Literature is intimately related to society. Viewed as a whole, a body of literature is part of the entire culture of a people. The characteristic qualities that distinguish the literature of one group from that of another, derive from the characteristic qualities of that group. Its themes and problems emerge from group activities and group situations, and its significance lies in the extent to which it expresses and enriches the totality of culture. It is an integral part of entire culture, tied by a tissue of connections with every other element in the culture.
Society influences literature in many ways, and the connections of literature with society are integral and pervasive. In fact, the range for social influences on literature is as broad as the entire range of operative social forces: the prevailing system of social organization—including the class structure, the economic system, the political organization and the deeply rooted institutions; the dominant ideas; the characteristic emotional tone; the sense of the past and then pattern of the contemporary realities. There is nothing in the compass of social life that does not play its part—small or large, directly or by deflection, giving literature the impress of its surroundings.
The relation between literature and society is highly complex, and it is very difficult to determine which element of society has exerted what influence on literature. We cannot, therefore, afford to isolate a single element in society—whether economic or ideological—and assign to it a causal role in the final determination of literature. The whole of the social process—including material, conceptual, emotional and institutional elements—may be regarded as containing the potential influences determining the direction and character of literature of a period. In each period in the history of a nation, a certain social situation is brought into the area of operative influence, which is different from any other social situation. The writer of that period selects those elements of that social situation which have managed to produce an impact on him, and weaves them into a pattern which is compatible with his own standards of art and his view of human life.
A very fine example of the effect of social conditions on the literature of the period is provided by the literature of Shakespeare’s time. The thing that strikes every reader to-day, is the difference between the vivid Elizabethan drama—which, in its best examples, stands still as nobly as on its first day, speaking directly to us, and appearing imperishable on account of its psychological vitality and true representation of life—and the poetic literature, or the narrative literature, of the same period, which in spite of the poetic talent it reveals, seems to us centuries older, because it lives in a world of ideas that no longer has anything in common with our own. The main reason for this is that the determining sociological factors differ in two cases. Pure literature was dominated at the time by the social group of the aristocracy. Any one who wished to get his works printed had to seek the patronage of a great lord; anyone who wished to secure any return from the printing secured it only in the form of the gracious presents made in return for enthusiastic and fulsome dedications. The poets of that epoch largely obtained their sustenance in their patron’s castles, where they did not occupy a place of honour, and were considered among the servants.
Thus Spenser, the greatest poet of that age, says of his greatest work, The Faery Queene, that its aim is “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline”. The didactic tendency aimed at by him has only an aristocratic world in view. Quite different was the position of the theatre in that period. The Elizabethan playwright was no longer dependent on the benevolence of a single patron. It is true that the various companies of actors described themselves as in the service of great aristocrats, but this was no more than a formality rendered necessary by certain provisions of law.
The influence on literature of the social power of the aristocratic group, restricted to some extent only in the theatre, continued plainly in English literature down to the eighteenth century. Only then did a real reading public develop on a wider scale. In place of patron came the publisher, who for a long time used to fleece the writer. It was only in the nineteenth century that the writer could liberate himself from the oppressive and humiliating dependence on the great, and win for him the dignity of independence.
Thus we see that the sociological conditions exert a great influence on the writer. But the writer is not only influenced by society: he influences it also. Literature not merely reproduces life, but also shapes it. People may model their lives upon the pattern of fictional heroes and heroines. They have made love, committed crimes and suicide according to great books like Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther and Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Addison, by means of his satirical writings, changed, to some extent, the manners of his society; and Dickens’ novels incited reforms of debtor’s prisons, boys’ schools, and poor houses.
Literature is a social activity. Every civilised society has its literature. Greek society and Roman society left their distinctive imprint upon their literatures. Their pattern of literary development was interwoven with the fabric of their societies. It was born with them, reached its greatest height with them, and faded out with them on their collapse.
When we study the modern writers, we find that it is correct that they are expressing their own individual awareness to life through their work, and that naturally they are applying their special technique to those things that seem vital to them. All this is the case, but it is also true that they are producing a social document. They are not only bringing to light the ideas, feelings, emotions and judgments of human beings they describe, including themselves, but they are also exhibiting for future readers what writers regarded as of vital importance in their own day.