Books Every English Major Should Read

Instructor: Donna Smith
English majors read a variety of books in order to improve their critical thinking, writing, and researching skills, while developing proficiency in analyzing and interpreting literature. Check out some of the books found on most English majors required reading lists below.

Common Literature for English Majors

While the curriculum for English majors varies among colleges and universities, there are some common books you'll find in the programs. These books include the following.


Beowulf is a hero who defeats the terrifying monster Grendel and his vengeful mother and saves King Hrothgar's kingdom. Afterwards he is rewarded with gifts for his bravery. The story concludes fifty years later when Beowulf is an old man and King. He saves his land from a destructive dragon, and discovers a treasure the creature was guarding.

Beowulf is an epic poem with more than 3,000 lines. The story is set in sixth century Scandinavia. The author is unknown, and it's believed the story was handed down orally until eventually a manuscript was written around the 10th century.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Huck Finn made his debut in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as Tom's best friend. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story is about Huck and his friend Jim. Jim is a slave who is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children. Jim decides to runs away, and Huck goes with him. They travel on a raft down the Mississippi River. Their destination is Ohio where Jim can find freedom. Along the way the pair meet many disreputable and violent people.

Mark Twain's novel is a satirical look at the Antebellum South. He relates the racist, religious and social attitudes of the time. Over the years many schools and libraries have banned it, because Twain's story is considered controversial and racist. However, literary critics regard it as a masterpiece of American literature.

The Awakening

The Awakening is a story about Edna Pontellier, a wealthy married nineteenth century woman. During a vacation to the Grand Isle near her home in New Orleans, Edna falls in love with another man and discovers that she no longer wants to live under the constraints and responsibilities of society. Once she returns to New Orleans, she leaves her husband and children. The novel continues with Edna living a bohemian life, and facing the consequences of her radical decision.

When Kate Chopin's book was published in 1899, reviewers denounced it for the sensual content and the portrayal of an adulterous main character. Chopin wrote many short stories and another novel At Fault. The majority of her fiction was set in Louisiana where she lived until her husband's death. Today Chopin is viewed as a feminist writer.

Pride and Prejudice

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters and are concerned about their prospects for marriage. This story centers on Elizabeth Bennet and her relationship with Fitzwilliam Darcy. Mr. Darcy is a friend of Mr. Bingley, who moves into the Netherfield estate, near where the Bennets live. Jane Bennet decides he would make a good husband. Elizabeth and her sisters initially don't like the proud Darcy.

The novel examines preconceived judgments, misinformation, dishonesty, and family bonds. Austen is also known for her other books Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park.

The Scarlet Letter

The scarlet letter is Hester Prynne's punishment for adultery. She must wear it on her chest and endure public harassment, because she won't identify the father of her child Pearl. Hester's missing husband, Roger Chillingworth, finally arrives in the settlement and starts causing trouble for the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Meanwhile, Hester worries that the Puritan community leaders will take Pearl away from her.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is known for using allegory and symbolism in his stories. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne addresses the themes of evil, sin, and identity. Hawthorne's other famous novel is The House of Seven Gables.

Additional Requirements for English Majors

As an English major, you must read a certain number of books selected by your school's English department in order to meet your course requirements. The table below shows a sample of additional books an English major may be expected to read.

TitleAuthorLiterary Time Period
Don QuixoteMiguel de Cervantes Spanish 17th Century
Gulliver's TravelsJonathan Swift British 18th Century
Bleak HouseCharles DickensBritish 19th Century
Robinson CrusoeDaniel Defoe19th Century
Tess of the D'UbervillesThomas HardyBritish 19th Century
Moby DickHerman MelvilleAmerican 19th Century
Portrait of a LadyHenry JamesAmerican 19th Century
The Last of the MohicansJames Fenimore CooperAmerican 19th Century
Anna KareninaLeo TolstoyRussian 19th Century
Madame BovaryGustave FlaubertFrench 19th Century
A Portrait of an Artist as a Young ManJames JoyceBritish 20th Century
Heart of DarknessJoesph ConradBritish 20th Century
Invisible ManRalph EllisonAmerican 20th Century
Mrs. DallowayVirginia WolfBritish 20th Century
Native SonRichard WrightAmerican 20th Century
The Souls of Black FolkW.E.B. Du BoisAmerican 20th Century
The Sound and the FuryWilliam FaulknerAmerican 20th Century

Prepping for an English Major

If you're thinking about majoring in English, you must be familiar with the classic literature typically taught in high school. The following are books you should consider reading before starting college.

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