You are here
Joyce Carol Oates's Top Ten List
1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). In the peak heat of a St. Petersburg summer, an erstwhile university student, Raskolnikov, commits literature’s most famous fictional crime, bludgeoning a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. What follows is a psychological chess match between Raskolnikov and a wily detective that moves toward a form of redemption for our antihero. Relentlessly philosophical and psychological, Crime and Punishment tackles freedom and strength, suffering and madness, illness and fate, and the pressures of the modern urban world on the soul, while asking if “great men” have license to forge their own moral codes.
2. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). Filled with convoluted plotting, scrambled syntax, puns, neologisms, and arcane mythological allusions, Ulysses recounts the misadventures of schlubby Dublin advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on a single day, June 16, 1904. As Everyman Bloom and a host of other characters act out, on a banal and quotidian scale, the major episodes of Homer’s Odyssey —including encounters with modern-day sirens and a Cyclops —Joyce’s bawdy mock-epic suggests the improbability, perhaps even the pointlessness, of heroism in the modern age.
3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929). A modernist classic of Old South decay, this novel circles the travails of the Compson family from four different narrative perspectives. All are haunted by the figure of Caddy, the only daughter, whom Faulkner described as “a beautiful and tragic little girl.” Surrounding the trials of the family itself are the usual Faulkner suspects: alcoholism, suicide, racism, religion, money, and violence both seen and unseen. In the experimental style of the book, Quentin Compson summarizes the confused honor and tragedy that Faulkner relentlessly evokes: “theres a curse on us its not our fault is it our fault.”
4. Poems of Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Quirkily punctuated and rhymed, thoughtful and unsentimental, these brief, aphoristic lyrics meditate upon God, nature, and the internal weather of the emotions—“The soul unto itself / Is an Imperial friend —/ Or the most agonizing spy / An enemy could send.” A spinster who published only two of her nearly two thousand poems, Dickinson saw her work as a vehicle for spiritual exploration and as messages to a world “that never wrote to me.”
5. Stories of Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Kafka’s fictions express existential alienation, but without the self-pity or blame; there’s great humor amidst the angst. Despite his radical modernism, echoes of Talmudic and European folk traditions and Kafka’s own formal High German prose style lend his fables all the timelessness of nightmare. His stories range from the slightest fragments, parables, and epigrams to the novella-length classic, The Metamorphosis. Featuring anthropomorphic beasts as well as magisterial paradoxes of “the Law,” Kafka’s inventive tales are a treasure-house of the neurotic and prophetic.
6. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830). Stendhal inaugurated French realism with his revolutionary colloquial style and the famous pronouncement, “A novel is a mirror carried along a highway.” Julien Sorel, the tragic antihero, rises from peasant roots through high society. In his character, the “red” of soldiering and a bygone age of heroism vies with the “black” world of the priesthood, careerism, and hypocrisy.
7. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence (1915). Declared obscene and banned by British authorities, Lawrence’s novel about three generations of an English family boldly challenged conventional mores by openly depicting emotional and sexual needs. His protagonist, Ursula Brangwen, breaks from family tradition by going off to college and becoming a teacher. Free-spirited Ursula also experiments with her sexuality, having an affair with a Polish exile, Anton Skrebensky, and developing an intense attraction for an older woman. Her search for love is alternately disillusioning and liberating.
8. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence (1920). An angry young man before there were angry young men, Lawrence explores politics, art, economics, and sexuality through sisters Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen and their respective lovers. A sequel to his 1915 novel The Rainbow, this sprawling transcontinental saga challenges the limitations of traditional marriage, while detailing the potency of human sexuality, the quest for bohemia, and the destructiveness of World War I.
9. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851). This sweeping saga of obsession, vanity, and vengeance at sea can be read as a harrowing parable, a gripping adventure story, or a semiscientific chronicle of the whaling industry. No matter, the book rewards patient readers with some of fiction’s most memorable characters, from mad Captain Ahab to the titular white whale that crippled him, from the honorable pagan Queequeg to our insightful narrator/surrogate (“Call me”) Ishmael, to that hell-bent vessel itself, the Pequod.
10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Hemingway proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from . . . ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” But one can read it simply as a straightforward adventure story in which two comrades of conve nience, the parentally abused rascal Huck and fugitive slave Jim, escape the laws and conventions of society on a raft trip down the Mississippi. Alternatively, it’s a subversive satire in which Twain uses the only superficially naïve Huck to comment bitingly on the evils of racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and capitalist greed he observes in a host of other largely unsympathetic characters. Huck’s climactic decision to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” rather than submit to the starched standards of “civilization” reflects a uniquely American strain of individualism and nonconformity stretching from Daniel Boone to Easy Rider.