When is a Story a Classic?

Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. What do all these stories have in common? They’re all considered classics. But have you ever wondered when a story becomes a classic? Why is Pride and Prejudice considered a classic, but not Mansfield Park? Why is Harry Potter starting to be called a classic, but not Hunger Games?

When I first started asking about the “bar of storytelling classiness” (not the best name I’ve come up with, but I don’t care), I started briefly brainstorming. My first three theories were popularity, legacy, and message. However, popularity didn’t seem like a strong enough qualification—at least, not on its own. Not every classic leaves a legacy behind, nor do they all preach an important moral.

At that point, I decided to contact my admin Ashley and ask for her thoughts. Her first thought was that we reread classics over and over. But we both agreed that, while this is true for stories like Lord of the Rings and Sherlock Holmes, the same could not be said about Anna Karenina or Hunchback of Notre Dame. Then she suggested the traits that appeal to audiences, remarking that there are different categories for classics.

So then I asked which traits could relate to different audiences over long periods of time. And that’s when it finally hit me: a story becomes a classic when it appeals to something in us that is not only human, but also universal. Sometimes they say something profound about what it means to be human, though they don’t always have to. The Princess Bride is a classic because it appeals to our craving for humor and satire. Treasure Island and Dracula are classics because they appeal to our longing for adventure and adrenaline. And romance by itself is a classic genre because it appeals to our desire for intimacy and emotional connections.

But when they do say something about humanity, it becomes a classic when it strikes a chord in us. Lord of the Rings relates to how easy it is to feel hopeless, but reminds us that we can always find hope. Christmas Carol shows how simple sources of lasting happiness can be found anywhere. Frankenstein shows the tragedy of unrestrained ambition. Gone With the Wind is (and I cannot believe the words coming out of my brain as I write them) a classic because it reminds us that passion isn’t always logical or virtuous.

To put it simply, classics are examples of storytelling at its best. When done well, storytelling is a universal art that reminds us we have more in common with the people around us than we realize, even if we come from different cultures or speak different languages. It reminds us that two people with different sets of beliefs have more in common than we might think. It showcases the best and worst of humanity by being realistic but still maintaining faith in ethics. A story becomes a classic when it becomes a well-known timeless reminder of what it means to be human.

Leave a Reply