Literature and my life. One is virtual and the other is real, yet my life rides on literature. Stories, fairy tales, and classic books have affected the way I think, speak and act. Between the age I could read to around the time I was seven, I never really took an interest in books. I would take the books my mother would buy for me and slide into my shelf of books I would never read. However, as time went by, I slowly took an interest, going from Mary-Kate and Ashley to the Wizard of Oz; from Little Women to Nicholas Sparks books. And the books I read affected the person I was and made me the opinionated person I am today. And that’s why I believe literature shapes the way society is and the way it thinks.
To begin with, let us consider a play that most of us have had to read for English class ; a play that makes you feel appalled at the end of it; I am of course referring to the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet. The main characters in the play, Romeo and Juliet, belong to two separate families who shared a deep hatred towards one
another. When the doomed duo meets, it’s love at first sight, but as the classic tragedy goes, they both end their lives due to miscommunication. Their death unexpectedly causes their respective distraught families to call a truce. Let us examine what caused the two main characters to take their own lives. Their end was fuelled by the social standards of the society. Women in those times, especially in Verona, enjoyed little control over their lives. They were raised to be obedient to the men of the house and follow whatever they were instructed to do. When Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin dies, her visibly upset father forces Juliet to get married to Count Paris, who had already displayed interest in securing her as his bride. Juliet, who is already married secretly to Romeo, refuses, causing her father to protest in rage “but fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next, To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church, or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.” This leaves Juliet with no choice but to take drastic measures, drinking a potion to put her in a deep sleep which leads to the sad ending. If their parents had set aside their selfish opinions, if society had been willing to accept the wishes of a young girl and instead simply wished the two lovers their best, the classic tale wouldn’t have ended in a tragedy. Their death, however, did unite the families and society, affecting people worldwide who continue to read the Shakespeare tale. Why should social standards stop people from being together? That’s the question that comes on to my mind after reading this grim play.
Another book that has had an outsized influence on society would be To Kill a Mockingbird, a book by Harper Lee in 1960. This book was based on Lee’s experience and observations of her neighbors and families as she grew up in the 1930s- particularly an event that took place near her hometown in 1936 when she was ten. The book is set in the 1930s, during the great depression and plays out over a course of three years. It is narrated from the point of view of Jean Louise Scott(Scout) who lives with her older brother, Jem, and their widowed father Atticus, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. They befriend a boy named Dill who visits his aunt every summer. The three of them are inquisitive of their neighbor Arthur “Boo” Radley, since no one has seen him. Scout and Jem’s father, a lawyer is chosen to represent a guilty black man, Tom Robinson who’s accused of
raping a white woman. The novel deals with the racial segregation in the society, the polemic reality of rape, and how a child views these various issues. The book was praised for its authentic portrayal of Southern women, and the realistic depiction of how they spoke and acted. Daniel D’Addario, for a review of the book for Time Magazine said the book “does two things very well. It simultaneously is a picture-perfect examination for a moment in time in American race relations. And it tells a timeless, father-daughter story with characters people can relate to.” People of the South appreciated the book because it addressed important racial issues. The book was used as a foundation to address these issues. When I read the book, I found that the book was an interesting blend between a serious issue and a child’s perspective on it. It was set in a downbeat society, but Scout (the main character) was able to push herself through it, seeing much more than a grim life.
Taking 1984 as an example still holds significance in society, even though it was published more than 60 years ago in 1949. In the book, the world is divided into three parts after the Atomic war. London is now a city in Oceania and is under the rule of Big Brother(government) who control all the citizens. Winston Smith (the main character) tries to fight against the oppression faced in the book, by falling in love with Julia. This causes Big Brother to keep a close eye on him and try to reform him. The whole idea of “keeping a close eye” seems eerily similar to Edward Snowden’s expose in 2013 of how the NSA was spying on American citizens. Or how people today are able to collect information on personal data and use that information to send personalized advertisements to people. Literature is funny in that way, predicting the future. Perhaps we should pay more attention to literature, then?
The many fictional stories that are told within our society, past and present, are treasure troves of insight on the human experience. They mirror, predict the future, and make us truly reflect on our actions. The funny thing is we too often don’t realize that. When we finish a book, and if it is a good book, we might praise it, recommend it to a friend, and never look at it again. I’ve only talked about one type of literature – narrative fiction. Additionally, poems, short stories, historical literature and many more genres have huge effects on who we are as individuals. Dystopian novels that we read today, like the Hunger Games, tell us that unless we do something today, be it with the environment, population or war, we’re going to end up in a real life horror film. So mind what you read; the truths on those pages may be more prophetic than you think.