What makes a novel resonate with readers decades or centuries after it is written? Universal themes, relatable characters, and memorable dialogue all contribute to the timelessness of a story, but there is also often an elusive, unquantifiable aspect that helps define a classic.
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian science fiction classic about a world where books are outlawed, fireman Guy Montag marvels at the power of reading: “There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
Whatever that special something may be, there’s no doubt that many books achieve literary immortality because they’re just so quotable. Whether it’s through a line of insightful dialogue or a beautifully vivid description, there are some books that linger in our collective conscience because of the writer’s ability to conjure a moment in time and transport the reader, again and again, to another place. Here are some of the best lines from classic novels that we will always remember.
I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.“Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, 1868
This quote, from Alcott’s enduring tale of the four March sisters, is spoken by the youngest sister, Amy. Amy always enjoyed her role as the baby of her family, protected from the harsher realities of life by her mother and older sisters. But as a partner to her doting husband, Laurie, she feels needed and useful — and, for the first time, in charge of her own life.
There are years that ask questions and years that answer.“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, 1937
In this poignant and powerful novel, Janie Crawford is an independent Black woman searching for her identity. This wistful quote comes early in the book, when Janie is feeling the weight of other people’s demands and expectations, and she hasn’t yet learned to speak up for herself.
Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.“The Picture of Dorian Grey” by Oscar Wilde, 1891
Some literary quotes remain particularly timeless, and this is one of them. Talking about an antique piece of fabric, the self-indulgent Lord Henry Wotton explains his tardiness to the young Dorian Gray, and foreshadows the grim consequences of this cautionary tale. Dorian, willing to trade his soul for a life of beautiful hedonism, fails to recognize that the life of excess he covets isn’t worth its eternal cost.
Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, 1982
In a letter to her sister Celie, Nettie comments on how five years have passed since she came to Africa to do missionary work, and how much the children have grown and changed. A familiar refrain among parents and older family members, this quote highlights how easy it is to get caught up in the day-to-day experiences of life, so that we don’t realize how much time has passed until we look back on it.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, 1877
The first line of this hefty classic sets the tone for the novel about a young married woman’s scandalous affair during a time of liberal reforms and societal tension in Russia. Tolstoy’s assertion, that happy families are all alike, hinges on the idea that all happy families share the same attributes, such as mutual love and trust, the health of all the family members, and financial security. The unhappiness of a family, however, can be caused by any singular trait specific to them. This concept, known as the Anna Karenina principle, has been adapted to apply to several disciplines, from business to science, where success can be defined as a specific group of traits, and failure is anything that falls outside that definition.
When I discover who I am, I'll be free.“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, 1952
Told from the perspective of an unnamed Black narrator, Ellison’s debut novel explored what it meant to be Black in America in the early 20th century. As the narrator recounts his experiences in a hostile world, from his small Southern town to New York City, he reflects on how his race has rendered him invisible. This quote comes after the narrator has been hospitalized and given electroshock therapy. His inability to answer the doctor’s questions, including his own name, underscores how societal invisibility has erased his personal identity.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Told from the perspective of narrator Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel centers on the enigmatic and obsessive millionaire Jay Gatsby. Gatsby’s excessive wealth cannot protect him from his rampant selfishness and unchecked ego, which ultimately leads to tragedy and echoes Fitzgerald’s cynicism about the promise of the American Dream. This last mournful line of the novel serves as a reminder that we cannot escape the past, no matter how much we may want to.
The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.“The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902
Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most famous fictional detective of all time, is known for his logical mind and keen skills of observation and deduction. In this quote, he explains that it’s only a matter of observation that has allowed him to deduce where Watson has spent the day. Holmes is pleased to have surprised Watson with his reasoning, but points out that it’s not an inaccessible skill — most people simply don’t pay attention to the world around them.
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