5 Things Gen-Z Can Learn From Classic Literature

by Ethan Chen

Earlier this year, I embarked on a  literary journey: tackling Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, with its twisted verses and old English. In my room, I would read for hours, my night lamp illuminating Lear’s pages. I became frustrated, wondering: “Why am I reading this archaic piece of literature?” But, as I forged through the 17th-century play, I learned that analyzing speech and counting meter was not the only thing King Lear could teach me. The morals entrenched in Shakespeare’s work resonate with me, a Bay Area high school student, centuries after it was written. 

This got me thinking: What other lessons can Generation Z learn from literary classics? Here are five culturally relevant morals that all 21st-century readers should know.

1. King Lear

Let’s start with King Lear, the play that inspired this article. To jog your memory, King Lear centers around the downfall of a former king, overcome with grief and anger. Readers encounter deeply unsettling, gruesome scenes and motifs of savagery and deception. Amid scenes of eye-gouging and raging storms, Shakespeare warns readers of flattery’s blinding spell. A victim to this devious force, King Lear divides his kingdom among his daughters, giving land to Regan and Goneril, his eldest daughters with flattery-coated tongues while banishing Cordelia, his quiet, truthful daughter. After King Lear is abandoned in a storm by Regan and Goneril, he realizes their shallow speech and ungrateful nature. In the unforgiving rain, only the fool — an honest, ironically wise man — stands by Lear’s side. Present-day readers can learn from Lear’s mistake.

Ignore sweet rhetoric and embellished praise. Find friends who speak truth, companions who stand with you in the rain.

2. On the caNnibals

 Written by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “On the Cannibals” teaches readers the power of perspective. In his short essay, Montaigne notes the indigenous Brazilians’ rumored practice of killing, roasting, and eating their enemies. While these “barbaric” habits appalled Westerners, Montaigne argued that the Brazilian natives lived in sync with nature’s “perfect” order. He stated that Europeans failed to acknowledge the savagery ingrained in their own society, seeing the Ameridians as barbarians. For instance, Western society at the time defended slavery as a sign of civilization and class. Petty thieves were burned at the stake; unpopular rulers were beheaded. Montaigne argued the definition of civilization itself is subjective and changes with time and social upbringing. Keep Montaigne’s writing in mind before you judge someone’s actions as irredeemable.

See past your bias, and aim for objective judgment.

3. The Great Gatsby

Often called the “Great American Novel,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has mesmerized generations of Americans. His vivid imagery and evocative language transport readers to the midst of the Roaring Twenties, a time of extravagant parties and Prohibition.  A successful bootlegger, Jay Gatsby, passionately pursues Daisy Buchanan and attempts to assimilate into her social circle of the wealthy elite. A life with Daisy is Gatsby’s “American Dream,” a dream that never comes to fruition. By the novel’s end, Gatsby, along with other working-class characters, die, serving as a sacrifice or “holocaust” for the sins of the aristocratic. Fitzgerald teaches readers about the unattainable nature of the “American Dream” — an ultimate, unshatterable glass ceiling. Fitzgerald’s story is a cautionary tale. However, I believe we should all have Gatsby’s ambition. We should dream big, even if the dreams seem intangible. 

Aspire for greatness, and don’t be confined by societal expectations. Have hope until your last breath, until you “gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” 

4. The Odyssey

Homer’s “The Odyssey” narrates Odysseus’ decade-long journey home after winning the Trojan War. While his wife Penelope awaits his arrival, Odysseus battles mythical monsters, bears Poseidon’s wrath, and represses lustful temptation. However, while Odysseus displays strength and valor by fighting off  Penelope’s encroaching suitors, he’s no perfect hero. Odysseus cheats on his faithful wife; he’s unabashedly prideful; he’s disloyal. Therefore, even though the play’s story is fictional, Odysseus is a relatable protagonist — a man who lives a life of sin and virtue. Even with these negative character traits, Odysseus overcomes the obstacles that hinder his path home.  And he shows us that heroes do not need to be perfect. 

Don’t let personal flaws discourage you from accomplishing your goals. Rise above setbacks and temptation.  

5. Purgatorio

Dante’s Purgatorio is filled with rich allegories. Dante —like readers—must reflect as Virgil guides him through purgatory’s terraces, ultimately reaching the “Earthly Paradise.” In Paradise readers are introduced to the divine griffin, a symbol of Christ. To fully understand this complex image’s meaning, readers must reflect deeply. In fact, throughout this poem, readers must constantly self-reflect, a practice that should become lifelong.  

Between school, work, and other worldly responsibilities, we often lose ourselves. Purgatorio highlights the importance of self-reflection, as it leads to revelations. After all, it was only after reflecting on his journey through purgatory’s terraces that Dante was  “prepared to rise up to the stars.”