For Your Next Cocktail Party: A Crib Sheet of Classic Literary References

I love hanging out with book nerds, for many reasons. One of them is feeling like I’m part of an elite club, one with secret handshakes and passwords and everything. (Remember before Game of Thrones became a TV show, when the “Red Wedding” was a nerd password?) But sometimes, even we’ve missed a few passwords along the way, and can feel left out in the cold when our fellow book nerds drop references they assume we’ll catch. We find ourselves smiling and nodding along, the door to our lovely club closed.To ensure this never happens to you, here’s a list of the top 10 literary references to prove your book nerd mettle (or, you know, allow you to have a richer literary experience, or lead you to reading some awesome books or something).

1. The madeleine (from Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust)
If there is a quintessential reference that marks you as a “literary person,” it’s knowing what someone means when they say, “It was my own madeleine moment.” In case you haven’t yet tackled the Mount Everest of reading, here’s what that’s all about. In Search of Lost Time is a seven-volume mega-novel tracking its protagonist through his youth into middle age. In our narrator’s telling, time and memory are blurred together as one, an ever circling mark, reaching back into the past as often as it reaches forward. The most famous moment comes fairly early in the first volume, Swann’s Way. The narrator bites into a madeleine, setting off on one of the novel’s first deep dives into the past, instantly transporting the reader to his childhood family home, with every last detail of the room as clear as day. The madeleine is a famous example of sense memory, nostalgia, and the irresistible power of the past.

2. The Green Light (from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
There are a lot of famous symbols in this tale of American decadence, nostalgia, and yearning in the Jazz Age, from East Egg, to Daisy, to those creepy eyes your teacher insisted every last one of us write an essay on, but the green light is the most famous of them all. Throughout the book, Daisy, Gatsby’s lost love, is representative of the ultimate attainment of everything his life can offer: the American dream. We witness his increasingly piteous attempts to convince himself he can re-create a vanished, never-really-was past with her, all of which crash and burn fairly quickly. The green light, which stands at the end of her dock, is a forlorn symbol of all of Gatsby’s doomed hopes, something always on the horizon and never quite reached, something he forever travels toward, “boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.”

3. The Wife in the Attic (from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë)
Look, if there’s any way I can get anyone else to fall in love with this tale of a brave girl, with no resources or family to speak of, who nonetheless makes a career out of doing the right thing every single time…I’m gonna do it. But more than that, the book is a goldmine of useful literary references—none more so than the specter of the wife in the attic, the haunting figure whose chilling laugh and nighttime wanderings build tension, and the bombshell who kicks off the book’s powerful third act. However horrifying a figure she is, a reference to her is generally much more likely to be pointing to frustrated female desire, sexuality, or energy, especially as seen through an uncomprehending male gaze and in the corset of 19th-century society. If we’re talking about poor Bertha, the least we can do these days is find solidarity with a woman whose very existence was too threatening to be mentioned.

4. Shakespeare’s Sister (from A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf)
Maybe you like the band, maybe you’re a fan of the song, but chances are this isn’t the first time you’re hearing this phrase. But where does it come from? Virginia Woolf took the attic wife metaphor farther, giving the trope her own sober-eyed, equally incisive spin. In her masterpiece of an essay, A Room of One’s Own (itself a reference you should probably also know—and read—as soon as possible), Woolf posited the existence of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman whose talents may have equalled those of the Bard, whose imagination, drive, wit, and talent may have also been on offer to the world, but whose gifts were never discovered because no one bothered to ask. “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” Woolf states, and Shakespeare’s silent sister was Exhibit A.

5. “Ew! Ew! Cannot unsee! I want to pull an Oedipus!” (from Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles)
You might not think that references to a play published thousands of years ago would still be making the rounds at the literary hors d’eouvres table, but here we are. This one’s used as a punchline as often as anything, but it’s as worth getting the joke as it is being involved in whatever Freudian deconstruction of the latest New Great American Novel contender is underway. Oedipus Rex is your classic tale of parent incest and murder: Oedipus, King of Thebes, discovers he is the source of a curse placed upon his land when, unbeknownst to him, he killed his father and married his mother, fulfilling a prophecy that he would be “son and husband to his mother and brother and father to his own children.” When he comes into possession of this delightful information, Oedipus does what most of us might: he immediately puts out his own eyes with his mother/wife’s hairpins, and wanders lost for eternity. Soooo, all in all, a nice, wholesome family show.

6. “STELLAAAAA!” (from A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennesee Williams)
This one is much more Brando in origin than it is literary, but Tennessee Williams gave Brando the platform, so I think the bookish folks can still take credit for it. It comes from A Streetcar Named Desire, arguably Williams’ most famous play, centered on one of the saddest entangled trios that ever there was, married couple Stella and Stanley and Stella’s glamorous, down-on-her-luck sister, Blanche DuBois. These three, along with sundry hapless others along for the unfortunate ride, proceed to tear each other apart. At one point, the proceedings reach such a low point Stanley finds himself screaming for his wife to come back to him. While the moment feels sincere when you’re sitting there with the house lights down, wrapped up in a thick blanket of emotion, it’s now become an easily mocked signifier that someone is being a weeee bit melodramatic, usually in the context of a (probably rightfully) disintegrating relationship.

7. “A plague on both your houses!” (from Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare)
This one comes from Romeo and Juliet, home of, oh, about a thousand other references I could have named. This, as most of us know, is the tale of a pair of star-crossed lovers from quarreling families who must conduct their romance in secret, and who meet an inevitably doomed end (well, it must have been inevitable, what with the timing on that just-seems-like-you’re-dead poison, right?). What’s less often mentioned is the collateral damage of their passion—namely the friends and family who go down defending what they think is family honor in the face of this romance. Mercutio, the most heartbreaking casualty, dies defending his friend Romeo. Amid the laughter of those who have never taken him near seriously enough, he finally cracks his jokester facade to let everyone involved know his opinion of the senseless bloodshed. Which is how it is generally used now: as a shorthand for endlessly, pointlessly squabbling parties who just can’t seem to get it together.

8. Tilting at windmills (from Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes)
This reference comes to us via Spain’s national work, the story of an old man who has convinced himself that he is a knight errant, bent on defeating villains and saving damsels in distress. He sets out on a quest to rid the world of evil, accompanied only by his faithful “squire” Sancho Panza. This book is rife with the ironic symbology of his darkly comic journey that we know to be doomed at the outset. In one particularly famous episode, our supposed knight spots a group of windmills that he convinces himself are giants, and proceeds to haplessly attack them. It’s generally used to refer to someone trying to accomplish a hopeless, if idealistic task that is unlikely to produce the desired result. Just like the don, you’ll be tilting in a circle uselessly, forever, if you continue. There is a sort of admirable beauty to it, but of the sort that comes to us via the tradition of the Fool, not the Hero.

9. “The book was rather Dickensian….” (Charles Dickens, generally)
Ah, yes. Now we’re getting into the part where literary folks contribute their own vocabulary. There are a legion of these shorthands. Some are infamously overused, and often considered pretentious (try to deploy the term “Kafkaesque” in conversation and see how fast your couch miraculously empties). But this is a pretty stolid classic that’s stood the test of time, and is too common to get you regaled to the snooty corner. The term “Dickensian” tends to be used to denote the atmosphere of a book: a richly described, likely urban and layered milieu reminiscent of Victorian England. It’s likely filled with social injustice and dark corners, woven into the sort of pervasive class system that defined English society at the time. It is epitomized in books like Oliver Twist and Bleak House, books with both entertainment and a social message at their cores. Remember that part in a Muppet Christmas Carol where everybody in the streets is singing about how mean Scrooge is? Yup. It’s like that. But with no puppets and singing. More workhouses though.

10. “The dog recognizes me.” (from Homer’s The Odyssey)
You’ve seen this one in a thousand movies, read it in a hundred romance novels: the hero returns from war a changed man. He leaves a young skinny boy, and returns a grizzled battle veteran nearly 10 years later, walking in off the road to a family that no longer recognizes him. But someone does—and it’s usually the dog. The idea that animals see essential truths long before humans do is a old one—in this case, one of the oldest, dating right back to Homer’s The Odyssey. When the wandering hero Odysseus makes his way home after the fall of Troy, he encounters many obstacles that delay his journey (many of them famous references in their own right). He finally arrives incognito, disguised as a beggar, in order to get the lay of the land, and no one recognizes him. Except the dog. A reference to Odysseus and his faithful hound is a reference to this famous moment.

What essential literary references have we left out?

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