Understanding why we need to study mathematics, science, and even history barely motivates students to put in the effort. What more a subject you don’t see the purpose of?
“Why must I study literature?”
“Isn’t literature like English? So why must I study it twice?”
“Study literature for what? I’m not going to teach literature or become an author!”
These are all legitimate questions, if no one has actually made it a point to explain why you have to pick up this additional subject upon starting their secondary school education. After all, it seems like an extra long comprehension, with convoluted questions that must be answered with extra long answers. Or, English Comprehension x 100.
There are many reasons for Literature, but with this article, I’d like to point out the few that would most apply to you, the student, and hopefully, help you to develop a greater appreciation for the subject.
- Literature is a Mirror of Society
- Literature Gives Us Hope
- Literature Warns Us Against Evils
- Literature Makes Us Human
1. Literature is a Mirror of Society
Literature was and is written to tell the story of life as it happens. It is a reflection of culture, attitudes, beliefs of the time in which it is written. It’s like history, but with a greater focus on people like you and I. It’s not a history of what the government or leading powers did, but how their actions affected the people on the ground. It’s a story of how people on the ground responded to what was thrown at them.
The study of literature is equivalent to understanding the people and the events that came before you.
The study of literature is equivalent to understanding the people around you and the events that are happening around you.
The study of literature is equivalent to understanding the world you live in, and the other people from other cultures whom you have met, the people whom you have never met, the people whom you might meet one day. The people who are like you, but differently so.
You are the product of everything that came before you. The people in your life, the people who influenced them, the histories before today, the various cultures that were formed, the cultures that were mixed with other cultures – all of which ultimately leads to the culture you possess today, and the society you live in right now.
So, it could be said that the study of literature is the study of regular people like you and me, and what makes us who we are.
2. Literature Gives Us Hope
Stories are told to bring across a message. Sometimes, it is a message of hope.
For example, let’s look into the history of Captain America (yes, comic books count as literature!) and what the comics’ messages are.
First Panel: You! Can’t you see that – in stooping to your enemy’s level – you are being made over in his image – that you’re becoming the very thing you loathe?
Second Panel: And You! In your fear and ignorance you deny reality! Rewrite history! I wish I could take you back with me to the day we liberated Diebenwald – let you smell the stomach-turning stench of death – let you see the mountains of corpses left behind by the corrupt madmen and murderers you idolize!
Captain America, the character, was created in 1940 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. They were revolted by the immoral actions of Nazi Germany and wanted to create a symbol of hope for America and Americans. Armed only with his shield, and his sidekick Bucky (the comic books were very different from the movies), Captain America fought against the evil players (Nazi Germany and Japan) for Truth, Liberty, and American Ideals.
Let’s look at the above two panels from one of the many comic books published during the time.
In the first panel, Captain America confronts a Jew. We know he is a Jew because of the Yarmulke he is wearing on his head. A Yarmulke is a brimless cap, worn by Jewish men to fulfill the customary requirement that the head is covered.
The Jew is being held up by his shirt. The same is done of the other character. We’ll figure out who he is in minute. This pose tells us that he is holding them apart. They must have been fighting before that. This inference is confirmed by Captain America’s speech. He is telling the Jew that his actions makes him no different from the people he hates.
Now, general knowledge informs us that the enemy of the Jewish people at that time is Nazi Germany. So, this third character in the panel must be a Nazi supporter, or Nazi soldier of some form.
This gives us greater understanding of who the Jew is and why Captain America is restraining him. He must have been fighting the Nazi character, and his methods must have been immoral or underhanded. Captain America is a moral character, and he is thus trying to put a stop to it.
In the second panel, Captain America confronts the Nazi character. We learn that he is a Nazi supporter, but not necessarily a soldier. We know this because Captain America refers to Nazis as the “madmen and murderers that [he idolises]”. It’s possible that this scene is taking place in America, and not Germany. The Nazi supporter is in support of Nazi Germany’s actions, but isn’t actually a Germany Nazi soldier himself. His support of Nazi Germany might have angered the Jew, who retaliated in response to that support.
Captain America shares with the Nazi character about what he experienced when he liberated Diebenwald. He is angry that the Nazi character is denying the reality of the immoralities behind Nazi Germany’s actions. By denying these realities, he is writing a different version of history; one that is far from the truth.
From the above analysis of these two comic strip panels, we can conclude the following six messages that the creators might have intended when they wrote this story:
- If you stoop to your enemy’s level, fighting and destroying them with their methods, being as immoral and cruel as they are, then you are no different from them. You are just as much the monster as they are.
- Open your eyes and find out what’s real. Do not spout what is untrue.
- Do not accept monstrosity just because it gives you the outcome you desire.
- Bonus Message #1: Have hope! If you are a victim, or if you’re in a vulnerable position, know that there might be someone out there to fight for you.
- Bonus Message #2: Bring hope! There are people out there who suffer. Keeping quiet and not doing anything about it will not make things go away. Sometimes, it takes You to make a difference, even if it is just a small one.
- Bonus Message #3: If you are the immoral one, watch out! You’ll never get away with it! (Cheesy, I know, LOL)
Just like that, we’ve annotated/analysed a bit of literature, and learnt the messages intended.
3. Literature Warns Us Against Evil
Sometimes, the message intended is a warning. A warning against evil forces that may take the form of a big bad wolf lurking in the forest with his shiny, sharp teeth (Little Red Riding Hood), or even, the people whom we would normally think of as good (Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella, the original Sleeping Beaty, etc).
Let’s look at Hansel & Gretel.
Their parents were poor, and decided to leave them in the forest. That way, there would be fewer mouths to feed. After numerous failed attempts to do so (the two siblings are quite smart), the parents finally succeed. Mind you, German forests today still have wild wolves roaming about. We can thus imagine how many more awful creatures must have lurked in the forests back then, when these stories were first told. So the first warning: sometimes, the people who are suppose to love and protect us end up being the ones who put us in harm’s way.
The story continues. The twins miraculously escape the forest unharmed, and they stumble upon a delectable house made of bread, cakes and sugar. Ravenous, the begin to devour the house. After all, it is a colourful and delicious candy cottage – it must be safe! Only dark gloomy houses that loom over visitors whilst thunders clash and lightnings strike in the background are unsafe. (Facepalm!)
Alas, the cottage’s sole inhabitant is less than savory. A witch emerges, kidnapping the children. Gretel is forced to become a slave, cooking big meals for Hansel. Hansel is the stuffed pig, kept in a cage, and forced fed throughout the day. He grows larger and larger until the day comes when the witch decides he is ready to be eaten.
However, as mentioned previously, these are smart children. Extremely rude children, for eating someone else’s house without permission, but smart nevertheless. After Gretel manages to build a sufficiently large enough fire in the oven, the children trap the witch in her own oven, and save themselves in the process.
So, what do we learn from analysing this story?
- Sometimes, the people you trust will hurt you. Try to learn whom you can and cannot trust.
- First impressions are insufficient. Make more calculated judgement before deciding if someone or something is completely trustworthy.
- If you’re going to be rude/inconsiderate, then don’t expect others to be nice to you.
- Be your own hero. Sometimes, when there’s no one else around to help you, you’ll have to be your own hero.
Which brings me back to the point: this is why these stories were created, and told, and re-told. To teach children: be careful, don’t go gallivanting into the forest. However, if you find yourself in one, have hope. You are not alone, and you can be your own hero too.
4. Literature Makes Us Human
A simplified perspective: Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that sets us apart from the animal kingdom.
More importantly, reading teaches us empathy. It helps us to understand other people, and makes us smarter and wiser when it comes to interacting and dealing with others.
Keith Oatley, cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto, looked at the psychological effects of fiction. He concludes that engaging with stories about other people can improve empathy and theory of mind.
“When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it’s like being that person,” Oatley said. “That enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them.”
In studying literature, you read stories you might not normally have picked up, and learn something new about the people around you that you might not otherwise learn.
This is especially important in this day and age, as fewer and fewer people read for leisure. Instead, all our time is spent on our phones, reading the news, playing games, scrolling through memes. We talk to screens, instead of people, and we struggle to form meaningful relationships because we can’t read emotions or body language, because we have not developed the empathy to do so.
This is why we study literature.
Whenever your teacher sets an essay question like
“How do you feel towards the person in ‘Cartoon, the Coffee-Shop Boy’?“, or
“How do you think Charlie felt in Scene 11 when he didn’t want to play against Algernon?“, or
“From the conversation between Haroun and Rashid about where stories come from, what can you infer about Rashid’s character?“,
it is a essentially test of your empathy.
By testing your understanding of the characters, and why they respond or react the way they do, you are being tested on your ability to understand someone else besides yourself.
And this is so important.
(So much so, that I have started a sentence with ‘and’. Don’t do that, kids :D)
Throwing all other supposed fanciness aside, let’s think towards your futures.
- When you write your resume/CV, in the hopes of getting a job, how will you craft it, so as to get the attention of the HR person reviewing it?
- When you write a cover letter (because now, more and more companies want a cover letter as well), how will you sell yourself, so as to ensure that you look so very appealing to them that they’d want to invite you down for an interview?
- If you find yourself doing Sales, how will you sell a product to someone you are meeting for the very first time?
- If you find yourself in Marketing, how will package and promote a new product to people you will never likely meet at all?
- If you find yourself needing to convince others to accept your opinion, and to follow your leadership, how will you do so, knowing that each and everyone one of them is an individual with a unique personality and mentality?
For all the above, you’ll need empathy, because it’s not just about you, it’s about them too.
So be human, because robots don’t do as well in our society.
I hope this helps you to understand why we study literature, and why it is important that we do so. There are many other reasons, besides these four points, but I’ve shorten the list to cover what really matters to you the student (in general).
In the following days and weeks, I will continue to write more articles on how to study for literature, how to analyse literature, etc.
If you have any further questions about studying literature or writing literature essays, or if you’re looking for a literature tutor, feel free to contact me or connect with me via Facebook.
I’ve received requests for notes on new or lesser-known literature texts. As there are next to no resources available on these texts, it would require an investment of both time and money for me to create these notes. If you would like me to do so, and you are willing to pay for it, please do contact me as well via this site or Facebook, and we can discuss it.