What Is Classic Literature? Top 5 Examples

What is classic literature? Here is a list of classic literature books that will be interesting and thought-provoking for you to read.

Works of literature come in many shapes and forms; renowned authors have written many classic novels. You probably had numerous reading lists in high school that included classics from Ancient Greece and Rome, and you have probably had classics from the New York Times bestseller list. But what makes a classic a classic?

Take a look at some important points below, and consider adding a few of these books to your reading list.

Key Differences Between Classical Literature and Classic Literature

First, it is essential to understand the difference between classical and classic literature. When talking about classical literature, this typically refers to ancient Greek and Roman literature. Including writers such as Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid. These literary works often discuss epic journeys of heroes, but they also include comedy, tragedy, and pastoral forms of writing. Many of these classical works have stood the test of time. They are included on many educational reading lists because of their contribution to education and culture. 

Classic literature is not the same as classical literature. Classic literature is not limited to books published during ancient times. It can be any piece of literature that has defined literature and never tires as time goes on. It remains relevant throughout the ages and remains open to interpretation even centuries after publication. There are plenty of modern classic novels that fall under the category of classic works. However, authors of classical literature still fall under this umbrella. Authors such as Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare have novels classed as classic literature. 

Defining a Work of Classic Literature

The word “classic” is a subjective term, and everyone has their own definition. At the same time, there are several common themes classic novels appear to share. While a book does not have to meet all of these criteria to qualify as a classic, it should hit at least one of them. Here are some examples of the criteria that classic works tend to include:

1. They Changed the Way The Literature Was Written

Some classic novels have changed the way the world writes literature. For example, before the arrival of the Romantic Era, most published books tended to focus on logic and reason. That is the way people wrote during the Renaissance period. However, some of the most famous authors from the Romantic Era, such as William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, and Percy Bysshe Shelly, produced novels, poems, and short stories, that led to a paradigm, completely changing the way most future writers wrote.

2. They Have Stood the Test of Time

If a work of literature has stood the test of time, it qualifies as a classic. There are plenty of published words that are eventually lost because they are not read enough. They might go out of print, which may not be relevant to current readers. On the other hand, classic works will stand the test of time and continue to be read even to this day. Some works, such as The Iliad, have been red for thousands of years. Works written by Shakespeare are considered classics because they are still popular, printed, and read today. 

3. They Tend To Define the Genre

What Is Classic Literature? They tend to define the genre
Unknown authorUnknown author; Restored by Yann Forget and Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When you think about specific types of novels, what do you think about them? For example, what comes to mind if you think about fantasy novels? If a work defines a genre, it probably qualifies as a classic. For example, if you think about works of horror, you might think about works written by Edgar Allan Poe. These are classics because they are genre-defining works. You might want to think about classic novels that define romance, fantasy, and science fiction. 

4. They Influenced Future Writers Significantly

Finally, works can be considered classics if they influence future writers significantly. For example, there are many writers from English literature, such as Lord Byron and John Keats, who continue to impact writers even to this day. That is why many of their works are considered classics. There are also famous writers from French literature, such as Voltaire, whose words continue to impact the way people write. If certain novels serve as an inspiration for current writers, they can be considered classics. 

Key Characteristics of Classic Novels

There are several key characteristics of classic novels. They include:

  • A Memorable Protagonist or Antagonist: Classic novels have been remembered and recognized throughout multiple generations, and one of the reasons is a memorable cast of characters. Usually, this is led by a memorable protagonist or antagonist that sticks in the minds of most readers.
  • A Relatable Story: Works of classic literature also have a relatable story. The reader can understand, sympathize, or empathize with what the main character is going through, making the story much easier to remember.
  • Timeless Themes and Truths: Classic novels often have time with themes or truths behind them. The central theme is still relevant to the world decades or centuries after the book was written.
  • An Exploration of the Human Experience: Books become classics because they take a deep dive into the human condition and deliver a profound message about human behavior and the impact people have on each other or the world.

These are just a few characteristics that many classic novels share. Consider looking for these characteristics in your next classic novel.

The Top Examples of Classic Novels To Add To Your List

If you are looking for more books to add to your reading list for your book club, there are a few titles you need to include. They include: 

1. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, 1860

Top Examples of Classic Novels: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, 1860
National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are looking for classic novels, you can pick up just about anything by Charles Dickens. One of his best works is Great Expectations, which is universally loved. This is a book that focuses on the story of Pip, who helps an escaped convict. They become companions and go on an epic journey. The reader learns about some of the most significant differences between the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor during the 19th century. Charles Dickens is known for his compassion for the poor, and this book is a shining example of that. 

2. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, 1813

Pride and Prejudicewritten by Jane Austen, focuses on the story of Elizabeth Bennet, who learns about the dangers of making quick, snap judgments of people in situations, and Charles Bigley, a wealthy man who moves to a new estate. Eventually, she learns about the difference between someone who seems good on the surface and someone who has a good heart. It has been one of the most popular books for more than two centuries, and it contains a lot of life lessons for young readers. 

3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, 1884

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic novel written by Mark Twain (whose actual name was Samuel Clemens). The story focuses on Huck, who is best known as a superstitious, uneducated boy who is the child of the town drunk. Even though Huck is gullible, he has a lot of street smarts. In this story, you will be taken on an adventure that you will never forget, as Huck undergoes a lot of life experiences and discovers his morality. This is a classic of American literature.

4. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, 1818

Top Examples of Classic Novels: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, 1818
Richard Rothwell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Frankenstein tells the story of a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, working to create a sapient being. The book is a powerful commentary on the intersection of relentless scientific pursuits and significant moral implications. Many people have not read the novel and believe that “Frankenstein” refers to an undead monster, but you will probably have a few questions about who the actual monster is after reading the book. Even if you have already read the book in high school or college, it is worth another read. 

5. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered a classic. George Orwell was always known for his commentary on social constructs, and this book will instantly remind you of “Big Brother,” always watching. The book was intended to glimpse the future when it was initially public. It is a powerful commentary on concepts such as the “thought police” and government surveillance. One of the reasons it is considered a classic is that it is still relevant to this day. Consider reading this book if you are looking for modern classics that will twist your mind into pretzels and force you to think carefully. 

If you are interested in learning more, check out our round-up of top 10 antagonist examples from classic literature and film.


  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.