Literature in Literature

Literature in literature happens more often than we might think, and it's an effective device. We get a sense of a character's tastes, which helps open a window into her or his psyche and intellect. Heck, people who love books are usually smart and curious.
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One of the pleasures of reading great fiction is seeing great fiction mentioned in the pages being perused.

Literature in literature happens more often than we might think, and it's an effective device. We get a sense of a character's tastes, which helps open a window into her or his psyche and intellect. Heck, people who love books are usually smart and curious.

We not only get a sense of what literature is enjoyed by a character, but also what literature is enjoyed by the creator of the character. After all, authors often put some of themselves in their protagonists. And if the authors are from long ago, it's nice when the writers they cited back then continue to be well known today.

That's the case with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Jane Austen's Persuasion -- all of which positively mention Sir Walter Scott and his still-read work. Mark Twain was not as positive about the Scottish poet/novelist -- directly or indirectly knocking him in some books for supposedly influencing the queasy "romanticism" of America's antebellum South.

The more recent The Cider House Rules by John Irving frequently mentions Jane Eyre, and Austen's name pops up in Ian McEwan's Atonement. Irving's novel features two orphans -- Homer and Melony -- who read Bronte's novel often and obviously relate to Jane not having living parents. And the mention of Austen in McEwan's book helps illustrate the intellect of working-class-born Robbie.

Atonement also names other authors, as when Robbie and Cecilia debate the merits of 18th-century novelists Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding -- a debate that helps delineate the differences amid the unshakable attraction between McEwan's two ill-fated characters. The renowned writer Rabindranath Tagore gets mentioned as well.

The Cider House Rules also features Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Little Dorrit -- with one novel read regularly to the younger orphans in Irving's book, and another stolen as a gift that's never given.

Then there's the mention of a Dickens character in J.D. Salinger's famous The Catcher in the Rye passage that features Holden Caulfield discussing his "lousy childhood" and "all that David Copperfield kind of crap."

Dickens gets yet another shout-out in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, in which The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club inspires the Pickwick Club run by the engaging March sisters.

Another excellent example of literature in literature, courtesy of Edith Wharton, is The Age of Innocence's description of Newland receiving a package containing the recently published Middlemarch by George Eliot. Newland's reading choices are one way he makes himself feel a little less conventional than he essentially is.

And of course Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway infuses Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours.

Great literature can offer solace to a character, and be a good way to spend one's time. That's the case with Delia, who, in Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, reads books such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby after leaving her family to live alone.

Literature can also reflect a character's philosophy, as when the "strictly Catholic" Klara who appears briefly in Robert Walser's The Assistant takes to "free-thinkers" such as writers Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Borne.

And, like orphans Homer and Melony relating to Jane Eyre in The Cider House Rules, Christopher Snow of Dean Koontz's Seize the Night identifies with the shadowy title character of Gaston LeRoux's The Phantom of the Opera because he has a physical condition that forces him to go out only at night. Koontz's book also mentions other literary works, including "The Masque of the Red Death" tale by Edgar Allan Poe.

The stories of Poe contemporary Nikolai Gogol mean so much to Ashoke (because of a horrific train accident) that this character in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake gives his son the very non-Indian name of Gogol to honor the Russian writer.

What are your favorite literary works referencing other literature?

Note: Many thanks to the following commenters for these great reading recommendations: "SeaSalty58" (Persuasion), "Porini" (Atonement), "jhNY" and Marcus Speh (The Assistant), and "hopper250" and Dorothy Moody (Seize the Night and Dean Koontz). In previous articles, I've thanked commenters who recommended the works of John Irving and Anne Tyler.


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional includes a preface by columnist Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington and cartoonists Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey") and Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"); appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at

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