With most every classic novel comes some outlandish interpretations. Some people have wild fringe theories about Harry Potter as an allegory for young gay love and Lord of the Rings being about WWII and the atom bomb. But some of these laughably wrong interpretations stick. In fact, you were taught some of them in school ...
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
Upton Sinclair's expose of the American meatpacking industry is largely to thank for the massive drop in cases of gastroenteritis (and rise of vegetarianism) around the dawn of the 20th century. When the book was published, the public, pretty keen on taking solid shits, was outraged by the novel's accurate depictions of the unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and lack of regulations forbidding the practice of shoveling week-old entrails off the floor along with the cow shit and calling it sausage.
President Teddy Roosevelt took action as a result, leading to the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Meat Inspection Act and eventually the FDA, despite getting his meat primarily from large game he beat to death with a club (probably).
What it's really about:
It wasn't about sanitation or meat safety. Sinclair was actually trying to expose the exploitation of American factory workers and convert Americans to socialism.
He went undercover for several weeks as a meat packer and not only saw that working conditions in meat-packing factories at the time were horribly unsafe, but that there was massive corruption within the upper levels of management. The stockyards exploited not only the common man, but also the common women and children, who worked the same lengthy shifts and lost the same useful appendages to machinery without proper safeguards. At one point in the book, an employee accidentally falls inside a giant meat grinder and is later sold as lard.
A pinch of Mitch in every bite.
But much to Sinclair's frustration, the public's reaction was less "that poor exploited worker!" and more "HOLY SHIT THERE MIGHT BE PEOPLE IN MY LARD." They read right past the hardship of the workers and focused entirely on how gross the meat-packing process was.
Adding insult to injury, the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act meant that taxpayers, not the meatpackers, were responsible for the $30 million a year costs of inspection, giving Sinclair further shit to gripe about as it added even more burden to the American worker.
"We have to wear coats now?"
It didn't help that Roosevelt didn't sympathize with Sinclair's socialist views, calling him a crackpot and stating that three-fourths of his book was the same bullshit everyone was apparently eating at the time. Sinclair would later take matters into his own hands, running for Congress twice on the Socialist ticket. He lost. Hell, he should have just run on the "No more shit in your hamburger" ticket. That seems like a pretty easy win right there.
Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
It's the defining anti-censorship book of our time. The image of government crews gathering up and burning books is as iconic in the free world as Big Brother.
In Fahrenheit 451, America in the future is a clusterfucked society and a nation of dimwits. Books are outlawed for promoting intellectualism and free thinking, which inevitably leads to objective discourse and debate, which are now considered politically incorrect because dissenting opinions make people sad. Instead of preventing homes from going up in flames, firemen have been reassigned to rifle through homes and seize any contraband books that remain.
Just about every critic and literary scholar on the planet viewed the novel as metaphor for the dangers of state-sponsored censorship. Can't see this as much of a stretch, considering it was about book burning (although, the title may have suggested that it was really about book warming, since, according to Bradbury's sources, the temperature at which paper combusts is actually 450 degrees Celsius, or 842 degrees Fahrenheit).
This didn't occur to him?
What it's really about:
Bradbury was actually more concerned with TV destroying interest in literature than he was with government censorship and officials running around libraries with lit matches. According to Bradbury, television is useless and compresses important information about the world into little factoids, contributing to society's ever-shrinking attention span. Like "Video Killed the Radio Star," television would kill the, uh, book star (he said same thing about radio too, by the way). An interesting rant from the author, considering that much of Bradbury's fame was a direct result of his stories being portrayed on science fiction shows.
"Featuring your host, a Martian-ophilic hypocrite."
For a science fiction writer who predicted the development of flat-screen TVs you hang on the wall, ATMs and virtual reality, he sure hates new technology. Along with bitching about radio and television, Bradbury also has something against the Internet. He apparently told Yahoo! they could go fuck themselves, and as far as he's concerned, the Internet can go to hell. He doesn't own a computer, needless to say. At least we can say whatever we want about him without getting sued.
What probably pissed Bradbury off more than anything was that people completely disregarded his interpretation of his own book. In fact, when Bradbury was a guest lecturer in a class at UCLA, students flat-out told him to his face that he was mistaken and that his book is really about censorship. He walked out.
Later, he accused the camera of stealing his soul.
Machiavelli's The Prince
If you've ever heard a politician or other powerful person referred to as "Machiavellian," you can guess it's not a compliment. That's thanks to a shifty-looking Italian diplomat named Machiavelli. He was bad enough that we turned his name into a pejorative adjective that means "cruel, amoral tyrant." Napoleon, Stalin and Mussolini were three of his biggest fans, and the Mafia considers Machiavelli thefather of the organization.
In his defense, he cleans up well.
The reason for this is Machiavelli's The Prince, one of the most notorious political treatises ever written, designed as an instruction manual for the Florentine dictator Lorenzo de' Medici to help him be more of a bastard. Completely disregarding moral concerns in politics, the book serves as a levelheaded discourse on the best way to assert and maintain power, noting that it's better to be feared than loved, and that dishonesty pays off in the long run as long as you lie about how dishonest you are.
Machiavelli's masterpiece is equal parts brilliant and irresponsible, showing tyrants how best to run a country like a video game.
What it's really about:
Actually, Machiavelli was totally just trolling. Far from being the spiritual patriarch of the Gambino crime family, he was a renowned proponent of free republics, as noted in a few obscure texts called everything else he ever wrote. The reason The Prince endured the ages while the rest of his philosophy gathered dust in the back of an old library warehouse is chiefly 1) it's really short, and 2) it angries up the blood. By far the best way to get a book on the best-seller list is to write something that pisses everyone off, but the drawback is that it steamrolls the message of any work that's only meant to be understood in context.
The context in this case is that the Medici family to whom he dedicated his love letter is the same group who personally broke Machiavelli's arms for being such a staunch advocate for free government. He worked for the Florentine Republic before the Medicis marched in, mowed down the government and mercilessly tortured him, and then he sat down and wrote The Prince from his shack in exile, assumedly with some really bendy handwriting (on account of the arms). When you learn about that, it kind of adds a new layer of meaning to the text -- it suddenly sounds like it's dripping with sarcasm.
Not everyone was in on the joke.
For centuries, the consensus on Machiavelli's best-known work has been that he was just trying to brown-nose his way back into the government. But a deeper study of his full body of work reveals that this is a pretty absurd ambition, considering not only did Machiavelli repeatedly say that "popular rule is always better than the rule of princes," but after he wrote The Prince, he went right on back to writing treatises about the awesomeness of republics. Considering also that he was no stranger to the literary art of satire, scholars these days are turning to a more likely scenario -- Machiavelli was the Stephen Colbert of the Renaissance.
Part of the blame might also be leveled at the shitty job that people have done in trying to translate his work into English. It's from Machiavelli that we get the notorious phrase "the end justifies the means." A much more accurate translation from the original Italian is something more like "one must consider the end," which kind of means something totally different.