9 Classic Novels for Students of English as a Foreign Language
Getting to grips with the best of English-language literature can be hard for those learning English as a foreign language.
We’ve provided a list of essential English novels that everyone should read in a previous article, but many of these are likely to prove daunting if you’re not a confident reader of English. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for instance, is a superb novel, but at 316,500 words, it’s no small effort to get through it. Great Expectations is a similarly challenging 196,000 words – and many of Dickens’ novels are much longer. Brideshead Revisited is a more manageable 115,000, but that’s with sentences like the following:
““I have been here before,” I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once, or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.”
… which is hardly easy even for native speakers to follow.
We’ve therefore put together this list of novels. All are the kind of classics that would often make in on to reading lists for higher-level literature courses, as well as cropping up regularly on must-read or greatest-ever-novel lists. And all are either unusually short, or written in relatively simple English, or both.
1. Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
Of Jane Austen’s six novels, Northanger Abbey is the shortest at about 78,000 words. It tells the story of Catherine Morland, a 17-year-old on holiday in Bath as the guest of wealthy neighbours. She is deeply enthusiastic about Gothic novels, the more “horrid”, the better, and has a tendency to imagine their narrative structures and melodrama applying to her own life.
One difficulty of reading Austen is that the writing style for which she is so celebrated – a light, ironic tone – is sometimes hard for non-native English speakers to spot. For instance, the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” isn’t meant with any seriousness, which isn’t necessarily obvious. Austen was a less experienced writer when she first wrote Northanger Abbey, and so while the same irony persists, it tends to be a bit blunter and more overt. Its opening, for example, explains that Catherine’s father was “not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters”, in contrast with the overbearing fathers of Gothic novels – the irony of this being presented as a disadvantage in her quest to become a heroine is clear. Anyone familiar with the tropes of Gothic novels should find Northanger Abbey easy enough to follow, even without having read any of the Gothic classics that it lampoons.
2. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men, the story of two migrant ranch workers trying to find employment in the US during the Great Depression, has lots to recommend it to EFL learners. Crucially, though it has the scope of a proper novel, it’s only about 30,000 words long. The narration mostly uses clear, simple English, though the characters’ dialect in dialogue could prove challenging, such as when George tells Lennie, “An’ you ain’t gonna do no bad things like you done in Weed, neither.”
The novel is primarily the story of a friendship, between the quick, intelligent George, and the gentle giant Lennie, who has minimal mental abilities and virtually no understanding of consequences. It’s a fascinating study of life during the Great Depression, particularly the relationship between different social groups, and its simple language is compelling. It’s hard to say more about the novel without revealing its whole plot, but it’s a good, accessible way to get to know the writing of one of only 28 Nobel prizewinners in literature who wrote in English.
3. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley as a teenager in 1816, is one of the harder novels on this list. It’s only 75,000 words long, but its early 19th-century style can sometimes be hard for the modern reader to follow. Take Dr Frankenstein’s description of his childhood:
“With this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me.”
Additionally, readers who think that they are already quite familiar with the story of Frankenstein might be surprised – it opens not with a lightning-struck castle but with an explorer struggling through the Arctic. The Monster of the novel isn’t a grunting lunatic either, but an intelligent well-read philosopher, despite his horrific appearance.
So, acknowledging that it’s tricky, why read it? Partly because, despite some complexities of the language, it’s easy enough to follow the plot even if you don’t understand every word, and events don’t happen so suddenly that you’d be completely lost if you skip a challenging paragraph. And partly because this novel, written by a teenager as a holiday distraction, has been one of the most influential in the English language and is considered by many to be the founding text of the genre of science fiction.
4. The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Sherlock Holmes mysteries have become internationally famous, helped by adaptations such as the BBC’s Sherlock, CBS’s Elementary and Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes films. Many of the originals are short stories, which are more accessible to English students because of their length. But the best-known of Arthur Conan Doyle’s four Sherlock Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is only 59,000 words long, and they’re 59,000 compelling and easily digestible words at that. The Sherlock Holmes stories were, after all, popular fiction, written for an eager audience; Conan Doyle’s aim was primarily to entertain.
Additionally, unlike Frankenstein, those who are generally aware of the world of Sherlock Holmes even if they haven’t read any of the original stories will find reading them comfortably familiar: The Hound of the Baskervilles opens with a typical deduction scene, with Holmes and Watson discussing a walking stick and trying to see what they can conclude about its owner. It’s fast-paced and witty, and thus a thoroughly enjoyable way to practise your English while becoming acquainted with an enduring classic.
5. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
Over the course of just 29,000 words in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wrote one of the most influential novels ever produced in Britain. With A Christmas Carol, Dickens effectively invented Christmas as it is celebrated in the Western world today: taking it from being a religious festival that came a definite second in importance to Easter, and making it the most important holiday of the year, whether or not you were religious.
Before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, Christmas was not a statutory holiday, nor was it considered a time that everyone should spend with their family, exchange gifts, eat turkey, donate to charity nor celebrate our good fortunes in life. It established, or at the very least helped to establish, all of these traditions. Published on the 19th December, the initial print run of the novel sold out by Christmas Eve.
Aside from its massive social impact, A Christmas Carol makes for a neat introduction to one of Britain’s most celebrated writers. It has many of the typical elements of Dickens’ writing, including a strong theme of social commentary (particularly in relation to the suffering of the working class), sentimentality, humour, memorable characters and a vivid evocation of life in Victorian London. But it achieves all of this with less than a tenth of the word count of any of David Copperfield, Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Martin Chuzzlewit, Our Mutual Friend, Nicholas Nickleby or The Pickwick Papers. And courtesy of general cultural awareness, as well as the Muppets, if you get a bit stuck following a particular section, you can feel safe in the knowledge that you probably know most of the plot anyway.
6. Animal Farm – George Orwell
Clocking in at around the same length as A Christmas Carol is Animal Farm, George Orwell’s famous farmyard-based allegory for Communist Russia. The writing style of Animal Farm is quite a lot more accessible than that of A Christmas Carol, as well. This is in part because it was written much more recently, but also because George Orwell valued clarity in style; his much-praised ‘5 Rules for Effective Writing’ include rules such as ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’ and ‘if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ His own adherence to these rules make his writing straightforward and pleasant to read, to the extent that Animal Farm has sometimes been misidentified as a children’s book; the fact that it contains talking animals probably doesn’t help.
But as the phrase ‘allegory for Communist Russia’ suggests, this was a novel that was intended to be taken seriously. Orwell wrote a preface for the novel criticising self-censorship in the British press, although this has not been included in most editions. Four publishers turned the novel down before it found a home, partly from fear of offending Britain’s then-allies in the USSR. Of Orwell’s six novels, Animal Farm is probably the best-known after Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four is rather longer, at 89,000 words, but highly recommended if you get on well with Animal Farm.
7. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
It’s hard to recommend a single text for EFL learners keen to get to know the works of Oscar Wilde. The dry humour of his more famous plays can be very challenging, as well as their spirited pace. Salomé is easier to follow, but is already a translation from French, and isn’t much representative of Wilde’s work as a whole. His short stories are obviously more accessible, but are also quite varied, from the sweet moralising of his fairy tales for children to the sharp humour of ‘The Canterville Ghost’. His poetry is stunning, but probably too tricky for anyone who isn’t confident in English.
His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is thus a logical choice. It’s about 78,000 words, and you may already know the story: a beautiful young man has a portrait painted, and as he grows older, signs of ageing appear on the portrait, while he remains as beautiful as ever. The novel features most of the significant traits of Wilde’s other writing: for instance, the ironic wit of The Importance of Being Earnest, the lavish descriptions of Salomé and the moral lessons of ‘The Happy Prince.’ It’s certainly not as easy as many of the other novels on this list, but it is a rich, rewarding read.
8. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe’s critically acclaimed debut novel from 1958 is less than 200 pages long in most editions, and highly recommended for anyone who would like to explore a more modern novel from the canon of English-language literature. One of the best-known and most influential postcolonial novels in English, Things Fall Apart takes its title from WB Yeats’ apocalyptic poem ‘The Second Coming’, and depicts Nigeria in the 1890s at the time of the arrival of Christian missionaries, who disrupt the traditional order of life in the Igbo village in which the novel is set.
A lot of the most famous postcolonial novels, such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea or V S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River are long, difficult or both. They are remarkable to read, but challenging – not least when the writer uses the English language in non-standard ways to recreate the rhythms of their own native language. While Achebe does this to a certain extent, he favours short, blunt sentences that mean that although the themes of the novel are complex, the text can be followed quite easily, and it makes a good introduction to a genre of literature that can be underrepresented on school reading lists.
9. Dubliners – James Joyce
Perhaps a slightly misleading entry, Dubliners isn’t a novel, but a series of thematically connected short stories. Joyce has a reputation as a very difficult writer, as anyone who has ever tried to read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (opening sentence: “Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) will know. However, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man is somewhat easier, and Dubliners is written quite straightforwardly. Although Joyce writes in Hiberno-English, it shouldn’t present most readers with too much difficulty.
Of its fifteen stories, ‘The Dead’ is the most celebrated, and indeed students wanting a short introduction to Joyce’s writing might want to read only that; the Independent describes it grandly as “the story that… elevates the book to the level of the supreme artworks of the 20th century.” The collection as a whole depicts life in Dublin at the start of the 20th century, and focuses on Joyce’s idea of epiphanies: times when a character has a crucial moment of self-realisation. In contrast to Joyce’s Victorian predecessors, there is no overt moralising in his stories; the reader is left to come to their own conclusions. In some ways this prevents the stories from being pleasant to read: Joyce left Dublin in 1904 and it is obvious from his writing that while he does not pass judgment on his characters, he found the city that inspired his greatest works to be claustrophobic, petty and stifling. Readers should not expect much by way of happy endings, but they will get a satisfying taster of one of Ireland’s greatest writers.
Which novels do you recommend for students of English as a foreign language?