1. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67). Sterne promises the “life and opinions” of his protagonist. Yet halfway through the fourth volume of nine, we are still in the first day of the hero’s life thanks to marvelous digressions and what the narrator calls “unforeseen stoppages” —detailing the quirky habits of his eccentric family members and their friends. This broken narrative is unified by Sterne’s comic touch, which shimmers in this thoroughly entertaining novel that harks back to Don Quixote and foreshadows Ulysses.
2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719). This rollicking yet existential adventure with deep religious undertones begins with fatherly advice: pursue a stable career. But the wastrel son denies his father because he is tempted by the sea. This salty path gets young Robinson kidnapped by Moorish pirates, sold into slavery, and shipwrecked on a remote island filled with cannibals. Yet this island seems an Eden to Crusoe, whose ingenuity enables him to tame the land, conquer the natives, and save the life of an islander, whom he makes his servant and christens Man Friday, as he comes to recognize and accept God’s will.
3. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749). Squire Allworthy provides a loving home to his bad nephew Blifil and the bastard orphan Tom. Lusty Tom is sent away after an affair with a local girl whom Blifil desires, and he begins his picaresque adventures on the way to London, including love affairs, duels, and imprisonment. Comic, ribald, and highly entertaining, Tom Jones reminds us just how rowdy the eighteenth century got before the nineteenth came and stopped the fun.
4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1747–48). This long epistolary novel — full of sexual tension, violence, and psychic conflict — tells the tale of the virtuous Clarissa Harlowe and her rakish suitor, Robert Lovelace. Disowned by her family, confined in a brothel and raped, Clarissa pays a high price for her morality. Yet she accepts her fate with a moving acceptance in this landmark of English realistic fiction.
5. Candide by Voltaire (1759). In this withering satire of eighteenth-century optimism, Candide wanders the world testing his tutor Pangloss’s belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” When Candide loses his true love, gets flogged in the army, injured in an earthquake, and robbed in the New World, he finally muses, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” In response to life’s mysteries, he concludes, the best we can do is patiently cultivate our own gardens.
6. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735). Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s doctor, embarks on four wondrous voyages from England to remote nations. Gulliver towers over six-inch Lilliputians and cowers under the giants in Brobdingnag. He witnesses a flying island and a country where horses are civilized and people are brutes. Fanciful and humorous, Swift’s fictional travelogue is a colorfully veiled but bitter indictment of eighteenth-century politics and culture.
7. Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (1742). The comic trouble starts when a naive footman rejects the advances of his employer, Lady Booby, and her servant, Slipslop. Cast out, he and the saintly Parson Adams hit England’s rough roads in search of Joseph’s beloved, Fanny Goodwill. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the world rewards their goodness with violent complication. After Joseph finds Fanny — who might be his sister — Fielding amps up the sexually charged farce in this novel of friendship and virtue that satirizes Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela.
8. The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin (c. 1760). This bawdy, funny, surreal, and encyclopedic Chinese classic stretches across 120 chapters. Reality and illusion shift constantly in the world of Jia Baoyu, scion of the wealthy but declining Jia family. He is a master at the arts of poetry, philosophy, and love but meets his match in his frail, beautiful cousin Lin Daiyu, one of the twelve beauties of Jinling.
9. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798). Intermingling the fantastic with the real, this long poem begins when a mariner with “long grey beard and glittering eye” asks a trio of wedding guests to hear his tale. One guest stays to learn how the mariner shot the albatross, considered an omen of good luck, and doomed his ship. Though saved from death, the mariner is condemned to walk the earth and tell his story, which may be read as a Christian allegory or as a warning against defiling nature.
10. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782). A candidate for “most cynical fiction ever penned,” the story features two charming but depraved aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, who try to relieve their boredom by plotting the seduction of a young virgin and a virtuous wife. Glittering like Milton’s Satan against the pallid ranks of the virtuous, they skillfully seduce the reader through the urbanely immoral philosophy they detail in letters to each other in this wicked satire of the Age of Reason.