What is literature? Like many of the words that have entered our day to day conversation, the term literature has acquired several meanings. From the Latin littera which means “an individual written character (letter, symbol or numeric figure), the term has generally referred to “a collection of texts (which in Western culture include mainly prose, both fiction and non-fiction, drama and poetry). In much, if not all of the world, texts can be oral as well and include such genre as epic, legend, myth, ballad, other forms of poetry and the folktale. The word can also refer to “a whole body of preserved writings belonging to a given language ( e.g. French literature, Tagalog literature) or period ( e.g. Renaissance literature or modern literature ).” Lately the term literature has acquired a more specific meaning specially when noted for its literary form and expression, as distinguished from technical or scholarly writing. Consider the following quotations:
“Literature is an imitation (in words) of an imitation (in matter or material existence) of an idea that exists originally in the mind of God.” - Plato “Literature is an imitation of a sequence of events. Literature can be categorized… viewing or reading literature facilitates the expression of undesirable emotions.” - Aristotle “Literature ought to delight, instruct and inspirit the reader.” Sir Philip Sidney “Literature is the creative expression of Platonic ideas that is cast in a form that affects readers by operating upon their sympathies and antipathies…” - Percy Bysshe Shelley “Literature is the “best of what has been thought and written.” - Matthew Arnold “Literature defamiliarizes the familiar; that is, it causes us to see the ordinary in a way that jolts us out of our automatic ways of perceiving and acting.” - Viktor Shklovsky “Literature is the question minus the answer.” Roland Barthes

Henry Van Dyke, an eminent English literary critic defines literature as that “which consists of those writings that interpret the meanings of nature and life, in words of charms and power, touched with the personality of the author, in artistic form of permanent interest” What are the functions of literature? John Lye is very helpful in this aspect. He names several theses ( propositions/claims) to answer this question

1. The wisdom thesis – It explores the meaning of human experiences in a complex 2. 3.
way leading to reflection (and hence wisdom) concerning our lives and human experience. The heuristic or exploration thesis – it creates “possible worlds” or dramatic embodiments of experience which allow the artist to explore the basic “rules” of human nature and the structure of the world. ( Example Shakespeare’s Macbeth) The representation thesis – it portrays moral and other experiences in a compelling, concrete, immediately felt way yet allows for reflection and reconsideration of experiences involved. Literature is said to be a mimesis ( a reflection of reality). The ideology thesis – its allows us to understand cultures at a particular time, how different and how similar they are. This view tells us a great deal about how the world or a particular society is understood by the artist. It is also called the worldview thesis.


Literature appeals to our higher nature and its needs – emotional, spiritual, intellectual and creative. Like all other forms of art, literature  entertains and gives pleasure  it fires the imagination and arouses noble emotions  enriches by enabling us to reflect on life  empowers us by filling us with new ideas Therefore, the study of literature gives us the ability to cope with life because of the understanding of human nature. This new perception of life and people adds a new dimension to our lives in the form of greater sensitivity and awareness, refinement of feelings, lofty ideals, nobility of purpose and added culture.

However, amidst all these considerations, a question arises, “What makes certain kinds of works worthy of the name Literature?” To answer the question, we have to identify what standards make a written work “literary”. Here the idea of Literature versus literature emerges. The literature with a capital “L” refers to those works which have acquired a privileged status while the ones with a small “L” is a generic term for all other inscribed [written] works. Great literature (those that have acquired the status of being classic) works, is distinguished by the following standards:

1. Artistry and style – this refers to a the unique way an author sees life, forms his
ideas and expresses them through the use of techniques and devices. 2. Intellectual value – a literary work must stimulate thought. It enriches our mental life by making us realize fundamental truths about life. 3. Suggestiveness – this is associated with the emotional power of literature. When a book leaves you with strong reactions (angry, sad, frustrated, joyful etc.) then that can be considered a great literary work. 4. Spiritual value- Literature elevates the spirit by bringing our moral values. It inspires readers to a virtuous life. 5. Permanence- A great work of literature endures and has a lasting appeal. It is timely and timeless. It can be read again and again as each reading gives fresh delight and new insights. 6. Universality-Forever relevant, great literature appeals to all, anytime, anywhere because it deals with shared feelings, fundamental truths and universal conditions. “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you, the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, the sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” - Ernest Hemingway “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” - W.H. Auden “The only books that influence us are those which we are ready and which have gone a little further down on a particular path than we have yet ourselves.” - E.M. Forster

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