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 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 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:
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 10 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?