SparkNotes Blog

5 “Inspiring” Literary Quotes That Aren’t Actually All That Inspiring

As a species, there’s nothing we love more than slapping cool quotes on Etsy throw pillows. For instance, I don’t even own a spatula, but I DO own no less than seven different pillows that say things like “NOT ALL THOSE WHO WANDER ARE LOST,” which is just something that happens when you take a lifelong trash nerd like myself and give her a steady income.

But sometimes, we make a big deal out of quotes that aren’t actually all that inspirational, considering the context in which they were written. Quotes like…

The inspiring quote: “To thine own self be true.” — Hamlet
Why it’s not actually all that inspiring: As words go, “be yourself” is some good, solid advice. However, “keep to yourself and act only in your own self interest” is somewhat less solid and altogether less good. Given that the speaker of the quote, Polonius, is a pompous moron who wasn’t meant to be taken anywhere near seriously, modern scholars often think this line is probably supposed to mean something closer to the second one.

The inspiring quote: “Not being heard is no reason for silence.” — Les Misérables
Why it’s not actually all that inspiring: I bet this has inspired a lot of people, or at least the twelve who actually had to read this book in school, and I’m not here to take that away from you. Just know that, in context, it has less than nothing to do with France’s various revolutions—the quote actually comes from the old gardener at the convent, Fauchelevent, who is like, “VALJEAN ARE YOU LISTENING? I’M JUST TRYING TO TELL YOU THE RIGHT WAY TO BURY A NUN, OKAY,” while Valjean ignores him completely. (As is the Valjean way. If you have not read the book, I cannot tell you much time Valjean spends ignoring people who are talking directly at him.)

The inspiring quote: “Always.” — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Why it’s not actually all that inspiring: This Snape quote is an enduring maxim for anyone who ever read Deathly Hallows, saw the movie, and then cried right there in the theater. Everybody got this on a T-shirt in 2011, including me. But if you think about it, “Always” as a response to “After all this time?” isn’t so much romantic as it is deeply troubling. Really, it’s a testament to Snape’s stunted emotional growth. The man just couldn’t move forward with his life. Losing Lily forced him into a perpetual stasis from which he never recovered, right up until the moment he died. Sorry. This took off in a direction I wasn’t expecting. Quick! Someone post that gif of the cat sitting on a porcupine! You know the one.

The inspiring quote: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” — The Education of Henry Adams
Why it’s not actually all that inspiring: If you’re anything like me, I’m sorry about that for a couple of reasons, but also I bet you’ve been seeing this poster in classrooms ever since the age of five. The problem is that Henry Adams wasn’t a huge fan of teachers. In fact, what he’s getting at here is that teachers can influence their students negatively. At one point in the chapter, he even says something along the lines of “At least a murderer just kills you; a bad teacher can screw you up FOR LIFE.” Which is true I guess, but jeez.

The inspiring quote: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” — Twelfth Night
Why it’s not actually all that inspiring: First of all, what this is really saying is less “You can do anything!” and more “YOU’RE BORN RICH, YOU BECOME RICH, OR YOU MARRY RICH. THOSE ARE ALL THE WAYS TO BECOME RICH. IF YOU ARE NOT RICH, YIKES.” Second of all, it’s a sex joke. During live performances of Twelfth Night, the actor playing Malvolio is often doing a pelvic thrust all sexy-like just to drive the point home. Besides, if you think for even one second that Shakespeare wrote the word “thrust” and didn’t mean it sexually, then we have nothing further to discuss, you and I, and this is where we go our separate ways.