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The Role of Literature in Shaping Societal Values

role of literature

Literature plays multiple roles in our society. One of its most significant roles is its ability to influence and shape societal values.

Literature enables reflections and insights that compel readers to reflect upon and transform their preconceptions and biases. In other words, literature does not merely mirror our society; but also inspires change.

In this blog, we will delve into the different ways in which literature helps in shaping societal values.

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  1. The Reflection of Society
  2. Much literature contains reflections on societal values, systems, class structures, cultural-societal norms, and political structures. Whether it is Jane Austen’s depiction of 19th-century British aristocracy or Dante’s depiction of punishments, readers draw insights into the values traditionally upheld and condemned during each author’s time.

    Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” provides a powerful narrative of racial prejudice in America. It prompts readers to critically assess their society’s moral compass. Works like George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” depict societies gripped by fears of totalitarianism and unchecked technological progression.

    These narratives compel readers to become aware and reshape their worldviews.

  3. Promoting Empathy and Understanding
  4. From novels to plays, poetry to essays, insightful narratives and compelling characters allow readers to step into another’s shoes. Be it a downtrodden worker in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” or an ambitious yet flawed Macbeth, literature plays an important role in fostering understanding, empathy, and compassion, values essential for peaceful co-existence in societal living.

    Characters like Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Celie from “The Color Purple” provide insights into the different struggles, prejudices, and societal pressures. This evokes empathy and understanding in readers.

    In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” the character Raskolnikov is a murderer, yet readers are drawn into understanding his deep psychological struggle, fostering an empathic understanding towards even the most reprehensible characters.

    The techniques used by the authors also contribute significantly to promoting empathy. The use of first-person narration gives readers direct access to the characters’ inner world, their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

    Children’s books often feature stories teaching essential values, such as sharing, kindness, and empathy. These stories contribute significantly to shaping children’s emotional intelligence, inculcating compassion and understanding towards others from an early age.

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  5. Exposing and Challenging Norms
  6. Revolutionary writers often use their work as powerful tools to question, challenge, and subvert established norms, values, and traditions – reinforcing the inherent power of literature.

    George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” serve as warnings against totalitarian societies, influencing readers’ perspectives.

    In “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, the racial inequalities that existed in the American South during the 1930s are exposed, allowing the reader to question these deep-rooted issues.

    James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” explores the discrimination experienced by African Americans, providing a narrative that directly challenges the predominant discourse of his time.

    Reading allows the reader to see a situation from different perspectives, enabling them to question deeply entrenched beliefs and paradigms.

    A classic example is George Orwell’s “1984,” in which the author highlights the danger of totalitarian regimes, prompting readers to critically evaluate their governance structures.

    Literature is a potent tool for social change. It facilitates dialogue, encourages readers to question their perceptions, nurtures empathy, and most importantly, uncovers the silenced voices in society.

  7. Promoting Cultural Identity and Collective Memory
  8. Literature’s ability to shape societal values lies in promoting cultural identity and collective memory. Literature preserves historical events, folklore, traditions, and societal dynamics offering a historical perspective while reinforcing societal values.

    In Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” the narrative captures the life of the Igbo people before European colonisation, reflecting their cultural identity.

    Literature also helps in preserving and transmitting collective memory. Collective memory refers to the shared pool of memories, knowledge and information of a social group that is associated with the group’s identity.

    For example, the horrors and atrocities of the Holocaust as depicted in works of Anne Frank’s Diary or Primo Levi’s “Survival In Auschwitz” extend beyond mere documentation. They evoke emotional responses and moral reflections that are integral to their collective memory.

    African-American literature reflects on the experiences of slavery, racial discrimination, and the continual fight for equality, giving voice to a collective identity that resonates with readers both within that community and outside of it.

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  9. Inspiring Change
  10. Literature, particularly contemporary literature, sometimes seeks not only to reflect society but to inspire societal change. For example, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” sparked conversations about racial prejudice and justice, and many believe it played a role in shaping societal attitudes during the Civil Rights Movement.

    “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe fostered dialogues on race relations and discrimination in their respective periods. The narrative raised a call to action amongst readers, prompting them to question the societal structures in place and instigate change.

    Books like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins bring forth underrepresented stories and social injustices, influencing the readers’ perspective and inspiring societal change.

    Readers often see parts of themselves reflected in the characters they explore, and these narratives provide valuable insights into their own experiences and stimulate introspective change.

    An Empirical Study by Dr. Louise Sundararajan accentuates the idea that exposure to rich literary works enhances readers’ emotional intelligence, further inducing personal development.

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In this age of cultural dialogues, literature’s role in shaping societal values continues to be of paramount importance. Literature not only reflects societal values but also helps in dynamically moulding and reshaping them.

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