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1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.
2. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610). The happy peace that Prospero, a powerful magician and former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda share on an enchanted island is broken when a group of Prospero’s former enemies and friends is shipwrecked there. Through the services of his two servants, the base Caliban, to whom the island had originally belonged, and the sprite Ariel, Prospero exacts revenge upon his stranded enemies while engineering the marriage of his daughter to a young nobleman. Anticipating themes that would inform colonial and postcolonial literature — usurpation, bondage, rebellion — this was Shakespeare’s last play without a collaborator.
3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615). Considered literature’s first great novel, Don Quixote is the comic tale of a dream-driven nobleman whose devotion to medieval romances inspires him to go in quest of chivalric glory and the love of a lady who doesn’t know him. Famed for its hilarious antics with windmills and nags, Don Quixote offers timeless meditations on heroism, imagination, and the art of writing itself. Still, the heart of the book is the relationship between the deluded knight and his proverb-spewing squire, Sancho Panza. If their misadventures illuminate human folly, it is a folly redeemed by simple love, which makes Sancho stick by his mad master “no matter how many foolish things he does.”
4. The Tale of Genji by Shikibu Murasaki (c. 1001–1010 c.e.). Reputedly the world’s oldest novel, this immense epic romance chronicles the (mostly amorous) adventures of Japanese Prince Genji, a lowborn youth who is adopted by an emperor and grows into a handsome prodigy both irresistible to women and obsessively preoccupied with them. Genji’s peregrinations outside the hermetic world of the imperial court stimulate an elaborate panorama of the life of the period; the author’s depictions of Genji’s various and ingenious sexual conquests still dazzle.
5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1595). The summit of Shakespeare’s early romantic comedies, this play explores the troubled course of love leading to the marriages of King Theseus of Athens and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and two young aristocratic Athenian couples. The trouble begins when the king of fairies interferes with the Athenian couples via his agent Puck, who administers love potions to the wrong characters. The ensuing confusion is finally resolved in the fifth act as the royal marriage is celebrated by the performance of a hilarious piece of nonsense staged by simple guildsmen led by Bottom the weaver, whose dream gives the play its name.
6. Emma by Jane Austen (1816). The story of Miss Woodhouse —busybody, know-it-all, and general relationship enthusiast —is a comedy of manners deftly laced with social criticism. The charm largely inheres in Emma’s imperfections: her slightly spoiled maneuverings, her highly fallible matchmaking, her inability to know her own heart. Emma teeters from lovable one moment to tiresome and self-centered the next. In writing her story, Austen found an ideal venue for her note-perfect, never-equaled archness.
7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). Like Wuthering Heights, this is a romance set in the isolated moors of rural England the Brontës called home. Its title character is an exceptionally independent orphan who becomes governess to the children of an appealing but troubled character, Mr. Rochester. As their love develops, the author introduces a host of memorable characters and a shattering secret before sending Jane on yet another arduous journey.
8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). This masterpiece of concision and interior monologue recounts events in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a delicate, upper-class London wife and mother, as she prepares for a party at her home on a single day in June 1923. In a parallel subsidiary plot, a shell-shocked World War I veteran Clarissa encounters spirals into suicide rather than submit to soul-stealing experimental psycho therapy. The novel explores questions of time, memory, love, class, and life choices through Woolf’s intricate melding of points of view and powerful use of flashback.
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). Widely considered the most popular work in Spanish since Don Quixote, this novel —part fantasy, part social history of Colombia — sparked fiction’s “Latin boom” and the popularization of magic realism. Over a century that seems to move backward and forward simultaneously, the forgotten and offhandedly magical village of Macondo — home to a Faulknerian plethora of incest, floods, massacres, civil wars, dreamers, prudes, and prostitutes — loses its Edenic innocence as it is increasingly exposed to civilization.
10. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916). Although many of these largely autobiographical stories evoke themes of death, illness, and stasis, nearly all offer their characters redemption —or at least momentary self-knowledge —through what Joyce called “epiphanies,” in which defeat or disappointment is transformed by a sudden, usually life-altering flash of awareness. The collection’s emotional centerpiece is its concluding tale, “The Dead,” which moves from a New Year’s Eve party where guests muse about issues of the day —the Catholic church, Irish nationalism, Freddie Malins’s worrying drunkenness —to a man’s discovery of his wife weeping over a boy who died for love of her. A profound portrait of identity and loneliness, it is Joyce’s most compassionate work.