Can You Name All 35 Famous Works of Literature From a Description?

EDUCATION

Elisabeth Henderson

7 Min Quiz

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About This Quiz

Humans have told stories long before we had any written record of them. The earliest written records date back to Mesopotamia in 3200 BCE, and scholars cite Enheduanna as the earliest known author of literary work (2285-2250 BCE). Does literature have to be written down? Well, the word itself comes from the Latin, littera—letter. The word literature contains the idea of engaging with letters, not simply words, as its core meaning. The word evolved over time until, by the Middle Ages, the word literature came into being, meaning “knowledge of books” or “book learning.” Now, the word has changed again to signify the books themselves. 

These days the question of what counts as “literature” is hotly contested. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollor’s 2009 book, A New Literary History of America, offers that “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form.“ This definition opens up the meaning of literature beyond the bounds of a book cover to the more fluid boundaries of music, graphic arts, dance and whatever forms humanity takes to express itself. Ezra Pound more simply claimed that “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

What do you think? Does literature have to include letters? Either way, this quiz will test you on your knowledge of classic literature. Let’s find out how much meaning you’ve been charged with! 

In this novel, a young girl learns a harsh lesson about racial injustice after her lawyer father cannot exonerate an innocent man.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” teaches a great majority of American schoolchildren about how racism impacts the American criminal justice system. The book portrays Atticus Finch, the lead character Scout’s father, as a paragon of virtue, trying hard to see justice win but failing to be able to achieve it. Racism continues to make the U.S. criminal justice system more dangerous for indigenous and Black people than those who identify as white.

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Imagining himself to be a knight, a nobleman roams the countryside engaging in knightly errands, while everyone else thinks he is insane.

“Don Quixote,” published in 1605, may be the most famous book that not many people read. The nobleman-knight, Don Quixote, famously jousts with windmills, imagining them to be giants. Since the late 18th century, idealistic and impractical acts of chivalry have been called “quixotic.”

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A group of animals, led by two pigs, stage a rebellion at a mismanaged agricultural operation.

The events of “Animal Farm” stand as an allegory for pre-Soviet Russia and the build-up to the Russian Revolution in ways that mystify high school students everywhere, who nonetheless are tested on the parallels. George Orwell wrote the book during World War II, looking back on his formative experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

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A pensive narrator accompanies a maniacal captain in pursuit of a whale.

“Call Me Ishmael,” the three words that open “Moby Dick,” stand as some of the most iconic words in literary history. The words begin the epic adventure tale by drawing the reader into a private conversation with Ishmael. As the conversation progresses, readers find that Ishmael and Ahab search not only for the whale but for the meaning that lies in the depths.

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During the Great Depression, an Oklahoma family sets off to find work and relief in California, only to find different harsh conditions there.

John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” brought the country’s attention to the catastrophe unfolding as a result of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. He wrote the thick book in just five months, as if it came to him in a vision.

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A man wakes to find himself transformed into a beetle.

Good old Gregor Samsa, the narrator of Franz Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis,” brings intrigue to high school English students across America. Readers of the story have vastly differing interpretations of the central fact of the story. Did he actually transform into a beetle, or is he dreaming? Is this an allegory, and if so, what for? Kafka insisted that the book would not have illustrations of Gregor to encourage such ambiguity.

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The parents of an infant cast him out because of a prophecy that the he will murder his father and marry his mother. The boy survives to fulfill the horrifying prediction and gouges out his eyes when he learns what he has done.

Aristotle referred to “Oedipus Rex” multiple times as he defined what makes a great tragedy. Freud used to the play to exemplify his theory of the family drama, which he saw as the unconscious desire of children for their parents. What would Sophocles have made of that interpretation?

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The attack of a mead hall leads to an epic struggle with a monster. After defeating one monster, the hero has to deal with its mother.

In the ancient epic poem “Beowulf,” the hero — Beowulf — battles the monster Grendel, only to have to reckon with its bereaved mother. The 1000-year-old manuscript of the poem resides in the British Library. The British Library notes that Beowulf is not the only work contained in the manuscript; it shares space with a homily on St. Christopher, among other texts.

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A man struggles to return home to his wife in a ten-year long voyage, finding himself caught between a rock and a hard place.

In “The Odyssey,” Odysseus strives to get home after the Trojan War. For a full decade, the gods prevent him from reaching his beloved Penelope on Ithaca. One of the obstacles on his way, Scylla and Charybdis, form the original rock and a hard place.

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Pursuing a life of decadent fulfillment, a young dandy receives his wish to maintain his beauty, but has to watch his inner self deteriorate in the face of his portrait.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde’s sole novel, propounds the life philosophy of art for art’s sake that Wilde is known for. It also shows its dark side. Would you trade the beauty of your soul in order to keep the beauty of your face?

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A puritan couple get caught in a sinful act, and the community disciplines the woman by affixing her crime to her blouse.

Nathanial Hawthorne’s ”The Scarlet Letter” unmasked the hypocrisy of Puritanical society and created a clear image for a timeless Halloween costume. His son, Julian, reviewed the work with these words of praise: “The reader may choose his depth according to his inches but only a tall man will touch the bottom.”

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After a man makes a cold-blooded decision to kill a pawnbroker for her money, his conscience and paranoia plague him, as he lives with the consequences of his actions.

The inner turmoil of Raskolnikov, the main character of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” blazes the trail of psychological exploration that takes off in 20th-century literature. Fyodor Dostoevsky perhaps had a close example of inner turmoil to work with. His own biography reads like a psychological thriller, including being in exile in Siberia, sentenced to death by firing squad and pardoned at the last minute.

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A man steals a loaf of bread to feed his family and is imprisoned for his wrongdoing. After leading a life of service, his past catches up to him with a relentless passion for brutal justice.

Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” has his life turned around by an encounter with a merciful priest. The book counts 1400 pages in English. See if you can make it past the Battle of Waterloo.

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A young prince ponders whether it’s better to exist or not to exist.

The most famous line in “Hamlet” has always been: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” This is an existential contemplation of whether it would be better to remain in the world with the tumult it holds or to take leave of it. While the line is so familiar it has become a cliche, the context of the soliloquy situates this question within the great conundrum of human life: how to live with the certainty of death and the uncertainty of what follows it?

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A slave changes hands several times throughout this novel, before his owners intend to buy his freedom. They act too late, though, and he dies a slave.

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriett Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” he reportedly said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war." The book brought attention to the cruelty of slavery and the humanity of slaves and stoked the fires of the abolitionist cause. It was the bestselling book of the 19th century.

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A mysterious benefector gives an oprhaned blacksmith’s apprentice a large sum of money, catapulting him into a higher social class, where he falls desperately into unrequited love.

The novel “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens follows Pip on a tumultuous path through life to his happy ending. However, Charles Dickens had originally written another ending that was much bleaker and more ambiguous. Another novelist convinced him to rewrite it.

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Four youngsters in love get caught up in some fairies’ magic pranks, resulting in a group wedding.

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has had dramatic influence beyond the atmosphere of Earth. Three of Uranus’ moons bear the names of characters from the play: Oberon, Titania, and Puck.

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A mistreated orphan falls in love with her employer, only to find out that he has a dark secret in his attic.

Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” has been heralded as a protofeminist novel. When the protagonist Jane falls in love and is wounded by her love’s two-sided nature, she finds the strength within herself to remain independent.

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English-speaking expats go to Spain to experience the running of the bulls in Pamplona, amidst debaucherous debacles.

The Spanish bullfight, at the center of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” fascinated Hemingway. The beauty and tragedy compelled Hemingway into the complex drama enacted between the bull and the matador.

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A introspective sailor journeys deep into the Congo in search of a mysterious gentleman running a colonial enterprise.

Francis Ford Coppola adapted Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” to the context of the Vietnam War in “Apocalypse Now.” The film controversially shows a water buffalo actually being sacrficially killed. According to IMBD, the Ifugao people sacrificed the bull “for their own (ritual) purposes,” and the film crew merely filmed it happening.

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Without straying far from home, a woman explores the troubling presence of the divine in the intricate workings of a creek, inspecting dead bugs, toads, and the extravagance of light.

Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” has been compared to the transcendalist musings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The book won her a Pulitzer Prize at a mere 29 years of age.

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A blind and brilliant French girl, left alone to face the horrors of World War II, comes into contact with a German boy working as a radio technician for the war effort against his inclinations.

The father of the female protagonist in Anthony Doerr's “All the Light We Cannot See” fabricates a perfect miniature copy of their city for her to memorize, in order for her to gain confidence in her explorations of the city. The concept of building small and accurate copies becomes a hinge in this intricate narrative. The story is so deeply suspenseful and shockingly beautiful that by the end you may be weeping into your drink while "Claire de Lune" plays.

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Dissatisfied and closed in by her role as a mother and wife, the main character seeks a more free existence and finds it in the ocean.

Edna Pontnellier, of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” finds a drastic resolution to what she perceives as the oppressive bounds of her life. Readers have variously found the ending empowering, catastrophic, and shameful.

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A heavy fictional history details the fallout of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia on five Russian aristocratic families.

Most readers think of “War and Peace” work as a novel, though Tolstoy himself had quibbles with that designation. The book mixes genres of history, fiction, and philosophy and defied conventions of the time. It’s length defies conventions of our time, at 1225 pages. It’s a war to get through, but will it bring peace?

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“The story of a poet who tries to end her life, written by a poet who did.”

The New Yorker commentary on “The Bell Jar” (quoted above) notes that this work of fiction hauntingly parallels Sylvia Plath's life, blurring the lines between fiction and memoir. The book was originally published just a month before the author’s suicide.

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The arrival of a baby ghost disturbs the relative peace of a family who had escaped slavery.

Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, “Beloved,” haunts readers both with its eerie and graphic tale and also with the reality of the history that it reckons with. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a study in memory and trauma, as Sethe, the main character, struggles to live with her “re-memory” as past events replay in her mind.

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A pilgrim comes loose in time and re-experiences the allied bombing of Dresden.

Kurt Vonnegut survived the allied bombing of Dresden in a slaughterhouse 60 feet underground. By the time he and his fellow POWs surfaced, as many as 25,000 people had been killed. It took Vonnegut 25 years to begin writing about the experience through the perspective of Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse Five.”

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A collection of poetry singing the song of one self and contradicting that self.

In “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman declares “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The collection of poetry was first published in 1855, but the poet continued to revisit and revise the poems throughout his lifetime. The speaker of the poems embraces the fluidity and complexity of the self, acknowledging, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.”

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The daughter in a well-established family finds out that she will not be able to inherit the family fortune, so her marriage clock is ticking fast. She sorts through a lineup of suitors and falls in love with the one she liked least.

Though she hails from a well-established family, Elizabeth Bennet, of “Pride and Prejudice,” would not be wealthy once her father died. Her financial security depended wholly on her ability to marry well. Jane Austen knew this pressure from experience. At 20 she was separated from a love interest because she did not have the social rank to suit him.

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An idealistic and nameless narrator learns the hard way how American society views his skin color before coming to an epiphany via a yam.

Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” evokes the experience of the unnamed narrator as he awakens to the dominant white culture’s inability to see him because of his blackness. He moves through dfferent modes of relating to white culture and trying to adapt himself to its norms, before he comes to an elated embrace of his invisibility.

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A boy follows a recurring dream that leads him to Africa in search of his Personal Legend. A wise man helps him to realize the oneness of his self through perilous journeys.

Written in just two weeks, “The Alchemist” has been a source of spiritual inspiration for countless pilgrims. On the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, a spirituality devoted to “The Alchemist” has evolved.

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A woman narrates the dramatic tale of her three marriages to an old friend. Readers learn of the awakening of the protagonist to her own desire and finally find that desire fulfilled—only to tragically lose the object of her desire to rabies.

The story of Janie Crawford, in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” draws in readers with its compelling colloquial African-American speech from Florida in the 1930s. Despite her wide recognition today, the author, Zora Neale Hurston, died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave.

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Told from the perspective of the author’s lifelong partner, this book narrates the avant-garde social adventures circulating around a salon in Paris.

“The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” by Gertrude Stein plays with the idea of what constitutes the story of a self. Tellingly, the so-called autobiography of Alice focuses primarily on Stein's brilliance.

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A woman spends the day preparing for a party, while a veteran soldier confronts the presence of World War I dead in a park.

Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” delves into the cavernous depths of mind, perception and memory, even in the mundane experiences of getting ready for a party and taking a walk in the park. The characters Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith live parallel lives facing the impossibility of realizing desire.

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This book depicts a single day in the lives of multiple characters, entering into the inner ramblings of their minds, even their ramblings about the rumblings in their stomachs.

When James Joyce’s “Ulysses” hit book stands in 1918, it scandalized the masses. The book defied literary conventions and upturned common decency. Censors at the time, according to New York Times’ reviewers Charles McGrath and Rivka Galchen, worried that the book would it disrupt the “very fabric of civilization.”

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