We all have moments when we realize the best way to describe our feelings is by quoting someone else. I don’t think this necessarily reflects poorly on us, either. Some of the best writers of the 20th century borrowed lines directly from other writers. Here are my Top 5 favorite book titles stolen from other works:
5. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald worked on this novel for years after the success of The Great Gatsby, and believed it his finest work. The title is taken from “Ode to a Nightingale” by the Romantic poet John Keats, also quoted in the epigraph of Tender:
Already with thee! tender is the night…
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
Fitzgerald couldn’t read this poem without getting weepy, which gives you an idea of how much the themes in his own book, echoing the poem, meant to him. Part of the Ode encourages one to forsake reality for the beauty of the nightingale’s song, with the hope that beauty can overcome anything. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Certainly not for Fitzgerald, whose doomed marriage is reflected in Tender.
4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This work is often seen as the quintessential African contribution to the Western novel, but it is a reaction as much as a contribution. The title is taken from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This quote is full of chaos and gore, wrapped up in beautiful phrases like ribbons. I think that describes Achebe’s book pretty well, too.
3. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Pullman’s trilogy, starting with the famed The Golden Compass, was meant from the beginning to be a modern Paradise Lost—a replacement of that mythology and a commentary upon it. Naturally, His Dark Materials is taken from Paradise Lost:
Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
This quote concerns Satan, the great anti-hero of Paradise Lost and his approach to the gates of Hell. Given Pullman’s humanist inclinations, I’m going to guess he identifies with Milton’s Satan figure.
2. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Stemming from Hemingway’s own experience as a war journalist in the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls is considered one of Hemingway’s best novels. The title comes from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, the “No man is an island” sermon:
…any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
I’m a huge fan of Donne, and I’ve always tried to take this particular meditation to heart. Hemingway clearly believed in the importance of his work as a war journalist and novelist, as evidenced by his use of this quote alone.
1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This play-novelette about the sharp George and the dull Lennie was originally entitled Something That Happened. The final title was taken from “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley [go oft awry].
This is one of my favorite poems, which makes it number one on my list. The theme of the poem is, essentially, that no matter how carefully we plan and work for a better life, sometimes everything falls apart anyway. If you haven’t read the Steinbeck novel, I won’t give anything away (go read it!), but let’s just say that it fits—painfully so.
Each of these examples demonstrates how a careful allusion to another work can provide additional depth to one’s own thoughts, and communicate themes that strike a wider chord. My co-worker loves to quote the poet Alexander Pope with “hope springs eternal” whenever she’s despairing. What are some quotes you rely upon to capture a situation?