The Purpose of Literature

What is literature for?

One of the primary goals of this course is to develop an understanding of the importance of literature as a vital source of cultural knowledge in everyday life. Literature is often viewed as a collection of made-up stories, designed to entertain us, to amuse us, or to simply provide us with an escape from the “real” world.

Although literature does serve these purposes, in this course, one of the ways that we will answer the question “What is literature for?” is by showing that literature can provide us with valuable insights about the world in which we live and about our relationships to one another, as well as to ourselves . In this sense, literature may be considered a vehicle for the exploration and discovery of our world and the culture in which we live. It allows us to explore alternative realities, to view things from the perspective of someone completely different to us, and to reflect upon our own intellectual and emotional responses to the complex challenges of everyday life.

By studying literature, it is possible to develop an in-depth understanding of the ways that we use language to make sense of the world. According to the literary scholars, Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, “Stories are everywhere,” and therefore, “Not only do we tell stories, but stories tell us: if stories are everywhere, we are also in stories.” From the moment each one of us is born, we are surrounded by stories — oftentimes these stories are told to us by parents, family members, or our community. Some of these stories are ones that we read for ourselves, and still others are stories that we tell to ourselves about who we are, what we desire, what we fear, and what we value. Not all of these stories are typically considered “literary” ones, but in this course, we will develop a more detailed understanding of how studying literature can enrich our knowledge about ourselves and the world in which we live.

If literature helps us to make sense of, or better yet question, the world and our place in it, then how does it do this? It may seem strange to suggest that literature performs a certain kind of work. However, when we think of other subjects, such as math or science, it is generally understood that the skills obtained from mastering these subjects equips us to solve practical problems. Can the same be said of literature?

To understand the kind of work that literature can do, it is important to understand the kind of knowledge that it provides. This is a very complex and widely debated question among literary scholars. But one way of understanding the kind of knowledge that can be gained from literature is by thinking about how we use language to make sense of the world each day. (1)

What does literature do?

Every day we use metaphors to describe the world. What is a metaphor? According to A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory , a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another.” You have probably heard the expressions, “Time is money” or “The administration is a train wreck.” These expressions are metaphors because they describe one less clearly defined idea, like time or the administration of an institution, in relation to a concept whose characteristics are easier to imagine.

A metaphor forms an implied comparison between two terms whereas a simile makes an explicit comparison between two terms using the words like or as — for example, in his poem, “A Red, Red Rose,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns famously announces, “O my Luve is like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June.” The association of romantic love with red roses is so firmly established in our culture that one need only look at the imagery associated with Valentine’s Day to find evidence of its persistence. The knowledge we gain from literature can have a profound influence on our patterns of thought and behavior.

In their book Metaphors We Live By , George Lakoff and Mark Johnson outline a number of metaphors used so often in everyday conversation that we have forgotten that they are even metaphors, for example, the understanding that “Happy is up” or that “Sad is down.” Likewise, we might think “Darkness is death” or that “Life is light.” Here we can see that metaphors help us to recognize and make sense of a wide range of very complex ideas and even emotions. Metaphors are powerful, and as a result they can even be problematic.

The author Toni Morrison has argued that throughout history the language used by many white authors to describe black characters often expresses ideas of fear or dread — the color black and black people themselves come to represent feelings of loathing, mystery, or dread. Likewise, James Baldwin has observed that whiteness is often presented as a metaphor for safety. (1)

Figure 1 is taken from a book published in 1857 entitled Indigenous Races of the Earth . It demonstrates how classical ideas of beauty and sophistication were associated with an idealized version of white European society whereas people of African descent were considered to be more closely related to apes. One of Morrison’s tasks as a writer is to rewrite the racist literary language that has been used to describe people of color and their lives.

By being able to identify and question the metaphors that we live by, it is possible to gain a better understanding of how we view our world, as well as our relationship to others and ourselves. It is important to critically examine these metaphors because they have very real consequences for our lives. (1)

Figure 1 shows a drawing of a 'Caucasian' head (labeled Apollo Belvidere' and skull (labeled 'Greek') in profile at the top of the image, in the middle is a 'Negro' head and skull (labeled Creole Negro' in profile, and on the bottom, is a 'young chimpanzee' head and skull in profile.
Figure 1 — “Races and Skulls” by Nott, Josiah, and George R. Giddon, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain, CC0An illustration demonstrating the racist belief that people of African descent were as distinct from so-called “Caucasians” as the Chimpanzee.