There are certain classic quotes from literature that everyone seems to know, whether they’ve read the source text or not. Shakespeare especially is a huge source of these: after all, who doesn’t know ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo!’ and ‘To be or not to be, that is the question!’ By the same token, most people are familiar with the famous opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities whether they have read it or not, and have heard ‘Call me Ishmael’ despite not having a clue who on earth Ishmael is.
I was thinking about this the other day, and found myself wondering; what is it about certain quotes that have made them not only stand the test of time but also become so widely known? And often to the extent that they have gained a life of their own, separate from the text they originated from. In other words, what makes a famous literary quote so famous?
I decided to take a look at some classic examples to try and pinpoint exactly what it is about them that appeals to the masses, and why they have come to be so universally known and loved. And to kick things off I thought I would start out with the quote that inspired the title of my blog!
‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
For me, the beauty of this quote is a combination of the craftsmanship of the language, and the universal truth it seems to express. The metaphor of people as boats against the current compliments the quote’s expression of the human habit of repetition, and the inescapability of the past. Like Gatsby reaching out for the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, humans constantly strive for something better, yet the past is constantly pulling them back. I think that this is definitely a message that resonates with people, and this combined with Fitzgerald’s skill with language could perhaps explain why this is such a well-known and poignant quote.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way’ From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
In classic wordy Dickens style, the opening of A Tale of Two Cities is memorable through its grandeur! With every sentence contradicting the last, it essentially makes no sense, but the fact it attempts to summarise an entire historical period in a paragraph is pretty impressive. Also as a list of opposites, and with almost poetic rhythm, it’s fairly easy to remember despite its length.
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ From 1984 by George Orwell.
This one is probably well known for its bizarreness. It starts off ordinarily enough: ‘it was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking’ – wait, what? Your attention is grabbed by the apparent nonsensicalness of the sentence, and it is memorable because of this. In the same way, the famous Slaughterhouse Five quote ‘Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time’ captures your attention. Wait a second – Billy Pilgrim has what?!
‘All that we see or seem, Is but a dream within a dream.’ From A Dream Within A Dream by Edgar Allan Poe.
Personally I find poetry a lot easier to remember than prose, because it tends to have more of a rhythm, and in a lot of cases they also use rhyme and/or alliteration. Therefore this couplet from Poe’s poem A Dream Within A Dream, having four similar sounding words in it, is pretty easily remembered, and the meaning behind it – a questioning of mortality and reality and our perception of reality – is something people have been thinking and theorizing about since the dawn of time. So no wonder it’s so famous!
‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ From Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
I feel like this one is probably so famous through its association: it is pretty much symbolic of the ultimate romance! In fact the common meaning of it is often completely misunderstood: Juliet isn’t asking ‘where are you Romeo?’, but ‘why are you Romeo?’ as in, ‘why do you have to be a Montague, and therefore the enemy of my family?’
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’ From I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud by William Wordsworth.
This is an example of an exquisite use of language, and conjures up some pretty memorable imagery of a sad, lonely cloud drifting over the hills and vales. Although when you really think about it…aren’t there lots of clouds? So why is Wordsworth lonely as a cloud? Still! It sounds nice!
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
I’d imagine with this one, its fame comes from it being one of the best examples of the characteristic wit of Jane Austen’s writing. The dripping sarcasm of such a sweeping generalisation could be seen to mock the society in which it was written, and about which it was written. As the events of the book prove, it is in actual fact the opposite that is true: it is the nineteenth century woman who is clearly in want of a single man in possession of a good fortune – just ask Mrs Bennett, who spends the entire novel trying to dispose of her five daughters to men of good fortunes! And it is the likes of Mrs Bennett, who seem to believe this kind of thing, that Austen pokes fun of throughout the novel, starting in that very first line!
‘So it goes.’ From Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
As one of the shortest and punchiest of famous literary quotes, it would seem almost impossible to forget. But aside from this, we yet again see one of those universal truths at work: ‘it’ (being life or perhaps fate, I’d imagine) does just go, whether you want it to or not. ‘That’s life,’ or ‘that’s how it is’, in other words.
‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ From Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas
Once again we have an unforgettable rhyme, and here it is combined with the poet urging his father to not go quietly, and fight against death (one of those universal truths again!). This is pretty powerful stuff!
‘Call me Ishmael.’ From Moby Dick by Herman Melville
This one is probably so famous simply because it is pretty much impossible to forget once you’ve heard/read it. Three words, strong, snappy, straight to the point, if not slightly odd (the guy’s name is Ishmael – what else would we call him?). Nevertheless, I may start introducing myself like this – Call me Laura.
So am I any closer to finding out why a famous quote is famous? Not really! As I suspected, it’s pretty much an impossible question to answer! However, there were a few things that seemed to crop up repeatedly:
– The quote expresses a message or conveys a universal truth that resonates with people
– The quote addresses a question that has plagued humanity since forever eg. the meaning of life, what happens after death, is our perceived reality real etc.
– The quote is an example of exceptionally beautiful language and/or imagery
– The quote is memorable for its bizarreness/nonsensicalness
– The quote has come to symbolize something
– The quote is funny/witty/ironic
So what do you think? Why do you think famous literary quotes are famous? And I’d love to know some of your favourite quotes, and why you love them!