The Definition of a Classic in Literature

Quality, Universality, Longevity

Full Frame Shot Of Books In Shelves

Alfredo Lietor / EyeEm/Getty Images

The definition of a classic piece of literature can be a hotly debated topic. Depending on what you read or of the experience of the person you question on the topic, you may receive a wide range of answers. However, there are some tenets that the classics, in the context of books and literature, have in common.

Qualities of Classic Literature

To be generally agreed upon as a classic, works meet some common high standards for quality, appeal, longevity, and influence.

A classic expresses artistic quality. It is an expression of life, truth, and beauty. A classic piece of literature must be of high quality, at least for the time in which it was written. Although different styles will come and go, a classic can be appreciated for its construction and literary art. It may not be a bestseller today due to pacing and dated language, but you can learn from it and be inspired by its prose.

A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written, and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic. While the term modern classic may apply to books written after World War II, they need longevity to achieve the designation of a simple "classic." A book of recent vintage that is of high quality, acclaim, and influence needs a few generations to determine whether it deserves to be called a classic.

A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch readers to their very core beings, partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses. You can read classics from Jane Austen and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and relate to the characters and situations despite the intervening centuries and changes in every aspect of life. In fact, a classic can alter your view of history to see how little has changed in our basic human makeup.

A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature. Of course, this is partly related to the universal appeal of a classic. But, the classic also is informed by the history of ideas and literature, whether unconsciously or specifically worked into the plot of the text. Likewise, a classic will inspire other writers who come afterward, and you can trace how it influenced works in its own time and down through the decades and centuries.

Classics have relevance to multiple generations of readers. By covering themes universal to the human condition and doing so in a way that stands the test of time, classics remain relevant. Because of the high quality of the characters, story, and writing, people can read classics in their youth and gather an understanding of the author's themes, and then they can read them later in life and see additional layers of truth that they missed previously. The quality enables the work's ability to communicate to multiple age groups and through time.

Using Classic Literature

These qualities of classic literature make them appropriate for study. While younger students may find them less accessible, older students and adults can be enlightened by reading them as part of a formal study, book club, or ongoing reading. To introduce younger readers to the classics, use graphic novel versions, editions simplified for younger readers, or movie adaptations.

For older students of literature, classics have a wide variety of expert information available about them, giving background, such as how and why they were written; analysis of the text; and comments on lasting cultural impact. Classics likely also have study guides that can assist learners in their basic understanding of the text, such as by explaining dated terms and references and providing study questions.