Novels and NovellasLinks and learning materials about English-language novels and novellas
In my twenty years as an English tutor, I’ve helped my students read, analyze, and write about about any number of novels. In the course of doing so, I’ve developed various materials to help them understand these books and prepare for tests or essays on them. I’ve chosen some of the more polished materials to share here. I’ll add more as time permits.
Click on the name of any novel or novella listed below to open a page with resources related to that work.
Anderson, Laurie Halse
Speak, about a ninth grader who struggles to recover after her life and sense of identity are destroyed by a traumatic act of violence, is one of my favorite books to teach to late middle school or early high school students because it’s written in a compellingly insightful and sarcastic voice and because it’s a powerful tool for teaching empathy.
Speak Study Questions (PDF)
Fahrenheit 451 is a quirky but fascinating and prophetic book that I have enjoyed discussing with many of my students. It’s always an exciting moment for me as a teacher when they, after almost always struggling with Bradbury’s style and ideas initially, make a breakthrough in understanding and appreciating the power of the story.
Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street is a unique coming-of-age story told in the form of a seemingly simple series of vignettes. Despite its brevity, it packs a remarkable dramatic and stylistic punch.
Although most American high school readers struggle a bit with nineteenth-century style, Dickens’s insights into the human condition are universal and timeless. Great Expectations is probably his most widely taught novel in American high schools.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott
I enjoy discussing The Great Gatsby because of how effectively it works on two levels, as both an entertaining story and a rich and carefully crafted work of literature. It also contains keen psychological insights and cogent diagnoses of the problems at the root of American society.
Lord of the Flies is one of those older novels whose combination of writing style, dated dialogue, and subject matter may strike contemporary students as strange and implausible. Those students didn’t spend a year in my junior-year college dorm—and if Golding had, he might have made the novel even more extreme in its depiction of the human capacity for savagery that lies just under the surface of civilization. The truth, demonstrated by human history and college fraternities time and time again, is that the norms of civilized behavior can break down with shocking ease and speed under certain conditions, a phenomenon for which the novel makes a hauntingly compelling case.
The Scarlet Letter is a dense work that has tormented generations of students, though I think it’s the kind of suffering that builds character. Thanks to its many virtues—rich style and symbolism, psychological insights that were remarkable for its time, and well-developed characters, as well as the historical perspective it gives students—it continues to be widely taught as a classic of American literature.
Siddhartha wrestles with deep and difficult philosophical issues in an incisive, memorable, and enjoyable way through the story of one man’s search for enlightenment in ancient India. As a former student of philosophy, I have an abiding fondness for this book. Highly recommended for anyone who is haunted by questions about “the human condition.”
Notes on Siddhartha (PDF)
Dystopian fiction is perhaps my favorite genre of literature, and there a number of dystopian novels that rank among the classics of English-language literature. Brave New World is one of them. Although George Orwell’s 1984 gets more attention from critics, and Orwell’s ideas and insights have rightly been singularly influential, Huxley’s Brave New World presents a different vision of a dystopian future that has also proven disturbingly prescient. Ideally, the two novels should be read together for comparison and contrast. Both novels contain numerous deeply disturbing parallels to contemporary political and social trends.
Among dystopian science fiction novels, Never Let Me Go is unique in its nonconformity to the standard patterns of the genre. It tells its haunting story about the moral hazards of technological advances by focusing on the lives and relationships of children at a boarding school as they grow up together. It’s one of my favorite books, and I spent quite some time combing through it for material to include in the study questions presented here. My notes are an attempt to articulate some of the important themes, issues, and symbols to help students process this rich, complex work.
Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, wakes up one morning to a unique problem: He has transformed into a bug. How can he go to work like this? The Metamorphosis is a weird one, folks…and that’s one reason why I like it. In fact, Kafka’s writings are often so strange and difficult to parse that his name has been immortalized in English as an adjective, Kafkaesque, to describe things that are irrationally and disorientingly complex.
On the Road is a thrill ride of a novel based on Kerouac’s own experiences traveling across the United States in the late 1940s and interacting with other literary figures in the Beat movement. Its style and the stream-of-consciousness manner in which the original draft was written reflect his wild and unconventional attempts to achieve an elevated state of consciousness, often through hedonistic adventures.
The Bean Trees is, at least in the Bay Area where I lived for many years, a widely taught text, in part because it has the virtue of being both accessible to a general audience and rich in material for discussion and reflection. Although it can be read as a feminist novel and a political novel and is powerful on those terms, it’s also a profoundly human novel that makes you care about its characters as people, not just as vehicles for its messages.
For good reason, To Kill a Mockingbird is generally cited as the most popular English-language novel in the United States. It’s a rich portrait of life in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression whose vivid characters and earnest moral message have made a deep impression on many millions of young readers.
Le Guin, Ursula K.
Le Guin was a versatile and prolific writer and a remarkable human being, and I’ve read A Wizard of Earthsea more times than I can remember. It mixes magic and dragons with horror and philosophy and is stylistically unique among fantasy novels. The Tombs of Atuan, the sequel to Wizard and the second book in what eventually became a six-book series, is told from a very different point of view and presents an interesting contrast to its predecessor.
Though Moore’s Watchmen is a graphic novel, its depth and sophistication is such that it made Time‘s All-Time 100 Novels list (more specifically, the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923). Most fundamentally, it’s a superhero story that deconstructs the romanticization of superheroes, presenting them as deeply flawed human beings, but its ambitions go much further than that. Among other things, it’s also a dystopian novel presenting an alternate history of the United States. Read it as you would read the best literature, because that’s what it is—it will reward your time and attention.
Watchmen Study Questions (PDF)
Morrison’s rich, complex, profoundly empathetic novels portray, along with universal truths and unique characters, the many ways in which living in American society affects African Americans and other people of color. The Bluest Eye deals in part with the destructive effects of the pervasiveness of Eurocentric standards of beauty in American media and culture.
The Things They Carried, based on O’Brien’s own experiences before, during, and after his deployment as a soldier in the Vietnam War, is one of the most acclaimed war novels ever written. Stylistically, it’s masterful, skillfully conveying the experience of war and its aftermath to readers who have no comparable experiences. But the novel is most distinguished by its telling of painful, difficult truths, and its exploration of the nature of truth for those in the midst of war and overwhelmed by it.
Animal Farm is the most serious of stories told as a satire about an uprising of farm animals against their human masters. Orwell’s decision to write it as an allegorical fable gives it a sense of timelessness and universality that transcends the very specific historical figures and events it is based on: the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Though its characters are animals, the truths it tells are quintessentially human: the corrupting effect of power, the hypocrisy of those in power, the exploitation of the working class, and the vulnerability of the masses to manipulation through propaganda, intimidation, and the frailties of human psychology. Like Orwell’s novel 1984, Animal Farm is disturbingly relevant to contemporary politics and society.
John Steinbeck has a singular gift for writing stories that are both beautiful and brutal, and Of Mice and Men may be the best example of that gift. The relationship between George and Lennie, two migrant ranch workers in Depression-era California, is moving and gentle, but the world in which they live is harsh and unforgiving.
Notes on Of Mice and Men (PDF)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an important novel for many reasons: its presentation of American themes, issues, and characters; its influence on later writers; its intrinsic quality as a complex, satirical adventure story. It’s also troubling to modern readers for its depiction of the era’s racism and for the racist stereotypes Mark Twain makes use of in the story. However, the novel is still well worth reading and teaching, in part because it offers a good opportunity to deal with those issues directly.
Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five are the only two of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels for which he gave himself an A+. They have all the characteristics of his best writing: satirical humor, absurdity, fascinating science-fiction concepts, and dark commentary on social issues, human nature, and the human condition.
The Loved One is ruthless satirist Evelyn Waugh’s sendup of an unlikely combination of targets: American selfishness and insincerity, the funeral industry, and the snooty British expatriate community in Hollywood. According to critic John Woodburn, “as a piece of writing it is nearly faultless; as satire it is an act of devastation.”
Notes on The Loved One (PDF)