Classics Are Often Not about “Old” (Middle-Aged) People

Introduction

One of the most frequent objections I see to reading classics from young people (high school students, college students, recent college graduates) is that classics are all about “people in their forties and fifties,” which, therefore, makes them unrelatable incredibly to anyone younger than that. I must first note that 1) being middle-aged is not the same as being “old,” and I’m sure readers in the bookish community who are fall into this age range would appreciate if other readers stop insinuating they’re ancient and boring and 2) there are a number of classics specifically about children and teens. (Krysta’s list of 10 Classics for Teen Readers features some of them, and I could name many more from Anne of Green Gables to Little Women.)

However, my argument in today’s post is that the “cult of youth,” if you will has a long history, and very large number of classics that I have seen accused of being about “old people” are…actually about characters who are in their twenties or even younger. These characters are, in fact, the same age or only slightly older than the readers suggesting they must be in their fifties. Let’s look at some:

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How Old Are These Classic Characters?

Alexei Ivanovich from The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Described as a young tutor.

Charles Darnay from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Charles is 25. Sidney Carton is likely about the same age. Lucie is 17 when the book begins.

Edna Pontellier from The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Edna is 28.

Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Twenty years old at the start of the novel.

Ethan Frome from Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome has a frame narrative, so Ethan is in his fifties in the frame, but the main story features him at age 28.

Fanny Price from Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny is ten when the book opens, but she is about 18 for most of the novel.

Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Exact age unspecified. About 30.

Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane leaves to be a governess at Thorton Hall after being a teacher at Lowood for only two years.

Margaret Hale from North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Described as “not yet twenty!”

Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein’s age is not explicitly stated, but context clues about his status as a student and later marriage in the book put reader estimates that he’s in his early twenties when he first brings his monster to life.

How old do you think most classic characters are?

Briana

14 thoughts on “Classics Are Often Not about “Old” (Middle-Aged) People

  1. Aelyn says:

    I think it’s interesting that people often assume that classics are about old people. I wonder if it’s because they can’t relate to the characters and the issues the characters face seem like issues for older people?

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I do think this is part of it. “Oh, someone proposed marriage to the character? They must be old.” No, just 20 actually. :p Although I would also say many of the characters do face “common” issues, like Margaret being forced to move from her home with her parents even though she doesn’t want to in North and South.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Elspeth says:

    Reblogged this on Reading in Between the Life… and commented:
    Briana offers a good exposition of the fact that classics are not ignored or pushed aside because their themes appeal to “old” people.

    I believe the problem is that reading classis literature is often work,; work that requires we labor with more formal, complex expressions of the English language. Most people, including many teachers, don’t want to be bothered.

    When I read a book and need a dictionary, it is then that I know I am really reading!

    Like

  3. alilovesbooks says:

    Thank you for pointing out that 40 is not old. I know if you’re a teenager it probably seems ancient but it’s really not.

    I don’t know why people assume classics are about old people. I’m seriously struggling to think of anything other than A Christmas Carol with an older main protagonist. Maybe it’s just their values and views come across as old fashioned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I was also trying to think of classics distinctly about older people and coming up short. It was much easier to think of ones about young people!

      I do think it might be something about generally not relating to their lives, but that’s probably because, for example, the protagonist is some rich person living in the 1700s! I certainly don’t relate to all the Jane Austen characters who don’t have to work and seem to spend all day in leisure activities, but it’s not because they’re old.

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  4. Michael J. Miller says:

    This fascinates me! Do you think part of the issue can be, often, when we first read these novels we’re younger so the characters seem older? For example, I first read ‘The Great Gatsby’ as a high school sophomore (I think (maybe junior)). I enjoyed it but it was a book “about adults.” When I read it the second time, just out of college, I found it far more relatable and could see the characters more clearly. It’s since become one of my favorite novels. I wonder if the characters in classic novels seem older because we are often young when we meet our first sampling and then that leaves a skewed impression.

    Similarly, I remember the moment I was watching ‘Seinfeld’ and realized it wasn’t a show about “adults” anymore but rather I was the same age as the characters and these were the conversations I was having with my friends XD.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I do think there’s something to the fact that even 21 can seem ancient to someone who’s 16, so therefore these books are all about “old people.” Even when the character is actually about 18, the lack of similar life experiences might make them seem older, so someone being proposed to in a classic novel seems “old,” when they’re actually a teenager. I think this happens even within YA. If it’s a contemporary novel and the character is attending high school, they read like more obviously a teen than a teen in a fantasy novel where they’re a highly trained assassin involved in national politics. It’s really easy to imagine a lot of YA characters are actually 25.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Even with in that blurring (more so because of if not in spite of) I’d bet that’s part of YA’s broad appeal. The main characters are usually sixteen-to-eighteen but it’s easy to see them as twenty-five. In this way it helps more readers connect to the plot because it’s easier to see themselves in it.

        You’re right as far as someone in their twenties being ancient to a sixteen-year-old. Back to ‘Gatsby,’ I remember enjoying it well enough as a kid but I couldn’t begin to REALLY understand the feelings of love, longing, idealization, desperation, and complacency the narrative expresses so perfectly. Each time I’ve read it since, I’ve gotten more from it, understood it and felt it more deeply.

        The getting-engaged point is spot on too. I think about that often, how we tend to (almost unconsciously) universalize our own lived experience. So if an eighteen-year-old is getting engaged in a novel but I have NO PLANS to get married at the end of high school, they seem a world away…even though it’s just different choices and/or cultural norms.

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          I didn’t like The Great Gatsby when I read it in high school (and I can’t remember if I read it again after that, but if I did I still didn’t like it), but I’ve been thinking I should give it another shot as an adult for this reason. Maybe it will make more sense to me or something.

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  5. louloureads says:

    I reread Persuasion recently, and was amused to note that the Ancient and Frail Mrs Smith is… 30. She is definitely presented as an older woman, if not actually elderly, and I thought she must be around 50 the first time I read it (somehow missing that she’s a similar age to Anne). Rereading it this time around and seeing how everyone in the novel treats her as if she’s in her twilight years, when she’s actually about my age, made me chuckle.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I don’t think I’ve read Persuasion, but that’s really interesting! Is it because the main characters are even younger, or does her own behavior lead people to act like she’s an ancient invalid, or is Austen just making her seem old for no apparent reason??

      Like

  6. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    This is interesting, because I always thought it was the opposite. I always thought characters in classics were weirdly young. The ladies are all being presented to society and getting married at like 16. I always thought it was unrelateable because we don’t get “married off” to men twice our age anymore.

    Like

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