We all know The Great Gatsby is great, so there's no point putting it on this list- it's also not quite old enough to be classic. Here are my top 5 1800's novels that are totally worth reading.
1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville, 1851
My favorite book of all time, Moby Dick might be the greatest novel ever written by an American. Ishmael, a sailor who is part-time laborer, part time philosopher, narrates the quest of the deranged, one-legged Captain Ahab to kill a phantasmic white whale. The cast of main characters each represent different philosophical stances, from Ahab's resolute pursuit of absolute knowledge and wisdom, to Stubb's hilarious, monomaniacal nihilism. Don't be intimidated by the length of the book- there are about a hundred pages worth of whale-anatomy which you are free to skip. Also, each chapter very graciously begins exactly where the last one left off.
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1818.
Everybody knows that when Victor Frankenstein figures out how to create life, his creation turns out to be a dangerous- but it's not a monster. Loneliness and despair drive the creature, who is actually way smarter than Frankenstein, to increasingly desperate measures in order to find companionship. The creature's perception of humankind, itself, and Victor are all untainted by culture and history- it is capable of objectively observing and judging humanity's actions. Sworn to destroy his creation, Frankenstein chases it around the globe, ending in an epic dog-sled chase across the North Pole.
3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, mid 1870's
Six months after reading it, I'm still switching between loving and hating Anna. Reading Anna Karenina is like reading Jane Austen, Karl Marx, and Fyodor Dostoevsky all at once- it is a package of love, political economy, high society, and harrowing psychology. Anna's tale is paradoxical: Through no fault of her own, she finds herself trapped in an increasingly hopeless situation entirely of her own doing. A half dozen bizarre, comical little love stories and quests demonstrate the greatness, and wretchedness of Anna's own. Who is to blame, Anna for her actions, or the men and culture that quietly punish her?
4. Emma by Jane Austen, 1815
Emma is by far the funniest book on this list. Emma Woodhouse is a character who, despite her self-satisfied overestimation of herself, you can't help but love as she traverses the pitfalls of high society. In overly-manneristic Georgian England, Emma must roll her eyes through the tortuous company of her neighbors, only to face shocking experiences when all seems settled. Reading Emma is like watching your best friend get yelled at by their parents- cringeworthy, hilarious, ridiculous.