20 Defining Quotes From Classic Novels

Every literary novel has several pointers to its main themes worked through the text. Sometimes a few connected words will sum up the theme, and sometimes a strong of words will stand out as offering something truly inspirational related to the theme.

A sentence or phrase in a novel can stir the emotions, and sometimes a sentence or phrase will even become as famous – or more famous – than the novel itself. Here are twenty such defining quotes from classic novels:

 “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone … just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick Carraway , the narrator of this novel, is a moral barometer in that he is presented as having a level of moral rectitude lacking in the other characters. This quotation is the beginning of the novel as an instruction to the reader to reserve judgment as we read the story.

“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.”

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

These lines appear near the end of the novel, after the boys encounter the naval officer, who appears to save them. The joy of the rescue is dampened as Ralph realizes that, although he is saved from death on the island, everything has changed. He has lost his innocence and learned about the evil inside all human beings.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Animal Farm, George Orwell

This is the most famous example of the pigs’ systematic abuse of logic and language to control the other animals and assert their privileges. This reduction of the original Seven Commandments clothes completely senseless content in a seemingly plausible linguistic form.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkein

This follows Gandalf relating the story of the Ring. Frodo is sorry that these things have happened during his lifetime and Gandalf’s reply suggests both a responsibility to do what we have to do, and a lack of control over our fates.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Dr Seuss

There is a ‘you’ protagonist and the story follows him through several strange places, and the reader ends up with a conviction about the benefit of endeavour and adventure.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

At the end of the novel, Sydney Carton is about to be executed by guillotine. He has changed places with another man and in this statement he is contemplating both his own self-sacrifice and the fate of France.

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling

Professor Albus Dumbledore makes this comment to Cornelius Fudge. Cornelius has suggested that ‘Muggles’ and ‘Mudbloods’ are inferior to witches and wizards. Albus responds that it is not pedigree but talent that matters.

 “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

Cathy is telling Nelly, the servant, about her fatal connection to Heathcliff. She recognises that her feelings for Linton, whom she is going to marry, are entirely different to her spiritual relationship with Heathcliff.

 “Not all those who wander are lost.”

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein

This poem was written about Aragorn, a humble human king who undertakes great journeys and explorations. It is also an appeal to the reader to see beyond her own value systems.

 “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Atticus Finch is teaching his son Jem about courage. He wants Jem to understand that courage comes in different forms; they are talking about the death of Mrs Dubose who, successfully fought a morphine addiction then died.

 “What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Raskolnikov overhears a student making a case for justifying the theft and homicide of Alyona, the pawnbroker. He argues that the immorality of murdering an old woman near death who actively harms people seems far outweighed by the benefit in the countless lives her money would improve.

 “A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.”

When We Were Very Young, A.A. Milne

This quote is from a Winnie-the-Pooh poem: its lesson is quite obvious!

 “I shall never be fool enough to turn knight-errant. For I see quite well that it’s not the fashion now to do as they did in the olden days when they say those famous knights roamed the world.”

Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes

The innkeeper is responding to the priest, who has been trying to convince him that books of chivalry are not true. Though the innkeeper defends the books, he says that he will never try to be like Don Quixote because he is sane and knows that knight-errantry is outdated.

“The Answer to the ultimate question of Life, The Universe and Everything is…42!” 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

This answer has become even more famous than the novel. It has taken the supercomputer ‘Deep Thought’ a long time to work out the answer. It’s a useless answer, however, because no-one knows what the ultimate question of life is!

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Mr Micawber offers advice on staying out of debt, something that has plagued his own life.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

This is the opening sentence of the novel. It seems inspirational but it is more cynical. It is the author’s comment on the preoccupation with marrying off their daughters displayed by women of the landed gentry. 

“How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.”

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

The narrator, Ishmael, is forced to share a bed with the tattooed “savage” Queequeg, at the inn. Ishmael is horrified but soon becomes impressed by Queequeg’s dignity and kindness. They spend the night smoking and talking, and they form a close bond in the world of whalers in which merit, rather than race or wealth, determines a man’s status.

“But there is a fatality attends the actions of some men: Order them as they will, they pass through a certain medium which so twists and refracts them from their true directions.”

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne

Tristram is suggesting that fate is not a problem for all people. There are others who can be masters of their own destiny – very few though, while the rest are slaves to fate or money.

If everyone made war only according to his own convictions, there would be no war.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

This occurs at the beginning of the novel, when Pierre and Andrei discuss the reasons that men go to war. Prince Andrei is frank about the fact that men often go to war as a response to personal issues.

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

Winston looks at a children’s history book and marvels at the Party’s control of the human mind. These lines play into the theme of the Party’s psychological manipulation.

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