Literature and Society

The Importance of Literature in the Development of the Societies and the Mankind

(Final Evaluation - Written Communication 3 - FFLCH/USP)





Literature plays an important role in the evolution of the civilizations. If a society does not allow their citizens to have systematic access to readings, its own future development will be threatened, although some may affirm that only the technological knowledge guarantees the prosperity of a nation.


The present essay does not have the simply intention to defend that Literature is more or less important than any technological acquisition of know-how. The intention is to make evident, instead, that the development of both human thought and the social mentality are two things that historically came along with the habit of reading.


In his text “O Direito à Literatura”, Antonio Candido outlined that the ordinary individual must have not only the right to certain basic goods – such as housing, food, formal education or health – guaranteed but, also, the access to good books and to the artistic production considered as something essential.


Mentioning the classification of consuming goods proposed by the French sociologist Louis-Joseph Lebret – and its relations to the economic concepts of marginal utility –, Candido concluded that each time and each culture fix proper criterias to determine the access to vital goods, as a manner to establish the division of the societies in classes, being the formal education, many times, also converted in an instrument to convince people about the different necessities that different social groups hypothetically should have.


In addition to these most basic goods, some other rights are obviously essential to the citizenship, such as the individual liberty, the support of a public justice and the resistance to oppression. But it must also be considered as essential the right to a belief, opinion, leisure and – why not – to the Art and the Literature. Seen in this way, Literature should be understood as a universal manifestation of all men in all times.


No one is expected to survive without the possibility of being in touch with some kind of “fabulation” 24 hours a day. So, as we dream during the night, Literature becomes a kind of “awaken dream” that all civilizations demand: each society creates its own fiction, poetry and dramatic manifestations – in accordance to its impulses, beliefs, senses and rules –, as a manner to strength the presence of the social set in each one. Consequently, all values that a society praises – or the ones that it considers harmful – will be present in its all fictional texts, as well as in its rhymes and theater.


Literature has the power to confirm and to deny, to propose and to denounce, to support and to combat. It allows us to dialectically live our daily problems. This is why both official and forbidden Literatures – respectively the one suggested by the establishment and the one that represents the negation to it – are equally important.


We may say that the good Literature plays a role in the formation of the personality, not necessarily according to conventions but, almost ever, based on the powerful force of the reality. As a result, a book may become a factor of disturbance or a risk – what explains some violent reactions against those texts which propagate a knowledge the society is still not ready for – or that offer suggestions which the conventional vision would like to keep prohibited.


Every literary composition is, above all, an object built with structure and meaning as well as with a great humanizing power, which manifests the emotions and the vision of the world all individuals and groups have. Therefore, it is an important vehicle to disseminate knowledge, although perhaps in a diffuse, unconscious way.


Many times, we do not realize very clearly such characteristic of “something constructed” that books have as a factor that allows us to reorganize our own minds and feelings and that, consequently, enables us to reevaluate the vision that we have about the environment. In other words, Literature develops in readers a portion of humanity, making us more capable to understand and to be opened to the nature, society and other people’s needs.


Much more than a simply source with the power of arising knowledge at random, the literary production has different levels of internal knowledge, previously planned by the author and conscientiously assimilated by readers. A more superficial level can be easily identified by anyone, and it is frequently used to persuade readers about author’s most immediate intentions of propaganda, ideology, belief, revolt or adhesion.


But, on another deeper level, Literature satisfies the necessity that we have to better know our own feelings and the society we live in, allowing us to take positions: this is when the Social Literature becomes essential, forcing us to think about political and humanitarian circumstances, while developing conclusive opinions concerning the social reality and possible solutions against iniquities.


This is the universe of all literary texts in which the author clearly demonstrate the desire of assuming positions in face of problems. As a result of this attitude, a large number of books committed to the Ethics, Politics and Religion – or simply to humanitarian positions – have been produced by those interested in expressing their certainties and to critically manifest their vision of the world.


There are many examples of remarkable authors – like Brecht, Hugo or Blake – who effectively contributed to their societies, in this way. But, notwithstanding, we must to have in mind that we should not consider as good Literature only the one with a primordial social function.


In opposition to this socially engaged production, there is a large number of Literatures with doctrinaire purposes. Candido remembers that, during a long period of time, the Catholic Church considered “good Literature” the one that showed the truth of its doctrine, prizing “virtues” and punishing “sins”. Also, for the Soviet regimen, authentic Literature was the one that celebrated the fights carried out by the labor classes towards the construction of the socialist society. These were wrong and harmful positions to the good literary production, as they assume third-parties interests as decisive and above any aesthetic plan.


As a manner to take position against ideological uses, we must preferably endorse the modality of Literature which has the main purpose of denouncing social iniquities, allowing readers to develop their own point of view. As an example of this type of Literature in Brazil, we may mention Castro Alves and his commitment against slavery, among many other talented native authors.


However, a higher number of the most decisive social and humanitarian romances ever written can be found in Europe, especially in the early 19th Century, as a kind of literary reaction against the impacts of the industrialization, which promoted urban concentration in levels never seen before, making extreme misery to live side by side with all the wealth and prosperity of a very few portion of the society.


Life conditions suffered, then, a terrible deterioration, causing the reactions from both most sensible consciences and most discerning observers. And this was not only the case of Friederich Engel’s texts relating the conditions of the labor classes in England but, also, a large number of romances throughout the continent, denouncing this new situation. This phenomenon is largely related to the Romantic Movement which, besides its traditionalistic and conservative aspects, also propagated a new messianic and humanitarian message of great generosity, decisively influencing the trajectory of the first socialistic ideas.


One classical example of this new tendency of focusing poverty as an important literary subject was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which brought the idea that the lack of opportunity, the ignorance and the oppression were the main causes of criminality – and that poor people were condemned to violence due to their deplorable state of distress and misfortune.


So, much beyond than a simple expression of a basic necessity for “fabulation”, Literature has had, throughout centuries, an extreme importance not only in the construction of the societies but, also, in the evolution of the human mentality, although the electronic media – particularly television – is having, nowadays, an increasing role as a diffusing vehicle of collective concepts, especially in these times of globalization.


But Art and Society keep narrow bonds: historically, Literature has been the responsible for absorbing and expressing the conditions of the context in which it was produced, being, at the same time, subject to the variations and changes that occur in the social environment. And, certainly, the next generations will have an answer for the role that the literary production will have in the societies of the times to come.