The Functions of Literature

Critics have been discussing from very early times about the function or functions of literature. Though they differ among themselves regarding the other functions of literature, they are all agreed on one point—that the main function of literature is to entertain the readers, or, in other words, to give them pleasure. Longinus was the first critic to lay down his thesis that loftiness or sublimity in literature has its end-ecstasy, transport, ‘lifting out of onself”.

The value of a work of literature can be assessed, according to Longinus, by introspection on the part of the reader or hearer: if he is carried away, transported, moved to ecstasy by the grandeur and passion of the work, then the work is good. The Greek word which it has become traditional to translate as sublime in English means literally height or elevation, and Longinus, in his essay On The Sublime, refers to those qualities in a work of literature which instantaneously create in the reader a sense of being carried to new heights of passionate experience; sublimity is the greatest of all literary virtues, the one which makes a work, whatever its minor defects, truly impressive. The ultimate function of literature, and its ultimate justification, is to be sublime, and to have on its readers the effect of ecstasy or transport that sublimity has. The sublime effect of literature, for Longinus, is attained not by argument, but by revelation, or illumination. Its appeal is not through the reason, but what we should call imagination. Its effect upon the mind is immediate, like a flash of lightning upon the eye.

Sidney voiced the opinion of Longinus when he said that the chief function of literature is to “move” “I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas,” he declared, “that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet”. Dryden was the next critic who cleared away the ancient stumbling block of criticism—the doctrine that the aim of the writer is to instruct or “make men better in some respect”. He asserted that the aim of the writer is, not to teach, but to please, and he distinguished between literature which is art and literature which is didactic. Instruction may result from the reading of poetry, but it is not the end: for ‘poesy only instructs as it delights”. Referring to the function of literature to delight and to move, De Quincey made the distinction between the literature of knowledge, and the literature of power—“The function of the first is to teach” the function of the second is to move.”
Besides giving pleasure or entertaining or moving the readers, literature is supposed to have other functions as well. One important function is to heighten the awareness of the reader to certain aspects of life. The dramatic poetry of the Greeks, the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were created for festival and ceremonial occasions. They reminded the great concourse of Athenian citizens of the traditional gods and heroes of history. They were a civic drama expressive of the place and power of the Greek City States and suggested that past history and the powers above them were with them. In the original sense of the word they were ‘political’. The outcome was to heighten the awareness of the Greek citizen to what were then regarded as significant aspects of Greek city life. Again, if we look at the ballad writers and singers at a later date, we see that in their own way and in their own times, in traditional fashion, each celebrated events of social significance or the so-called ‘heroic’ exploits. They brought news, recounted history, and reconstructed the past of which they had learnt by word of mouth passed on from generation to generation. Their original purpose was to entertain and to receive payment for it; but seen in retrospect their effect, their function was then regarded as significant and of importance. The same is the case with all great works of literature; they make us aware of the various aspects of life which lay hidden from us. After reading Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear we begin to understand more about life and its intricate problems than we could do before.
Thus the main functions of literature are to entertain and give pleasure to the reader, and to heighten his awareness of certain aspects of life. Besides these two primary functions, literature also performs three subsidiary functions—‘propaganda,’ ‘release’ and ‘escape.’ Propaganda literature’ must be distinguished from mere propaganda in which there is nothing creative. The writer of mere propaganda is simply concerned to popularize facts, ideas, and emotions with which he is familiar. But propaganda that is literature is a creative influence irradiating and transforming the writer’s experience. The idea to be propagated is still alive and growing in his mind. It is this living and growing idea which the artist communicates to his reader and thereby transforms his whole attitude to life. He can do so by the direct method of exposition and exhortation, as Ruskin did, or the indirect method of fiction like Dickens’.
‘Release literature’ is that in which the dominant motive of the writer is simply the assuagement of starved needs, the release of pent-up forces in the personality. Romances, detective stories, thrillers, poems etc. which are written with such originality of perception and expression that they have a quickening effect on the reader, belong to this category. Literature of the higher sort which is dominated by ‘release’ may be wholesome for the writer and the reader, as it effects purgation or purification.
Literature also provides ‘escape’ from the grim realities of life, and many people read to escape boredom. The higher type of literature helps the reader to escape from trivial reality into significant reality.
To sum up, the primary functions of literature are to delight the reader, and heighten his awareness of life. The subsidiary functions are ‘propaganda’, ‘release’ and ‘escape’; but they are subordinated to the primary creative functions of literature.

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