Teaching World Literature
Through the dramatization of a historical moment, world literature thrusts students into a new or familiar world, where abstracts, represented by the action and the characters, are given full life. Webster defines literature as "Writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest." I would like to add Aristotle's view. Unlike history, which represents life as it is, literature represents life as it might be or ought to be, and, for that reason, is of special importance to learning.
What literature has that so few other tools for learning have is immediacy. It creates a moment that the reader can live vicariously. A slice of life is turned into a fully realized experience to support some abstract idea, which the entire story examines from different perspectives. Unlike real life with its share of irrelevant details, literature is more real than life itself. This is because good literature distills from life its essence by concentrating only on the relevant. Consequently, it can be a dynamic learning tool for students and, when properly presented, a profound influence on their intellectual development.
To qualify as great literature, a story must have four indivisible parts -- theme, plot, characterization, and style. Selectively chosen and carefully integrated, these four parts make it possible for a story to unfold. Theme is the basic idea moving a story. It may be philosophical, a general or a historical view. No restrictions are made as to what the theme must be. But no good novel can be without it, for it determines the material selected to dramatize a point. Since all good stories are dramatization of events, literature must have purposeful action, structured logically, connecting events progressively to a resolution or climax. What characters are introduced, what moments are developed, what views are presented, what dialogue is featured are all carefully determined by the theme.
In good writing, nothing is left dangling, and all parts fit together like the pieces of a puzzle to create a clear picture. William Shakespeare, for example, conveys through his plays that man doesn't have volition and is driven by some tragic flaw. Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina believes social conformity is more important than man's happiness. Fyodor Dostoyevsky examines the psychological depths of human evil and, especially in The Possessed, dissects it exactly through his main characters.
To hold interest and to concretize the theme, the author must devise a plot made up of a series of events. These events must be carefully selected and sharply focused. But most importantly, they must be linked to the theme. By bringing these events together and linking them to a theme, the writer provides the reader with a glimpse of reality, stripped of irrelevance. But for these events to come alive meaningfully, they must be inter-connected and dramatized through conflicts and clashes, while progressively advancing toward an ultimate solution of a basic problem. For this, characters are needed.
Ideally these characters should be memorable and interesting (like Quasimodo in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame) with key personality traits that give them uniqueness and individuality. A good writer in selecting these traits is attentive to detail and only uses traits that will conform to the theme. Although there are many subordinate ways of characterizing a person (i.e., thoughts, feelings, descriptions, etc.), action and dialogue are the best way. Character traits (like kindness, etc.) to be believable are not simply stated as loose abstractions, but are demonstrated by the character's actions, thoughts, and dialogue, given direction by his motivation.
The key to distinguishing popular fiction from great literature is found in the depth of the character's motivation (i.e., his philosophical premise). Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis, for example, would have been just another book without the brilliant portrayal of Petronius. The same applies to the main character in Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth, or the colorful characters of the vicomte and marquise in Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Without connecting the characters' motivation to its philosophical origin, these books would completely fall apart or at best be just readable.
Finally, there is the fourth element of good literature, style. This is the careful selection of words and material to describe an event or a character. (For example, does the author focus on important objective details that reflect reality, or does he use subjective abstractions to create a moment removed from reality?) Style by itself may have a certain appeal and charm like beautiful poetry, but without the other three qualities of literature, it can quickly lead to boredom.
As these four parts of literature are interlaced, so is literature to its historical moment. A teacher who discusses literature removed from the times in which it gave birth is like an author trying to tell a story without a theme. Each period of history made its unique contribution to literature, which connected logically to the next. Understanding the economic and social conditions that link history is necessary to give depth to a literary moment. Good teachers have always known this and have tried to provide dimension to the teaching of literature by introducing as much relevant historical information as necessary to give a literary moment truth and life.
The England that influenced Shakespeare, for example, had seen the end of the War of the Roses. The peace following 200 years of strife was a period in which ancient Greek manuscripts were discovered and introduced into England. Minds, closed for centuries, were suddenly flung open to the beautiful universe which the Greeks had long ago discovered. Under the reign of King Henry VII and later Queen Elizabeth, England emerged as a world power and began to look outward toward the new world. This was the England which influenced Shakespeare. This was the world of Marlowe, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher, their new world!
How much more alive and important literature becomes when presented in this context, how much more significant it is when linked with other countries, and outside influences. We are not an island, and neither is good literature. Instead, those great men and women of our past, those literary giantrs with a new and clear vision, are indivisibly linked to history. Teaching literature from a historical perspective provides students with the subject relevance they crave.
New vistas open up the moment literary ideas are attached to their historical antecedent. These ideas no longer remain loose abstractions of limited importance, but instead become important links to the powerful ideas shaping the world! Opening the mind like this to order exposes the student to logic. Great literature by its selective and orderly arrangement of elements (and its strong relationship to history) does this. A wise teacher who highlights this order by integrating his lessons dramatically and methodically is succeeding at fulfilling the primary reason for teaching literature -- to develop the form and substance of thinking!