Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe

It’s such an incredibly effective image. The heart of the murder victim still beating beneath the floorboards, pounding in the ears of the killer until he is driven to confess his crime. Poe’s device to explore the crippling and maddening power of guilt is not easily forgotten, and sticks with us as readers. Indeed, it sticks with us as a culture whether we’ve read the story ourselves our not, the heartbeat in the eardrums a lasting symbol of conscience.

Continue reading “The Tell-Tale Heart”



Marquis de Sade

“The most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination” – Napoleon Bonaparte sure took note of this little book by Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, written during a stint in jail in 1787, edited into various shapes (some more graphic than others) and finally ordered destroyed in 1815 after its author died in the jail/ insane asylum that had been his home for a number a years. The legacy? C’mon. The guy gave us the term sadism. That is some impact.

Continue reading “Justine”

The Inferno

The Inferno
Dante Alighieri

The first and most famous part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Inferno follows the author as he is taken on a guided-journey through Hell by the great Roman poet Virgil. The piece both reflects and builds upon medieval imaginings of Hell, drawing a picture of nine levels of torment which grow increasingly-brutal as they lead deeper into the earth. The book was written in the early part of the 14th century by soldier and poet Dante while in exile from Florence following his participation in a series of political and religious conflicts that wracked the Italian city-states of his day. Continue reading “The Inferno”

The Lottery

The Lottery
Shirley Jackson

When first published in the New Yorker, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” resulted in reams of hate mail and canceled subscriptions; decades later, it is one of the most well-known of American short stories, taught to high school students across North America and beyond.

At the start of summer, the residents of a small US town gather for the annual celebrations and rituals to make a good harvest, the most important being the lottery – a tradition increasingly abandoned by neighbouring communities. In all likelihood you’ve read the story and know the ending; but on the off chance that is not the case, I’ll say no more here. Read it.

Jackson was popular in her time, but since has been recognized as a major literary force, and an important influence on contemporary authors such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. Her stories are dark, often gothic fantasies drawn from a world careening between the holocaust and the Cold War. She largely refused, though, to comment on or even promote her work, shunning interviewers and critics and refusing the frequent invitations to comment on literary or world affairs that came her way.

“The Lottery” is what we all know Shirley Jackson for; but it’s only the start of an incredible body of work including stories, novels, and children’s books. Read it again. And read more of her. It’s worth the time.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Victor Hugo

The tragic love of Quasimodo, ringer of the bells at Notre Dame cathedral, for the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda. Much pulling of the heart-strings, a little adventure, and a finale including two bodies intertwined in the grave, turning to dust together. Hunchback is a masterpiece of Hugo’s, a massive epic that wrote the novel as though it were grand theatre, and inspired others who are recognized as masters in their own right – Balzac, Dickens, Proust.

Hugo gave us Quasimodo and Esmeralda, one of the great love stories of literature, but Hunchback is important, too, for its impact on the development of the novel: it is perhaps the first panoramic historical novel, sweeping all of life, the greatest and the smallest, into its narrative; it brought us the first central character whose primary role is to bear silent witness to the unfolding history of the time; it made beggars and street-urchins active players, characters in their own right. And Notre Dame, the famed cathedral – this book played a large part in making it what it is, the architecture of the place playing such a significant role that it spawned a revival in the gothic style and resulted in a massive restoration of the church.

It’s a big deal in literary history, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And nothing like the Disney version.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A piece of fiction, The Yellow Wallpaper is also an important sociological text and a major contribution to the development of feminism. Based upon her own experiences, Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes her story as a series of journal entries. Confined to her room by a doctor-husband who has diagnosed her as hysterical, a woman cut off from work and social activity, forbidden even to read, descends into madness as the “cure” imposed upon her is only exacerbates her feelings of powerlessness. The exact nature of her initial illness, if indeed it is that, is never clear – there are allusions to a recent child, which may imply post-partum depression, but also the the distinct possibility that the “illness” was no more than emotional and psychological damage resulting from domestic isolation and patriarchal control. A reflection on mental health, a reflection on gender relations, a reflection on the infantilization of women by the medical profession – The Yellow Wallpaper is all these as well just a damn fine story.

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë

In honour of the new movie opening this week (there have been no less than 17 movie adaptations internationally in the last hundred years), I am choosing to write about the gorgeously gothic Jane Eyre.

This book – titled after its protagonist written in the first-person – follows the young life of Jane tossed about the sea of a stormy life, while maintaining her upright morality and Christian heart throughout. Opening on a scene of domestic punishment, we are introduced to a beleagured Jane who is teased and tortured by her step-mother and half-siblings after her father’s death up until the point she is consigned to an orphanage. Once in the orphanage, Jane recounts the poverty, hunger and cold that all girls there are subjected to by heartless overseers who neglect conditions to such a degree that typhus breaks out among the children, killing many of them, including Jane’s best friend Helen who dies in her arms. Fortunate not to have contracted any illness, Jane strikes out to become a governness at the completion of her education and finds herself a position at the fated Thornfield Hall. Here she meets the mysterious and dashing Mr. Rochester who is lord of the manor and responsible for the child (Adele) who Jane is educating. Much hand-wringing about Mr. Rochester’s impending marriage ensues until the point at which he discloses his true love for Jane and asks her hand in marriage.

But this happy ending is not to be as Jane discovers that a series of mysterious goings on in the house are the responsibilities of Rochester’s living wife – a madwoman who he has locked in the attic and cared for in order to avoid scandal. Jane rushes from the house upon this discovery, leaving all her belongings behind, and travels around England as a pauper until she is finally taken in by the kind Rivers family. During her time with them Jane discovers they are all cousins to each other, and is also the recipient of a large inheritance upon which point she leaves her kin and travels back to Thornton Hall. Upon her arrival she discovers the Hall in ruins, and hearing that Rochester’s wife has burned the house down and committed suicide she rushes to his side. Although he has lost a hand and and been blinded in the attempt to rescue his wife, Jane sees beyond his deformities and pledges her undying love. Shortly after this, they are married and the book ends on the happy note that Rochester is regaining his eyesight and the two have had a son together.

Through gothic passions and intrigue which compel the book – Brontë explores many of the deep social questions of her day. Through Jane she explores the balance between Godliness and earthly living, the injustice of class discrimination, the struggling role of women within the confines of patriarchy, the right to independence while still desiring home and family, and forgiveness. The death of Helen in the orphanage was drawn from Bronte’s own family horror which saw two of her sisters die of preventable typhus while away at school, due to poor living conditions.

Jane Eyre was a ground-breaking piece of literature, one ahead of its time in terms of the portrayal of women and their ability to act autonomously. While Jane is subject to the whims of a traveled life, she is never portrayed as weak or as a “damsel in distress”  – and in fact she falls in love with Rochester precisely because he treats her as an equal. The fact that Jane Eyre is written in first-person is integral to Brontë’s feeling that women have their own viewpoint and path that they are able to interpret in an unmediated fashion – thus we hear from the heart of Jane Eyre as she journeys towards her final destination of home and family. Informed by autobiographical elements, Jane’s path follows closely some of Brontë’s own life story – one tragically cut short during her pregnancy at 38 from either consumption or typhus. Jane Eyre is a classic coming-of-age story not unlike the gothic romances that have risen to prominence in the last five years – though of course, written to a much higher standard!

The Raven

The Raven
Edgar Allan Poe

“The Raven” is one of the most famous writings by American short-story-writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe, the image of the raven and its constant repetition of the word “Nevermore” being among the most widely-recognized references in twentieth-century poetry.

Like so much of Poe’s work, it is known for the musicality of its rhythm and ominous, super-natural tone, telling the story of a young lover in distress and his descent into madness.

Blog at

Up ↑