As the dreaded AP Literature “Doomsday” approaches (May 6th), many AP students and teachers throughout the U.S have started reading works by literary giants. However, the question that’s always asked is:
“What books do I read? What if the ones we read in class aren’t on the AP Exam?”
It must be stated that anything’s possible, and it may occur that some books you’ve covered won’t appear. The solution to this, however, is carefully covering a wide array of works that have many themes. Thankfully, I’ve compiled a list of fictional novels, plays, or works that are must-reads. I cannot guarantee that these novels/works will always appear on the Free-Response section. However, I can at least assure you that these works tackle a variety of themes that will prove beneficial when answering that third prompt. Alas, here are my recommended books!
#1: The Crucible – Arthur Miller ✝️🔮
This play is considered a classic and one of Miller’s finest pieces of literature. However, some teachers typically switch between this play and The Scarlet Letter, a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Aside from that, The Crucible is a perfect book, especially when discussing the themes of Hysteria, Conformity, and Vengeance. This play has multitudes of underlying themes, but I’ve chosen these three as examples.
THEMES – Hysteria, Vengeance, Conformity
Hysteria and Vengeance
The play begins with rumors of witchcraft within the town of Salem. Mass hysteria unfolds when a young girl named Abigail accuses individuals within Salem of witchcraft. It spins the town into a frenzy, fueled by personal vengeance and religious devotion. The play teaches the lesson that when hysteria unfolds, people use fear as a means to enact deep hatred. After all, LitCharts brilliantly had stated, “Fear feeds fear…”
Conformity comes together when characters recognize the sheer absurdity of the witchcraft hysteria. They’re confronted with a dilemma: either conform to the falseness of the hysteria or to be sentenced to death by hanging for not doing so. Within this, the motifs and themes of integrity and reputation are eminent.
Appearance on Past AP Exams
In context to the AP Exam, it’s important to have The Crucible in your repertoire. It is a solid example of the thematic emphasis on man versus society as the play focuses on John Proctor going against the hysteric town of Salem. In recent years, The Crucible has appeared several years ago – in 2014, 2015, and 2016 – but has disappeared from 2017 to 2019. I could only anticipate that the next prompt might be within the lanes of The Crucible, so be sure to understand the themes behind Miller’s play!
#2: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen 💘💑
Ah, an Austen novel. This novel is not only considered a classic, but it’s a love story at heart. The themes of the novel are the first and third words of the title. Yes. The themes that pervade the novel surround Pride, Prejudice, and Social Class.
THEMES – Pride, Prejudice, Social Class
The easiest way of describing these themes is through the characters: The female protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, has prejudices towards Mr. Darcy, an affluent nobleman who she is introduced to by Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth’s tendency towards jumping to conclusions, along with making assumptions (which she takes pride in) about Mr. Darcy’s character is shown throughout the work. This, in turn amplifies her self-growth in the long run. She learns to overcome her preconceived notions to then fall in love with the “haughty” Mr. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy, a nobleman, has preconceived notions (alluding towards the Prejudice theme) towards Elizabeth’s social status as well, being that of a commoner. He views himself highly and immediately is judgmental towards anyone lower or below him. This prevents him from realizing his feelings for Elizabeth, and this novel also goes over how they transcend the lines of social class.
The theme of social class is neatly intertwined within the other two themes. The entire list of characters ranges from upper to lower class citizens, with a specific focus on their views of social status. Mr. Bingly, for example, has no regard for social status in finding love. This contrasts with Catherine de Bourgh, who intends to see his Nephew (Mr. Darcy) marry a woman of affluence.
Appearance on Past AP Exams
Jane Austen’s novel is a rarity in recent years, only recently popping up on the 2016 AP Exam. However, I wouldn’t let this dissuade you from reading this novel. Pride and Prejudice shows an interesting approach to life during the 1800s with an emphasis on Social Classes and the attempts at breaking down barriers of class.
#3: Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 🚺👩
Many people say that either Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice is good enough to get a grasp of the period of literary work. I believe that both are necessary for grasping the full context. Nonetheless, Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, is a perfect example of a story about a woman searching for a greater meaning in life in 19th-century England – one beyond what is provided to her. The novel elicits themes revolving around Social Class, Gender Roles, and Independence
THEMES – Social Class, Gender Roles, Independence
Social Class pervades throughout much of the novel, especially with the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Jane’s relationship with Rochester must rise from the inherent criticisms from society, especially with Jane being from a lower class than Rochester. From this to even the introductory depictions of Gateshead, Jane has interacted with many social classes. As a result, she could understand why such class barriers are present within 19th-century Britain.
With Social Class comes Gender Roles. Throughout the novel, Jane is constantly struggling to stand as equals with the men around her, especially with Mr. Rochester. In a way, the ending of the novel symbolizes the full closure of Jane at last finding equal grounding with Rochester. It’s a stark contrast to the relationship Rochester shared with Bertha Mason, who LitCharts interprets her character as a “provocative symbol of how married women can be repressed and controlled.” Nonetheless, Eyre’s constant struggles to find equal ground with men symbolized two major points: the gender roles and expectations of women in 19th-century Britain and how internalized and oppressed women were within that time.
Lastly, the search for independence is prevalent throughout the book, intertwining with the themes of social class and gender roles. Eyre is constantly in a struggle for independence from oppression, where she eventually comes into terms with her freedom. She also balances her life of servitude towards Rochester and independence. Eventually, it’s her freedom and will that brings both Rochester and Eyre together, for they both share the desire for free-will and respect for one another (especially as stated with Jane’s constant struggle to gain the respect of Rochester as an equal)
Appearance on Past AP Exams
In recent years, Jane Eyre has appeared in the 2016 and 2017 AP Exams but didn’t on the 2018 and 2019 Exams. There’s a possibility that Eyre could appear on the AP Exam, especially if Austen’s Pride and Prejudice appears. But alas, it’s important to understand the growth that Jane experiences throughout the novel, in terms of her independence/freedom, social class, and gender roles.
#4: Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad 🖤🚤
Alas, the darker sides of literature. (get it… darkness… Heart of Darkness…)
Anywho, Heart of Darkness is a unique novel to have in your novel list, for it tackles situations revolving around both Imperialism and Colonialism in the second half of the 19th century. Great Britain was the leading colonial civilization and carried onward into Africa. (carrying with them a “White Man’s Burden,” which in reality was used as a means to justify racism towards the natives) It’s an important book, one that highlights the unique themes of Colonialism, Hollow Civilization, and Racism
THEMES – Colonialism, Hollow Civilization, Racism
The story sets up with Charles Marlow, who’s about to embark on a journey into the Belgian Congo. Historically, it must be known that the Belgian Congo was the most inhumane colonial settlement. The detailed descriptions of White colonizers brutally treating the Congo natives allude to a general criticism for Colonization in general, deeming the work radical for its time.
With notions of colonialism, the unique theme that’s presented in the novel would be the Hollowness of Civilization, which arose from the inept desire to colonize. Africa was deemed to be a vast window into man’s darkest desires and temptations, something that civilization suppresses within us. Kurtz, for example, was a man of good reputation in Europe until he eventually loses himself in Africa and become thirsty for domination and conquest.
Although the novella itself isn’t a racist book, the work is known to attack colonization as a means to insure racism and to accentuate the corruption of rich white men. It’s an interesting perspective, for the white men are deemed corrupted (due to the racism that pervades through Colonization) while the natives are deemed superior for being primitive and unknowing. Irregardless, the approach of the book to colonization deems to call the system racist for the depiction of treatment towards natives reveals how the white men deems the natives unequally as objects rather than humans.
Appearance on Past AP Exams
Conrad’s novel has appeared in recent years, especially with the 2018 AP Exam and 2016 Exam. Although it’s been used, I do believe that the themes of injustice towards people of color and race are universal. Racism and injustice are important themes and could serve useful.
#5: The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald 🎇🕺
The Great Gatsby is an amazing American classic that tackles themes of reflection of your past, the Roaring ’20s, and the American Dream. Having delved into the disillusioned status following post-WWI, the novel intends to reflect upon life following the Great War. The radicalization of alcohol, sex, drugs, and the like showed disillusionment towards the harsh effects of WWI. It’s crucial to read this novel for it tackles philosophical approaches of characters, and how their beliefs slowly lead to their eventual downfall.
The Past and Future
As stated by LitCharts, “Nick and Gatsby are continually troubled by time — the past haunts Gatsby and the future weighs down on Nick.” indicating how their lives have fostered moments that come to haunt them. Gatsby and Nick struggle from coming to terms with it for Gatsby constantly attempts to amend his past with Daisy. Nick, on the other hand, considers his worrisome future. This ties into broad topics of human nature: we as human beings struggle with coming to terms with our history. We often do everything in our power to forget or amend from such events. The important lesson learned would be to accept your past, as grueling as it may be.
The Roaring ’20s
Contextually, the U.S experienced amazing growth in the economy, and the booming era of the 1920s represented such growth. With such economic growth came forth a rise in alcoholism, parties, and other means of moral explorations. Nonetheless, the depictions of the other sides of such expansion of wealth lead into darker themes of hypocrisy, and insatiable desires that eventually lead towards Gatsby’s demise.
The American Dream
I’ll leave it to LitCharts to explain this theme to you;
“The Great Gatsby shows the tide turning east, as hordes flock to New York City seeking stock market fortunes. The Great Gatsby portrays this shift as a symbol of the American Dream’s corruption. It’s no longer a vision of building a life; it’s just about getting rich… Yet Gatsby’s corrupt dream of wealth is motivated by an incorruptible love for Daisy. Gatsby’s failure does not prove the folly of the American Dream—rather it proves the folly of short-cutting that dream by allowing corruption and materialism to prevail over hard work, integrity, and real love. And the dream of love that remains at Gatsby’s core condemns nearly every other character in the novel, all of whom are empty beyond just their lust for money.”
That being said, the American Dream of having no barriers towards economic and personal prosperity pervades throughout the novel (from Gatsby’s “fortune by bootlegging alcohol and other illegal means.”) In general, Fitzgerald attempts to display how the American Dream itself has been distorted over the years, emerging forth nothing but greed for money.
Appearance on Past AP Exams
The Great Gatsby appears quite often, showing up on the both the 2019 and 2016 AP exams, but alas, the novel is important when discussing views concerning idealism. Gatsby is known to have an idyllic view of the world, and with the money and power, he’s willing to do everything within his power to get what he wants: his former lover, Daisy Buchanan.
Happy Reading! 😍
That being said, I hope you find these recommendations useful! Please, let us know if these novels help you with tackling that third-prompt! I certainly hope that with these books in your literary arsenal, that you’ll be 100% capable of scoring a 9/9 on the last free-response question. Be sure to also dive into works that you find important, and feel free to share your thoughts on our list. Did you agree? Did you not? Let us know what you think should have made the list!
Until then, happy reading!