Required reading and summer reading lists have been the bane of students for generations. We find the books boring, wishing that we could spend the time struggling to get through the classics on something we want to read. Surprisingly, several novels have remarkably real stories behind them. They depict adultery, racism, mental illness, crime – all subjects that have just as much relevance today. These real stories behind the classic books you hated reading may make you reconsider the text and discover that we connect with them after all.
1. A friend’s suicide inspired Anna Karenina
When Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy attended the autopsy of one of his friends, Anna Pirogova, in 1872, he barely recognized her broken and bloody body. Investigations into Anna’s death revealed that her lover cast her aside to marry another woman. The heartbroken Anna left a suicide note, and she threw herself under a train at Moscow’s Yasenki Station. While working on another novel more than a year later, the vision of Anna’s body and the circumstances surrounding her death haunted Tolstoy. Putting aside his ambitious project on Peter the Great, he wrote a new story about a respected noblewoman who has an adulterous affair with an aristocrat.
Tolstoy’s novel gives us a perception of what Anna Pirogova’s life and experiences may have been. In Anna Karenina, he draws out the flirtation between Karenina and Vronsky for over a year before they consummate their affair. The author lays all of Karenina’s faults out for his readers while reserving his judgment on her behavior. She is flawed and human, but the reader still wants her to have the happy ending.
In the end, the real Anna and the fictional Anna met the same fate. After Karenina gives up everything to share a life with Vronsky – her respectable marriage, her son, and her reputation – his feelings for her fade. When her lover casts her aside, she commits suicide by throwing herself under a train to escape her humiliation and shame. In his epic on the consequences of ill-fated love, Tolstoy creates one of the most fallible and human characters in Russian literature.
2. Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 as therapy for his PTSD
Although records of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder survive from the ancient period, the medical community did not acknowledge it as a medical condition until the 1970s. With high occurrence in soldiers, shell shock, battle fatigue, and combat stress reaction all presented PTSD symptoms. Further research concluded that it also appeared in survivors of abuse, sexual assault, and other traumatic events. Since the American Psychiatric Association recognized the condition in 1980, its definition and treatment options have been consistently updated based on ongoing research.
In 1942, Joseph Heller served in the US Army as a pilot in bombing raids over Europe. He returned showing symptoms that we now identify with PTSD, such as nervous ticks, anxiety, and sleep disturbance. By 1952, while working in copywriting, Heller turned to writing as a form of therapy. Eventually, he had an idea for a story, inspired by his experiences in World War II. Over the next eight years, Heller developed what began as a short story into a novel.
In 1961, Catch-22 became a best-seller in Europe, months after its publication. Sales were initially slow in the United States, but it eventually found its audience. Published between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the novel’s sarcasm and humor reached pacifists and soldiers alike, and it continues to do so today. The title itself has become its own catchphrase, describing an impossible choice between two bad decisions, even making its way into the American Heritage Dictionary.
3. Fyodor Dostoyevsky based Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment on the 19th-century French murderer Pierre François Lacenaire
In the 1830s, writer Pierre François Lacenaire murdered a transvestite and his mother in one of the most famous homicide cases of nineteenth-century France. Claiming he was an artist commenting on social injustice, Lacenaire admitted to the murders as a form of protest. With the permission of the state, he gave interviews from his jail cell. The fascinated public consumed information about the murderer, and he entertained them, making his trial into his very own press conference. A jury found Lacenaire guilty of his crimes, and he was guillotined in January 1836.
Almost thirty years later, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was working on his new novel, Crime and Punishment. The author wanted his story to explore the psychological effects of committing crimes and the consequences of those crimes. It was a process that Dostoyevsky knew well. In 1849, after he was sentenced to execution for violating censorship laws, he sat in jail for eight months, waiting to die. As he stood on the gallows, the tsar announced that he had commuted Dostoyevsky’s sentence to hard labor.
From his own experience, Dostoyevsky insisted that waiting for punishment was much worse than the sentence itself. While drafting the plot of Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky learned the details of the Lacenaire case, using court records to construct the events of the novel. When Raskolnikov murders Alyona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta, he uses an ax, just as Lacenaire used on his victims. Raskolnikov’s justification for his actions that the murders are justified because they will improve society is strikingly similar to Lacenaire’s commentary throughout his trial.
4. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” criticized the 19th-century medical profession’s treatment of women’s mental illness after her failed “rest cure” brought her to the brink of insanity
In the nineteenth century, doctors and physicians didn’t understand mental illness, especially in women. Confined to the domestic sphere, women were expected to find fulfillment in marriage and motherhood, with little opportunities to explore careers or personal ambitions. Some women found happiness in their domestic lives; the ones who did not often suffered from symptoms of depression, anxiety, and heightened emotional displays. Diagnosed with hysteria, a blanket medical term for psychological conditions in women, many doctors prescribed the “rest cure,” which entailed restricted daily activities and very little intellectual or artistic exposure.
American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of these women who felt overwhelmed by the domestic expectations of her. Prone to depression for most of her life, her 1884 marriage and the subsequent birth of her daughter made her condition worse. Her physician prescribed the rest cure, forbidding her from writing ever again. Months later, Gilman’s depression led her to thoughts of suicide. Disregarding her doctor’s orders, she started writing again, and her depression lifted. In response to her failed medical treatment, Gilman used her personal experiences with mental illness as inspiration for her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
The narrator, experiencing symptoms of depression, is isolated in an upstairs bedroom, where she becomes fascinated by its damaged yellow wallpaper. Without contact with the outside world, the narrator loses her grip on reality, and she slips into madness. Describing a woman’s mental decline during her rest cure, Gilman criticizes the nineteenth-century medical profession’s treatment of women’s mental health. Gilman sent a copy of her story to her doctor to convince him of the error of his methods; he never responded.
5. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of his own prison sentence in a gulag camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Serving in the Red Army during World War II, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn witnessed war crimes that made him doubt his faith in the government. In February 1945, counter-intelligence agents recovered letters that Solzhenitsyn wrote that criticized the Soviet Regime. That July, he was convicted of “anti-Soviet propaganda” and sentenced to eight years of hard labor in a gulag camp. He served most of his sentence in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, where he became a miner and a mason. In 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released from the gulag to spend the rest of his life in southern Kazakhstan as a political exile.
Solzhenitsyn recorded his experiences in would become One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The author unapologetically exposes the harsh conditions of the gulags. Describing events and realities of his daily life as a prisoner, Solzhenitsyn used Ekibastuz as the model for the camp in the novel. After Stalin died in 1953, the new government released about one million prisoners, including Solzhenitsyn himself. He published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, with the support of Nikita Khrushchev, who – give or take some mild censoring – encouraged anti-Stalinist rhetoric to distance himself from the regime.
Writing his main character as a representation of himself, Solzhenitsyn shared the brutality of the camps as only someone who experienced it. Ivan Denisovich is a normal man in extraordinary circumstances. He is more concerned with surviving that day, knowing that there will be one after it, rather than engage in conversation with his fellow inmates. Although Solzhenitsyn wrote continuously throughout his life, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is his most influential work.
6. Mary Shelley had a nightmare that turned into Frankenstein
The daughter of the nineteenth-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley found her own fame as an author amidst the scandal of her personal life. She had an affair with the married Percy Shelley, who abandoned his wife for Mary. Living together as husband and wife, Percy and Mary visited their friend Lord Byron in Switzerland during the rainy summer of 1816. Joined by other friends and acquaintances, the party shared ghost stories to pass the time. One night, Lord Byron suggested that each of the writers develop their own ghost story.
Mary struggled to think of a scary story. One night, after the party’s discussion on whether or not a corpse could come back to life through electric shock, she dreamed of a man who did just that. Using what she saw in her dream, Mary wrote the beginnings of Frankenstein. Percy inspired her to develop her idea, and Mary expanded her short story into a novel over the next year, publishing it anonymously in January 1818.
Mary Shelley’s focus on death in her work isn’t surprising. After her mother died in childbirth eleven days after she was born, Mary lost most of her friends and family to tragic circumstances. Both her sister Fanny and Percy Shelley’s first wife committed suicide, and only one of her five children with her husband survived childhood. After they moved to northern Italy, Percy Shelley drowned during a boating trip in 1822. For the rest of her life, Mary consistently published her writing, which ranged from novels and short stories to biographies and essays. They didn’t bring her the success of Frankenstein, which has consistently remained in print for two hundred years.
7. “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” was the model for Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins
The story of Karana in the children’s novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, allows the young mind to wonder, “What would I do if I was left alone on a deserted island?” Author Scott O’Dell based Karana’s adventures on the true story of the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.” In the nineteenth century, Spanish and Russian settlements stretched from Alaska to California. The Nicoleño, a Uto-Aztecan tribe, lived on San Nicolas Island, located about sixty miles off the Pacific Coast. A group of Alaskan natives who traded for the Russians attacked the Nicoleño tribe, leaving most of the tribe dead.
Twenty years later, in 1835, a ship arrived to transport the remaining Nicoleño to a Spanish mission. As the crew loaded the tribe on the boat, a storm forced the ship to leave before securing everyone on board. In 1853, the fur trapper George Nidever, fascinated by rumors of a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island, left California to rescue her. One of his men found her on the island living in a hut made of whale bones. The crew brought the middle-aged woman to the Santa Barbara Mission, but language barriers prevented her from communicating with anyone.
“The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” lived with George Nidever and his family at the mission. Seven weeks after she arrived, the Spanish priests baptized her as Juana Maria before she died of dysentery. There are several versions of her experiences, with later editions slightly embellished. One account claims that Juana Maria was on the boat in 1835, but she jumped off to retrieve her younger brother. Although Scott O’Dell included this in the plot of Island of the Blue Dolphins, its authenticity is unlikely, as the story did not appear in the written record until thirty years after Juana died.
8. The Hound of the Baskervilles resulted from a chance encounter with a journalist
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a trained physician who reached worldwide fame with his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle based his character of Sherlock Holmes after one of his teachers from medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell. Known for his emphasis on observation in making a medical diagnosis, Bell could infer someone’s recent activities just by observing them; he later worked with forensic experts on murder investigations, including the Jack the Ripper case. After eight years of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle ended his series with Holmes’ death in the story “The Final Problem,” published in 1893.
The author shocked his fans by killing off their favorite character, and the public demanded another Sherlock Holmes story. Returning home from volunteering as a physician during the Second Boer War, he befriended the English journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson on the ship. A year later, when Doyle and Robinson met again in Devon, England, they decided to collaborate on a novel. The journalist shared folklore stories of the seventeenth-century squire Richard Cabell, who had sold his soul to the Devil. After Cabell’s death in 1677, the townspeople of Devon reported seeing hellhounds, or ghost figures of black dogs, around his grave.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle recounted the legend in the background story of Hugo Baskerville, who was killed by hellhounds after he cursed his family by making a deal with the Devil. Although Robinson reportedly was supposed to collaborate on this particular work, there is much debate on how much input the journalist had on the story. Although Doyle acknowledged his friend’s contributions, he seemingly backtracked later, in 1907, claiming that “My story was really based on nothing save a remark of my friend Fletcher Robinson’s that there was a legend about a dog on the moor connected with some old family.”
9. Lewis Carroll was obsessed with his friend’s daughter, his muse for the heroine in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
In 1862, while on a boat trip, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, entertained three of his friend’s daughters with a silly story that he made up about a girl named Alice who fell down a rabbit hole. Ten-year-old Alice Liddell enjoyed the story so much that she asked her father’s friend to write it down. He eventually did so, expanding upon it and publishing it as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Alice’s influence on the story is uncertain, but there is much commentary on the relationship between the author and his supposed muse.
There is intense speculation that Dodgson may have been a pedophile. He photographed nude children and young girls, but he denied throughout his life that his art (and his storytelling) had any erotic elements. Some of his later biographers claim that his excessive interest in prepubescent girls to be an obsession, rather than a stylistic choice. Others insist that naked children were symbols of innocence in the Victorian period, and his work reflects the artistic trends of the era.
There is also some suggestion that the end of Dodgson’s friendship with the Liddell family roots from his desire to marry the young Alice. While their relationship remains a controversy between modern scholars, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland became a best-seller. Alice Liddell kept the copy that Dodgson wrote for her, then titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, throughout her entire life. Financial difficulties forced her to sell her original manuscript in 1926 when she was in her seventies; it is now housed in the British Library.
10. Louisa May Alcott embellished her own family life in Little Women
Louisa May Alcott was an American poet, novelist, and activist. Her novel, Little Women, documented the trials of the March family during the Civil War. She found much success with this novel, and she wrote two sequels. It has been adapted in movies and miniseries since the 1930s, with the latest version to be released this year. Born in 1832, Alcott wrote stories as a childhood hobby, later establishing herself as an author in adulthood.
During the Civil War, Alcott volunteered as a nurse at a Union hospital, criticizing cold-hearted physicians and poorly managed hospitals in her publications. After the war was over, she started writing Little Women. The March sisters are Alcott’s literary interpretations of her and her sisters, although her fictional characters are much younger than their real-life counterparts. As the March sisters learn to do without during the war, their experiences echo Alcott’s childhood, when her parents struggled with finances.
Although Alcott used her family’s experiences in the novel, she did embellish the truth in parts of the story. While Jo, the fictional version of herself, married her friend and mentor Professor Bhaer, Alcott was an ardent feminist who never married. Louisa and her father constantly argued: Bronson Alcott disapproved of his daughter’s outspoken nature and he openly criticized her writing. In Little Women, Mr. March is a Civil War hero who embraces Jo’s independent spirit. In characterizing the fictional patriarch, Alcott created the father she wished she had.
11. Herman Melville used the events of the Essex shipwreck in 1820 in the plot of Moby Dick
Born into a merchant family, Herman Melville became a sailor at nineteen years old. Although his career on the sea didn’t last long, he used his experiences as inspiration for several of his works. While serving on the whaling ship the Acushnet, he met the young sailor William Henry Chase. Melville’s new friend gave him a copy of a book that his father wrote twenty years before, entitled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. In the memoir, First Mate Owen Chase described the terrifying ordeal he survived at sea.
In 1820, the Essex sank in the Pacific Ocean after a sperm whale attacked it. Twenty crewmen piled into small boats, saving only a little food and water. While drifting on the sea, trying to find land, members of the crew died of dehydration and exposure. As the food ran out, the survivors resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead crewmates. After three months, rescuers only recovered eight survivors. Melville used details from Chase’s account in his new novel, Moby Dick.
The fictional whale in Melville’s novel also existed: in the nineteenth century, a real albino sperm whale lived off the coast of Chile. For twenty-eight years, whalers attempted to hunt “Mocha Dick” without success. In his pamphlet “Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific,” published in 1839, sea explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds explained that the whale was not violent until provoked, but he was finally killed in 1838. When the hunters recovered Mocha, they counted almost 20 harpoons stuck in his body from past attacks. This pamphlet no doubt inspired the personification of the great white whale that became Captain Ahab’s obsession.
12. Harper Lee’s father, Truman Capote, and a strange neighbor all inspired memorable characters from To Kill a Mockingbird
When the novelist Harper Lee began shopping around her first manuscript, known then as Go Set a Watchman, publishers told her she had a good story, but she was a new writer who needed guidance. After working with an editor, Lee eventually published her only novel, renamed To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960. After she won the Pulitzer Prize, Lee withdrew from the public eye, refusing to do interviews or press tours, overwhelmed by her new fame.
In a few published articles over the years, she denied that the novel was autobiographical. However, much like Louisa May Alcott and her sisters, Lee’s characters resemble some of her family and friends. Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, the inspiration for Atticus Finch, was an attorney who defended two clients, an African-American father and son, Brown and Frank Ezell, on charges of murdering a Caucasian shopowner. Lee was unsuccessful in his defense, and the men were found guilty and executed.
When she was a little girl, Lee befriended Truman Capote, who lived with relatives nearby; he became the model for Dill, Scout’s best friend in the novel. He would become a successful author in his own right, with books like Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. According to Capote, Boo Radley was based on a real person from their neighborhood. Harper and Truman remained friends into their adult years, and she traveled with him to research his book, In Cold Blood.
13. Truman Capote investigated an ongoing murder case for In Cold Blood
After the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote read an article in the New York Times about the brutal murder of the Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. Intrigued, Capote and his childhood friend Harper Lee traveled to Kansas to document the case. They interviewed almost every person involved in the murder investigation, as well as many members of the community. Using the information, Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood.
The patriarch of the Clutter family, Herb Clutter, was a prosperous farmer in the small town, respected for his kindness and fair wages for his laborers. One of Herb’s former laborers, Floyd Wells, was in jail at the Kansas State Penitentiary when he told his cellmate, Richard “Dick” Hickock, that Clutter kept massive amounts of cash on his property. After Hickock and another friend, Perry Smith, were paroled, they planned to rob the Clutter family.
The two men entered the Clutter home and woke the family to find the stashed money. When the family informed the robbers that there was no cash on the property, the men tied up the family while they looked for valuables. After a disappointing take, they murdered the Clutter family to eliminate witnesses. When Wells heard of the Clutter family murders, he informed the authorities that he believed that Hickock was responsible. Hickock and Smith confessed to the killings after their arrests.
Published in serial form in 1966, In Cold Blood made Capote one of the most famous writers of the 1960s. The public consumed the book, but Capote’s colleagues criticized his writing style. The relatives and friends of the Clutters disapproved of Capote’s representation of the murders, and they condemned the book and the movie adaptation that followed. Capote himself labeled his work as a “nonfiction novel,” and In Cold Blood led to a resurgence in true crime stories.
14. Agatha Christie used the Lindbergh kidnapping as a plot device in Murder on the Orient Express
Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, mystery writer Agatha Christie featured her character, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, in a series of stories and novels. Using her own life experiences and a famous American kidnapping case, Christie created one of her best-known tales, Murder on the Orient Express. In December 1931, Agatha Christie boarded the Orient Express to return home from her archaeologist husband’s excavation in Nineveh. She observed her fellow travelers, many of whom inspired the characters that appear in the novel.
Four months after Christie’s experience on the train, one of the most famous kidnapping cases in history made international news. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris made history. The army officer received the Medal of Honor, and he promoted air travel with his new fame. Unfortunately, that recognition made him a target. On March 1, 1932, his son Charles Jr. was kidnapped. Even though the Lindberghs paid the ransom, the abductors murdered the child and left his body almost five miles away from his home. A truck driver discovered Charles, Jr.’s body about ten weeks after he went missing. Charles Jr.’s fate captivated the nation, and several labeled his kidnapping and murder as the “Crime of the Century.”
News of the little boy’s fate reached Europe, as Lindbergh was a global celebrity. In letters to her husband, Christie confirmed that she had already begun drafting parts of her new novel, in which Poirot investigates a murder onboard a train. In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie documented the strange characters she encountered on the train a few months before. When Christie read the news of Charles Lindbergh Jr.’s death, she incorporated the American kidnapping case into the plot, connecting Poirot’s investigation to the kidnapping and murder of Daisy Armstrong.
15. Robert Louis Stevenson’s drinking partner killed his wife and became Mr. Hyde
A student of human personalities, Robert Louis Stevenson believed that every man could be good and evil. In searching for inspiration for his novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he didn’t have to look very far. In May 1878, Stevenson attended the trial of his friend Eugene Chantrelle, a French teacher accused of poisoning his wife after taking out an insurance policy on her. With the discovery of Mrs. Chantrelle’s nightgown, which contained evidence of a lethal dose of opium, Chantrelle was found guilty of the crime. The thought that his friend and drinking companion killed his wife in such a calculating manner remained in Stevenson’s mind for years afterward.
One night, in 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson was trying to think of a good story that would demonstrate the duality of a man’s personality. His wife, Fanny, heard him screaming in his sleep, and she woke him from his nightmare; he scolded his wife that she interrupted “a fine bogey-tale.” According to his family, Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feverishly, going days on end without rest. This episode, recounted in Graham Balfour’s biography of Stevenson, details that when Fanny woke him, Stevenson was dreaming of the first transformation of the shy Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.
16. Minstrel shows destroyed the legacy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
In the nineteenth century, the United States was in turmoil over “the slavery question.” Pro-slavery factions resisted the growing abolitionist movement that called for the end of the practice as violence escalated across the nation. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an author and vocal abolitionist from a prominent Calvinist family. While living in Cincinnati, she met several free blacks who shared their experiences in slavery. These experiences would encourage her in her abolitionist writings.
Some escaped slaves detailed their journeys to freedom in a new literary genre: the slave narrative. In 1849, Josiah Henson wrote of his experiences in his memoir, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Using the Underground Railroad, he left Maryland and settled in Canada, where he helped other escaped slaves start new lives. The following year, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law threatened to prosecute anyone who helped runaway slaves, even in free states.
After Harriet Beecher Stowe read Henson’s account, she wrote a novel about slavery in the United States in protest of the Fugitive Slave Act. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 had two goals: to strengthen the abolitionist movement and to help slaveowners sympathize with their slaves. It became the most famous American novel of the nineteenth century, bringing the conditions of slavery front and center to an already volatile nation.
In the aftermath of the novel’s popularity, minstrel shows traveled around the country, even making an appearance in Europe, to entertain the masses. These “Tom shows” made fun of Stowe’s characters, emphasizing ethnic stereotypes. They continued to tour until the early twentieth century, when these negative images transferred to the film industry. Reaching an even wider audience, these representations have lasted through the decades, having a lasting effect on depictions of African-Americans in the media. In recent years, scholars have reexamined Uncle Tom’s Cabin for what it is: a novel that became an effective political weapon.
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