20 Of The Best Literary Novels

Literary novels are distinct from the various fiction genres. They are distinguished by their profound exploration of the human condition, their intricate use of language, and their commitment to provoking thought and discussion. Unlike genre fiction, which adheres to specific conventions and narrative structures, literary novels venture into uncharted territories, delving into the complexities of human emotion, the nuances of human relationships, and the profound questions that shape our existence.

At the heart of literary novels lies a deep fascination with the inner lives of characters. These characters are not mere plot devices or caricatures; they are intricate beings with motivations, desires, and fears that resonate with readers on a deeply personal level. Literary novelists delve into the psyche of their characters, exposing their vulnerabilities, their contradictions, and their moments of triumph and despair.

Language, in the hands of a literary novelist, transforms into a powerful tool for evoking vivid imagery, creating palpable atmosphere, and conveying the subtlest of emotions. Literary novels are not merely stories to be read; they are experiences to be absorbed, with each word carefully chosen to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and stir the emotions that lie beneath the surface.

The themes explored in literary novels are not merely superficial plot points; they are the very essence of human existence. Love, loss, identity, the meaning of life – these are the profound questions that literary novelists grapple with, often challenging readers’ preconceived notions and inviting them to engage with the world in a new light. Literary novels are not meant to provide easy answers; they are meant to provoke thought, to spark debate, and to challenge readers to confront the complexities of the human experience.

Reading a literary novel is not merely a passive act of consuming words; it is an active engagement with the human condition. It is a journey into the depths of the human psyche, a confrontation with the profound questions that shape our lives, and an exploration of the beauty and complexity of language. Literary novels offer a window into the human experience, inviting readers to reflect on their own lives and their place in the world.

We have chosen twenty of the thousands of literary novels as examples of the finest in that category.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, 1605

Don Quixote is a literary landmark, offering a satirical and profound exploration of chivalry, folly, and the human spirit. Set in 17th-century Spain, the novel follows the adventures of Alonso Quijano, an aging hidalgo who has lost himself in the romanticized world of knight-errantry.

Inspired by tales of noble knights and valiant deeds, Quijano transforms himself into Don Quixote, a self-proclaimed champion of virtue and defender of the oppressed. Accompanied by his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, Don Quixote embarks on a series of misadventures, mistaking mundane objects for fearsome dragons and ordinary people for noble damsels.

Cervantes masterfully employs satire and humour to expose the absurdity of Don Quixote’s delusions, while simultaneously revealing the depth of his character and the enduring power of his ideals. Don Quixote’s unwavering commitment to his chivalric code, despite his constant setbacks and humiliations, serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Through his interactions with a diverse cast of characters, from humble peasants to cunning rogues, Don Quixote confronts the harsh realities of the world, yet never fully relinquishes his belief in the goodness of humanity. His unwavering optimism and unwavering spirit serve as a beacon of hope in a world often consumed by cynicism and disillusionment.

Don Quixote’s enduring legacy lies in its ability to transcend time and genre, offering a timeless commentary on the nature of reality, the power of imagination, and the enduring struggle between idealism and pragmatism.

The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, 1759-1767

The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a postmodern novel that defies traditional narrative conventions. The novel is a digressive and unconventional account of the life of Tristram Shandy, told from his own perspective.

Sterne employs a variety of literary techniques, including self-reflexivity, metafiction, and digressions, to create a unique and challenging reading experience. Tristram Shandy is a must-read for fans of postmodern literature and experimental fiction.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813

Pride and Prejudice stands as a timeless literary masterpiece, offering a witty and insightful exploration of love, class, and the societal expectations placed upon women in 19th-century England. Set in the countryside of Hertfordshire, the novel follows the Bennet sisters, particularly the spirited and independent Elizabeth Bennet, as they navigate the intricate social world of the Regency era.

At the heart of the narrative lies the captivating relationship between Elizabeth and the proud and aloof Mr. Darcy. Their initial encounters are marked by misunderstandings and prejudice, but as they delve deeper into each other’s personalities, they begin to challenge their preconceived notions and discover a mutual respect and admiration.

Austen masterfully employs irony and social commentary to expose the superficiality and hypocrisy that often characterize the upper class society of her time. She challenges the rigid expectations placed upon women, particularly the notion that marriage is the only means to secure social standing and financial stability.

Through Elizabeth’s witty observations and Darcy’s gradual transformation, Austen demonstrates the power of self-reflection and the ability to overcome personal pride and prejudice. The novel culminates in a satisfying resolution, as Elizabeth and Darcy find love and happiness while upholding their own values and independence.

Pride and Prejudice remains a beloved classic for its engaging characters, its timeless themes, and its enduring relevance in modern society. Austen’s sharp wit and perceptive social commentary continue to captivate readers, making Pride and Prejudice a literary treasure that will undoubtedly endure for generations to come.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, 1847: A Timeless Tale of Self-Discovery and the Pursuit of Love

Jane Eyre is a literary masterpiece that has engaged readers for generations. Set against the backdrop of 19th-century England, the novel follows the journey of Jane Eyre, an orphan raised in the harsh and oppressive environment of Lowood Institution, as she navigates the complexities of love, independence, and self-discovery.

After enduring years of mistreatment and neglect at Lowood, Jane secures a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall, the grand estate of the enigmatic Mr. Rochester. Within the walls of Thornfield, Jane’s life takes an unexpected turn as she develops a deep and passionate connection with her enigmatic employer.

Their relationship, however, is fraught with challenges and obstacles, as Mr. Rochester’s past harbours a dark secret that threatens to unravel their blossoming love. Jane’s unwavering strength and resilience shine through as she confronts societal expectations, grapples with her own inner turmoil, and ultimately asserts her right to happiness and fulfilment.

Brontë’s prose is infused with vivid imagery, emotional depth, and a keen understanding of the human condition. She masterfully explores themes of love, loss, social class, and the individual’s quest for self-determination. Jane Eyre’s journey from a powerless orphan to a self-assured woman serves as an enduring testament to the power of the human spirit and the unwavering pursuit of personal fulfilment.

Jane Eyre remains a timeless classic, captivating readers with its intense story of love, resilience, and the pursuit of self-discovery. Brontë’s masterful storytelling continues to inspire and empower readers, making Jane Eyre a literary treasure that will undoubtedly endure for generations to come.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, 1847

Wuthering Heights is a classic of Gothic literature, offering a passionate and haunting tale of love, revenge, and the destructive power of obsessive passion. Set on the windswept moors of Yorkshire, the novel chronicles the tumultuous relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, two orphaned children who are drawn to each other by a deep and primal attraction.

Brontë’s prose is infused with a wild and romantic spirit, capturing the intensity of Catherine and Heathcliff’s love and the destructive forces that ultimately tear them apart. Wuthering Heights is a complex and multi-layered novel, exploring themes of love, loss, revenge, and the duality of human nature.

Brontë’s masterpiece continues to captivate and disturb readers today, making Wuthering Heights a truly unforgettable and thought-provoking work of literature.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, 1851

Moby-Dickis an epic and philosophical novel that explores the nature of obsession, good versus evil, and the relationship between man and nature. Set on the Pequod, a whaling ship, the novel follows the journey of Ishmael, a young sailor, and Captain Ahab, a monomaniacal captain who is obsessed with hunting down and killing the white whale, Moby Dick.

Melville’s prose is infused with lyricism and poetic imagery, as he captures the grandeur and beauty of the sea as well as the dark and dangerous forces that lie beneath the surface. Moby-Dick is a complex and multi-layered novel, offering a rich and rewarding experience for readers of all ages.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 1853

Bleak House is a sprawling and Dickensian novel that satirizes the British legal system and the social injustices of Victorian England. Set in London, the novel follows the lives of several characters who are involved in a long-running court case known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Dickens’ prose is infused with wit, humour, and social commentary, as he exposes the hypocrisy and corruption of the British legal system. Bleak House is a complex and multi-layered novel, offering a rich and rewarding experience for readers of all ages.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert 1857

Madame Bovary is a realist novel that explores the themes of adultery, social class, and the pursuit of romantic ideals. Set in provincial France, the novel follows the life of Emma Bovary, a young woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage and seeks fulfilment in a series of extramarital affairs.

Flaubert’s prose is precise and objective, as he meticulously details Emma’s descent into despair and ruin. Madame Bovary is a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic idealism and the importance of finding contentment in one’s life.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, 1869

War and Peace is an epic novel that chronicles the lives of several Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is a sweeping and panoramic exploration of war, peace, love, and loss.

Tolstoy’s prose is infused with lyricism and philosophical depth, as he offers insights into the human condition and the nature of war and peace. War and Peace is a masterpiece of world literature and a must-read for anyone interested in human history and the human experience.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1877

Anna Karenina offers a profound and sweeping exploration of love, society, and the individual’s quest for happiness. Set against the backdrop of 19th-century Russia, the novel interweaves the stories of several characters, each grappling with their own desires, disappointments, and societal expectations.

At the heart of the narrative lies the forbidden love between Anna Karenina, a married woman trapped in a loveless marriage, and Count Alexei Vronsky, a passionate and charismatic military officer. Their affair defies societal norms and challenges the rigid expectations of the Russian aristocracy.

Tolstoy masterfully portrays the complexities of human relationships, the struggles between personal desires and societal constraints, and the pursuit of happiness in a world often defined by tradition and status. Anna’s yearning for love and fulfilment, despite the consequences of her actions, evokes empathy and understanding in the reader.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1885

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a cornerstone of American literature, weaving a poignant and humorous narrative of friendship, adventure, and the enduring power of innocence. Set against the backdrop of the pre-Civil War Mississippi River, the novel follows the journey of Huckleberry Finn, a mischievous and resourceful young boy who embarks on a perilous escape downriver with the runaway slave Jim.

Through Huck’s insightful and often irreverent observations, Twain exposes the deep-rooted prejudices and hypocrisy that permeated American society during this era. Huck’s growing friendship with Jim challenges his ingrained notions of race and slavery, forcing him to confront the complexities of morality and the injustice of societal norms.

As Huck and Jim navigate the dangers of the river and the harsh realities of the world, their bond deepens, and they find solace and support in each other’s company. Twain masterfully captures the innocence and resilience of childhood, while simultaneously offering a scathing critique of the social and moral failings of his time.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains a beloved classic for its captivating characters, its timeless themes of friendship and freedom, and its enduring relevance in modern society. Twain’s masterful storytelling continues to inspire and challenge readers.

Ulysses by James Joyce,1922

Ulysses is a modernist masterpiece that revolutionized the way novels are written. Set in Dublin on a single day, the novel follows the lives of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus as they navigate the city and their own thoughts and memories.

Joyce employs a variety of literary techniques, including stream-of-consciousness narration, multiple perspectives, and allusions to other works of literature, to create a complex and challenging work of art. Ulysses is a rewarding read for those who are willing to engage with its experimental form and its rich tapestry of allusions and symbolism.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, 1924

A Passage to India is a complex and nuanced exploration of British colonialism and Indian culture. Set in Chandrapore, a fictional city in India, the novel follows the lives of several characters, both British and Indian, as they navigate the complex social and political landscape of colonial India.

Forster’s prose is infused with empathy and understanding, as he portrays the challenges and triumphs of both the British and Indian characters. He explores the themes of colonialism, racism, and cultural misunderstanding with sensitivity and insight, offering a unique perspective on the complex relationship between Britain and India.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925

Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, stands as a timeless literary landmark, capturing the essence of the Roaring Twenties and the pursuit of the elusive American Dream. Set against the backdrop of lavish West Egg, Long Island, the novel unravels the enigmatic life of Jay Gatsby, a millionaire driven by an unyielding passion for Daisy Buchanan, a woman he loved and lost years ago.

Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a young Midwesterner drawn into Gatsby’s opulent world, the novel unveils the stark contrast between the extravagant parties and the underlying moral decay that permeates society. Gatsby’s relentless pursuit of Daisy, fuelled by an idealized past, leads to a tragic climax, exposing the emptiness and disillusionment that lie beneath the surface of wealth and privilege.

Fitzgerald’s masterful use of language paints a vivid portrait of the era, capturing the frenetic energy, the superficiality, and the underlying despair of the characters who inhabit Gatsby’s world. His prose is infused with symbolism, metaphor, and imagery, creating a rich tapestry that invites readers to delve into the complexities of human emotion, social aspiration, and the pursuit of an unattainable dream.

The Great Gatsby‘s enduring appeal lies in its ability to transcend time and place, speaking to universal themes that resonate with readers across generations. The novel’s exploration of love, loss, the human condition, and the pursuit of happiness continues to captivate and challenge readers, making it a timeless literary classic.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, 1927

To the Lighthouse is a poetic and stream-of-consciousness masterpiece that explores the nature of time, memory, and consciousness. Set on the Ramsay family’s summer home on the Isle of Skye, the novel follows the lives of the Ramsays and their guests over a period of ten years.

Woolf’s prose is infused with lyricism and insight, as she captures the fleeting moments of consciousness and the complex relationships between the characters. To the Lighthouse is a challenging but rewarding read, offering a unique perspective on the human experience.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932

Brave New World is a chilling and prophetic dystopian novel, offering a stark warning against the dangers of conformity, genetic engineering, and the loss of individuality. Set in a futuristic World State, the novel explores a society where humans are artificially created and conditioned to be content in their predetermined roles, devoid of emotional depth or intellectual curiosity.

Through the eyes of Bernard Marx, a non-conformist who is troubled by the imperfections of the World State, Huxley exposes the dark side of utopia, revealing a society where happiness and fulfillment are achieved at the cost of freedom and individuality.

Brave New World offers a timeless commentary on the dangers of totalitarianism and the importance of preserving individual liberty. Huxley’s cautionary tale continues to resonate with readers today, making Brave New World a must-read for anyone interested in the future of humanity.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 1954

Lord of the Flies, a dark and disturbing exploration of human nature, reveals the savagery that lurks beneath the veneer of civilization. Set during World War II, the novel follows a group of British schoolboys who are stranded on a deserted island after their plane is shot down.

Without the guidance of adults, the boys quickly descend into chaos and savagery, as they establish their own hierarchy and create a tribal society where violence and fear reign supreme. Golding’s unflinching portrayal of the boys’ descent into barbarity serves as a chilling reminder of the fragility of civilization and the dark side of human nature.

 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

Lolita is a controversial and thought-provoking masterpiece, offering a deeply disturbing yet poetically rendered exploration of obsession, forbidden love, and the dark underbelly of human desires. Set in post-war America, the novel revolves around the complex and morally ambiguous relationship between Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man, and Dolores Haze, a twelve-year-old girl whom he nicknames Lolita.

Nabokov’s prose is infused with lyricism, irony, and a keen understanding of the human psyche. He delves into the depths of Humbert’s obsession, revealing his twisted justifications and the destructive impact of his desires. Lolita, despite her innocence and vulnerability, emerges as a complex and enigmatic character, a captivating enigma that fuels Humbert’s infatuation.

As their relationship spirals into an abyss of moral corruption and emotional turmoil, Nabokov masterfully exposes the dark side of human nature, challenging conventional notions of morality and exploring the complexities of love, desire, and obsession. Lolita’s enduring legacy lies in its ability to provoke thought, challenge societal norms, and explore the depths of human darkness.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird  delves into the themes of racial injustice, the unwavering spirit of innocence, and the transformative power of empathy. Set amidst the backdrop of the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the 1930s, the novel unfolds through the eyes of Scout Finch, a young girl whose world is irrevocably altered when her father, Atticus Finch, takes on the defence of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.

Through Scout’s perceptive narration, Lee masterfully exposes the deep-rooted prejudices and societal injustices that plagued the American South during this era. Atticus Finch, a beacon of integrity and unwavering moral conviction, emerges as a symbol of hope and resilience, challenging the entrenched racial biases that permeate Maycomb’s social fabric.

As the trial of Tom Robinson unfolds, Scout witnesses firsthand the blatant disregard for truth and justice, while simultaneously grappling with the complexities of human nature and the enduring power of empathy. Lee’s prose, infused with vivid imagery and poignant storytelling, invites readers to confront the harsh realities of racial discrimination while celebrating the unwavering spirit of compassion and understanding.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987

Beloved is a powerful exploration of slavery, trauma, and the legacy of the past. Set in post-Civil War Ohio, the novel follows the journey of Sethe, a former slave who escaped from Sweet Home, a brutal Kentucky plantation, and her struggles to cope with the traumatic memories that continue to haunt her.

Through Sethe’s eyes, Morrison unflinchingly exposes the horrors of slavery and the devastating impact it had on its victims. She explores the complex nature of trauma and the ways in which it can shape and distort the lives of those who have experienced it.

Beloved, more than just a historical novel, is a timeless meditation on the power of memory, the importance of forgiveness, and the resilience of the human spirit. Morrison’s masterful prose and profound insights into the human condition make Beloved a truly unforgettable and transformative work of literature.


And that’s our list of the twenty best literary novels. What’s your take on these – any surprises, or any literary novels not on this list that you feel should make the cut?

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