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Viewing Western Civilization Through the Lens of Literature

Learn About This Lesson

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • List and describe some of the limits of literature as a lens for viewing Western civilization.
  • List the different facets, or civilizational values that are available for us to view through the lens of literature.
  • Using a specific example, explain how a work of literature provide insights into Western Civilization during specific time periods.

Inquire: Literature as a Cultural Lens

Overview

One way to think about literature  is as a viewing lens through which we can see places and people as actors on a stage in a specific time and place. By observing their actions, conversations, and conflicts, we gain a deeper understanding of the context in which they were created.Decorative Image: Open Book with Glasses

When we talk about viewing civilization through the lens of literature, we are focused on literary works as a limited set ofinformation points that we can use to gain at least one perspective of the time and milieu in which they were written. While most literature is not written with the specific intent of chronicling historical or cultural developments, individual literary works nevertheless provide a wealth of insights and perspective that can add significant context to historical and cultural developments.

Big Question:

To what extent can we know a culture by reading its literature?

Watch: The Limits of Literature as a Lens for Understanding Western Civilization

Watch the following video (3:14) to explore what Western Civilization is and isn’t, and how we make that distinction.

Click here to download an accessible PDF transcript.

Read: Reading Literature to Understand the Values of a Civilization

The Multifaceted Lens of Literature

By reading carefully and asking the right questions, we can use literature as a lens for observing facets of civilization at specific points in time. This multifaceted lens can reveal key information about the different values of a civilization, including religious, social, and moral values.

While individual works of literature in a period may not focus on all of these values, each work will serve as a viewing lens for some of them. As readers, we simply need to realize that this lens is available, and be ready to ask the right questions to see through it clearly.

Here is a list of different facets, or civilizational values that are available for us to view through the lens of literature.

Religious values

Decorative: Cathedral showing ceiling vaults

Ceiling vaulting of St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh, Scotland

Authors and characters in works of literature often share their views of religion. They tell us how they view deity or explain the role of divine forces in personal and public life. When we read literature to understand religious values, we ask questions about the role of humans in the universe and, more specifically, about the relationship humans have with divine beings and laws. What is the nature of the deity that people worship? What are the public practices of religion in a given culture and era? What role does organized religion play? What constraints does the common religion impose on daily life? What benefits do people receive from religion? What is the relationship between religious and public or political authorities?

Social values

Literature often allows us to observe the social values of a civilization. Through our reading, we gain an understanding of how people view others and their relationship to others, in terms of class, religion, gender, and race. When we read literature for a clearer understanding of social values, we ask about the importance of family and friendship. We also look for common social themes that might be prevalent at the time a work is written. How do people gain social status? Can people improve their social status? How does a culture define success? What character traits are valued most highly? What are the common relationships between women and men, between the rich and poor? How does religion affect social values and status?

Moral values

In many periods, moral values are a prevalent topic in literature. What do people view as right and wrong? How is that determined?   What do people view as right and wrong, just and unjust? What is the source of authority for determining morality? Religious authorities? Natural Law? What are the different roles played by government, family, and the individual with regards to moral behavior?

Scientific values

Literature can also provide invaluable insights into the scientific thinking of the age. It can help us understand the advances and limits of scientific knowledge. How do people study and understand the natural world? How do people use technology to control or manage nature? How does culture define truth, and who has control of the definition? How does scientific knowledge rank relative to religion? What is the rate of scientific innovation?  How are scientific advances presented to and accepted by society?

Aesthetic values

Decorative: Illustration, formal introductions in period costume.

Illustration for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Not surprisingly, literature, as a form of art, offers a valuable reflection of cultural thinking about what is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Writers may address this directly through their characters, or indirectly through description. How do people define beauty?  In nature? In people? In writing and fine art? What fascinates or interests people in a civilization? What do they find grotesque? What is the perceived relationship between beauty and happiness? Between beauty and success?

Linguistic values

Finally, the written language itself offers insights into the civilization during which a piece of literature originated.   What word or types of words dominate? How developed is the language in terms of sophistication of vocabulary and stability of grammatical structures? Are there specific anomalies — the absence of a specific subject pronoun or verb tense — that might provide understanding about how a culture thinks? How are class differences portrayed by the use of high and low language?

Reflect: Gaining Insight

Poll

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In your opinion, which of the following types of literature do you think can provide the best cultural insights for readers?

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Expand: Opening the Book

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in the late 14th century that are presented in the context of a frame narrative, a common literary device of the age. The framework for the different stories is a story-telling contest held by a group of pilgrims on a journey from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The stories told by the pilgrims focus on different aspects of English society and the Church, whose authority many Europeans had begun to question after the Black Death had eliminated at least a third of the population.

Chaucer uses multiple characters to express critical views of the Church and its corruption. The Friar tells a tale about a summoner, a church officer of the day, who bribes an innocent widow. The Summoner, through his story, shows himself to be corrupt and guilty of the same spiritual offenses for which he commonly has brought people to court for punishment. Finally, the Pardoner, whose role is to buy Church “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins, admits the corruption of his practice while selling counterfeit artifacts to parishioners.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca: Wife-Murder Plays

Pedro Calderón de la Barca was a Spanish playwright from Spain’s Golden Age of the 17th century. As part of his considerable body of work in theater, he wrote three plays that dealt with the themes of honor through the convention of the “wife-murder play.”

In each of these works, the wife is murdered either directly or indirectly by the husband who suspects her of infidelity and wishes to restore his lost honor: The Physician of His Honor, The Painter of His Dishonor, and Secret Insult, Secret Vengeance. Calderon’s lens into Spanish society is unclear in the sense that it is difficult to know whether he approved of his characters’ actions or if he was criticizing an accepted social code. Nevertheless, he uses this framework to highlight the importance of honor in Spanish society, and to address the depths of its implications.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

In 1818, Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the story of a young scientist who creates a grotesque but rational and wise creature through an unorthodox scientific experiment.

Decorative: Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation.

Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley showing Victor Frankenstein becoming disgusted at his creation.

There are arguably a number of literary and philosophical influences of Shelley’s novel – Ovid’s Promethean myth, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – but the work is also interesting as a lens for observing different theories of physical science, or natural philosophy, as science was referred to at the time.

One such theory of natural philosophy that undoubtedly influenced Shelley involves electricity. Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of Luigi Galvani, a surgeon at the University of Bologna who was renowned for his work exploring the effects of electricity on animals during dissections. Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, already famous for discovering electrical capacitance, potential and charge, replicated Galvani’s findings, although he did not share Galvani’s conclusion that electricity resided within animals.  Volta’s work, instead, led to his invention of the world’s first “battery”.  Aldini traveled Europe, using Volta’s “battery” to demonstrate the effects of electricity on cadavers; before crowded audiences corpses jolted with electricity would sit upright and engage in other muscle movement.  Although the influence of these natural philosophers on Shelley’s novel may be apocryphal, a careful reading of Frankenstein must include consideration of the experiments with electricity conducted by Aldini and his contemporaries.

Shelley certainly knew about the work of Galvani, Volta, and Aldini, and her novel gives us insight into the ways evolving scientific theories of the period affected thinking related to mortality, spiritual life, and the morality of science.

Toolbox

Church Corruption in The Canterbury Tales

An analysis of the theme of Church corruption in Chaucer’s collection of stories

Read the Canterbury Tales at Project Gutenberg

Calderón de la Barca

A brief summary of the playwright’s life and works

Read the The Physician of His Dishonor at the Internet Archive 

Read the The Painter of His Dishonor at the Internet Archive

The science of life and death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

A brief survey of the scientific background to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, considering contemporary investigations into resuscitation, galvanism, and the possibility of states between life and death

Read Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus at Project Gutenberg

Glossary


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  • high language
    Refers to language used in literature to reflect the speech of upper classes or of people that are more sophisticated and have higher levels of education.
  • low language
    Refers to language used in literature to reflect the speech of lower classes or of people that are less sophisticated and have lower levels of education. Low language is used in literature for comic effect and to emulate the speech of people from less developed or less educated areas and classes.