5 Books You Read in School (That Everybody Gets Wrong)

You probably read some pretty famous works of literature during high school. And by “read,” we mean “sorta skimmed for a while before giving up and checking a summary on Wikipedia” (or Encarta, if you’re unspeakably old). Even if you were among the elite who actually finished assigned books on time, chances are that your genitalia-obsessed teenage mind didn’t catch the most interesting details. As a result, far too many of us go through life thinking that those books are boring old crap, when they’re hiding mind-blowing stuff. Like how …

5

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde Is About Jekyll Wanting To Act Like A Jerk

Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is your stereotypical tale of split personalities, right? The mild-mannered Henry Jekyll accidentally creates a potion that causes his animalistic side, Edward Hyde, to periodically erupt, kick-starting an epic grudge match to become the dominant personality and resolve the ultimate question of what man’s “true” self is. The good news, however, is the novel answers that question: We’re all bastards, guys.

Jekyll doesn’t transform because he mixed some ingredients wrong on his homemade cough medicine or something; he transforms because he created that potion intentionally, with the goal of creating an alter-ego through which he can indulge in the sorts of rowdy behavior that a man in his social position couldn’t without being ostracized. Mr. “Hyde” (get it?) is the equivalent of an anonymous social media account you use for the express purpose of being a shithead.

Henry Van der WeydeToday, Hyde would be a moderator on at least 15 subreddits.

Jekyll’s desire to live vicariously through Hyde doesn’t stop when the transformation is completed. He never blacks out or loses time, because what’s the point of creating an abomination of science if you can’t witness the mayhem? Jekyll even goes to the trouble of setting Hyde up with his own house, bank account, and housekeeper, all in the name of ensuring that he has as good a time as possible. Jekyll never feels sorry about his crimes — which include assault, theft, and rape — until Hyde murders someone. It’s only when his disguise is compromised that Jekyll conveniently goes, “Welp, that was fun, time to wrap it up.”

Oh, and by the way, the fact that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person was a twist ending. For readers of the original novel, the book’s intrigue came from trying to figure out how these two jackholes were connected. By this measure, it’s pretty similar to Fight Club. In both cases, someone (Jekyll / the Narrator) creates a toxic personality (Hyde / Tyler Durden) for all his destructive, hedonistic escapades, until the law catches up them and the dominant personality is “killed.”

Wait, forget it. Jekyll And Hyde had a recurring magic potion, and it’s not like a modern-day equivalent shows up in every scene of Fight Clu

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

20th Century FoxHuh.

4

Lolita Is Told From The Point Of View Of An Old Perv; Lolita Never Seduces Him

Despite being mostly known as that book about a young girl who seduces an old guy, Lolita is … not that. It isn’t. It super isn’t. And disagreeing means that you’ve either never read the book or did such a surface-level reading that we’re offended on behalf of words.

The novel is presented as an in-universe diary written by the aforementioned old guy, Humbert Humbert, and what happens is described through his eyes and his feelings. Which is a problem, because he’s a serial child molester. We’re not supposed to trust him, particularly when it comes to describing how young Dolores Haze interacts with him, because he’s the definition of an unreliable narrator. He’s trying really, really hard to convince himself that this kid totally wants to have sex with him.

Penguin“If she didn’t want it, she wouldn’t keep existing and being female at the same time.”

When Humbert describes Dolores’ “seduction,” he talks about her kissing him and sitting on his lap. The kiss, however, is Dolores teasing Humbert about how he hasn’t kissed her mom yet, and the sitting thing, well … that’s explained by the fact she thinks he’s a normal guy who wants to bang her mom. Oh, we forgot to mention: Humbert is so obsessed with “Lolita” (his private nickname for her) that he plans to marry her mom in order to keep it in the family, as it were — although this might all be part of her diabolical seductive machinations, that mind-controlling minx.

When Dolores doesn’t play along, he straight up manipulates her. The preface to their first sexual encounter involves Humbert drugging her, and when that doesn’t work, he exploits her childlike naivety — a result of, you know, being a child — to trick her into bed. There’s no “seduction” here, just a predator and his prey.

The Samuel Goldwyn CompanyThe bow tie should have given it away.

The second act of the novel sees the two drifting around the country together and involved in a long-term sexual relationship. Even then, there’s no seduction. It’s clear from the words on page that Humbert has all the power emotionally, physically, and sexually. He’s successfully stunted her emotional growth to the point where it takes him beating her before she flees … into the arms of another pedophile, because she has such a screwed-up idea of sex and relationships. (Side note: If you’re about to complain that “pedophile” isn’t the correct term, pick a less disgusting hill to die on, buddy.)

This misconception is fueled by the fact that “Lolita” has come to mean “a seductive adolescent girl,” but that stems from people not getting the novel in the first place. It’s an ouroboros of grossness. Granted, whoever keeps picking these covers isn’t helping, either.

“What? It’s about lollipops, right?”

3

The Great Gatsby Is A Nihilistic Tragedy Disguised As A Love Story

Even if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, you can probably wager — from the movie posters, if nothing else — that it’s some kind of love story set against the backdrop of the roaring ’20s, postwar disillusionment, and polio. That’s the magic of advertising, however. You can’t trust it. In the same way that it’s not a how-to guide for holding bangin’ parties, The Great Gatsby is not a romance, but an existentially chilling tragedy wrapped in the trappings of a romantic yarn.

Jay “The Great” Gatsby meets the object of his affections, the rich socialite Daisy, when he’s a simple soldier about to be shipped out to World War I. They have a short-lived affair, which ends with Daisy promising to wait for Gatsby whilst he’s away getting machine-gunned in a field. She then proceeds to get married and break up with him via letter (for our younger readers, those are like text messages that you print out). This breaks Gatsby’s brain, and he becomes obsessed with winning her back, a plan which involves becoming preposterously rich, buying the gigantic mansion which sits opposite hers, and then ravin’ the night away with expensive all-get-out parties. Instead of ending up giving handjobs for money, he somehow does all that.

Warner Bros. Pictures“Want a free handjob, old sport? Yes, I’m that rich.”

Of course, these parties are nothing but an excuse to keep inviting Daisy over, in the hope that she’ll see that Gatsby is on her level, both status- and money-wise. She foils this scheme by declining every invitation, and it’s only by manipulating a mutual friend that Gatsby is able to get her in the same room as him. Daisy eventually gets involved with him … but only as a way of getting back at her also-cheating husband. The hubby discovers the Gatsby/Daisy OTP and breaks the pair up, but not before revealing that Gatsby is only rich because he’s a filthy bootlegger (the only honorable way to get money is through a trust fund).

As a final screw you, Daisy’s husband allows her to drive Gatsby back home. On the way, Daisy kills her husband’s mistress (maybe by accident, maybe intentionally). Gatsby takes the fall in order to save Daisy from jail, and later is gunned down by the bereaved husband of “his” victim.

Warner Bros. PicturesLeonardo DiCaprio’s greatest enemy strikes again: water.

Throughout the novel, Gatsby goes to great lengths for love, only to watch as everything crumbles around him. He loses Daisy to a man with more status and rebuilds his life to match that ideal, only for her to completely ignore him. He successfully reignites those old passions, only for her to dump him when her own emotional problems are resolved. And then he selflessly saves her from rich person jail, only to wind up dead. The lessons of The Great Gatsby, then, are A) life is meaningless, B) love is an illusion, and C) parties are dope.

2

You Probably Skipped The Trippiest Chapters Of Moby-Dick

You probably know Moby-Dick — or to give its full title, Moby-Dick: The True White Whale Was Friendship All Along — as the story of a man, an angry ocean, and an even angrier whale that deserves to get the ecology-supporting shit beaten out of it. This is all seasoned with a bunch of long, tedious chapters about the minutiae of whaling life, but who bothers with that stuff? You can safely gloss over those moments and still have a perfectly serviceable story.

However, if you choose to absorb all of the information that Herman Melville is desperate for you to know that he knows, you’ll wind up with a book that’s both a good story and deeply weird.

Penguin“Also, the whale could fly. The End.”

On the surface, chapters like “The Sperm Whale’s Head — Contrasted View” and “The Right Whale’s Head — Contrasted View” do nothing but discuss boring whale head trivia. But, as this reviewer notes, it’s not about that. It’s about the ways in which these two species approach death. In the middle of the tale of a whale-obsessed captain with a death wish. As you get lost in all that text, for a moment you become Captain Ahab and share in the various levels of his obsession. We’re pretty sure that merely owning this book makes your beard grow faster.

There are other chapters that serve no greater purpose than to talk about how awesome whales are, but that’s not a bad thing. In skipping this material, you’re missing out on the experience of standing on a metaphorical whaling ship and listening as the captain talks and talks and talks and talks about whales to you, to the point where he isn’t just sporting a visible chub — his chub has a little captain’s hat and a flask of rum. Your loss.

1

1984 Has A Secret Happy Ending (Seriously)

1984 is the iconic story of a man named Winston Smith and his struggle against an all-seeing, all-powerful, all-dancing totalitarian regime. Under the figurehead of “Big Brother,” the government has successfully subjugated the citizens of Oceania through the pure manipulation of information. They distort the media and invent enemies to bind people together, they edit history and all manner of records to retroactively “fix” the past, and they invent Newspeak, a new language that limits expression and therefore what thoughts people can conceive of.

Arc ClassicsSo … Twitter?

The book ends on a downer note, with Winston failing in his attempt to rebel against the system and having the shit kicked out of him. The final message is clear: Big Brother is unstoppable, and will be stamping his authoritarian boot on the face of humanity forever.

Or at least, that’s the final message … if you didn’t read the super-secret last chapter. What most readers of 1984 miss is that the dry, in-universe appendix at the end, “The Principles Of Newspeak,” spells out how Newspeak eventually collapses and takes down the bad guys. Here are some choice snippets:

George Orwell

George Orwell

George OrwellGranted, this isn’t as exciting as dropping the villain on an exploding truck, but few things are.

Yep, it’s all in past tense. It was the official language, it was expected to supersede English, words that were to be suppressed later. This isn’t the coda of an antagonist that wins outright, but the academic equivalent of the sad trombone. So who are the heroes who basically saved everyone’s brains? U-S-A! U-S-A!

See, the downfall of Ingsoc wasn’t the result of some gun-toting rebels; it was words. As the epilogue makes clear, Newspeak was the dominant language, but it wasn’t a complete language. In order to overwrite human thought entirely, Newspeak had to replace every word and concept with a homogenized equivalent. And that posed a problem when it came to words relating to freedom and expression, with the trickiest example given as nothing other than the Declaration of Independence. Namely, the parts about holding “truths to be self-evident,” and “certain inalienable rights,” and “the right of the people to alter or abolish” the government. Presumably, they had the same problem trying to translate Bruce Springsteen lyrics.

Newspeak failed to provide a neutered translation of these concepts, among many others, which allowed them to live on and eventually take root amongst the population. It’s a teachable moment. 1984 is, at its core, a case study in how authoritarian regimes don’t need tanks and troops to impose control. A mastery of information is enough to make people do insane things to their fellow man, as long as it also triggers the Emmanuelibs. The epilogue, however, is the antidote. It demonstrates how state control of information is only as strong as its citizens’ belief in freedom and dissent and rebellion and human rights, and asserts that as long as these ideals are promoted and refuse to die, authoritarianism can never work. Just some food for thought!

Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook, and has a newsletter about depressing history that you should definitely subscribe to.

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