph.

Moreover, Machado de Assis dialogues with the reader and calls him to participate actively. An example of this is chapter XLV of Dom Casmurro:

Shake your head, reader; make every gesture of incredulity. Throw this book away, if boredom hasn’t forced you to do so before, anything is possible. But, if you have not done so before and only now, let him pick up the book again and open it on the same page, without believing in the veracity of the author. However, there is nothing more exact.

Sources: E-Dicionário de Termos Literários, Cultura Genial, Tag Livros, Grupo Autêntica.

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