Monday, March 29, 2010

Literature through Time: Valuing the Classics?

As I prepare to write my Master's Thesis, I've begun to question literature in a new way.  I have my BA in English, and I read a heck of a lot to get there, but this is a whole new experience for me.  I've started to understand literature in the sense and scope of time, rather than just the intellectual understanding that classics are such because they're old.   This, of course, has me thinking about the value of classical literature to modern audiences.  More specifically, do classical tragedies, allegories, parodies and the like have any substantial meaning to modern audiences?

In other words, do they translate? And, if they do, then how?  If not, then how will our literature affect or translate to future generations?

Personally, I think something is lost, there's no way we can truly put ourselves in the shoes of those who first saw the work.  We can understand their societies from am intellectual distance, but there's no way we can experience them.  In that vein, though, modern readers and scholars are able to extract from classical works their larger meanings and themes and apply them to modern society in creative ways.  We understand their themes and purposes, but we do so in a way that's unique and different from audiences contemporaneous with the work.  We get something completely different form it, on a personal and social level, than did the first audiences.  Yet, in this way, we are able to understand literature in a way that it's first audiences could not, we can understand the work's affect on the ages, something contemporary audiences could never have foreseen or understood.

Through classics, modern readers are able to touch a time in history they couldn't otherwise know.  The lengths of our imaginations are extended to the written word and we are able to vicariously live through the works of Euripides or Jane Austen.   Classical literature is a sort of time machine through which we are able to live the lives of Helen of Troy, Beowulf, and Don Quixote.  There's a magic in that that I hope will extend from our modern authors to future generations in a meaningful way.

So let me ask you, what do you think of classical literature?  Does it have value to modern audiences?


  1. It certainly does for me. For example, "The Grapes of Wrath" has a great deal of value for me because it serves to help put my own pathetic problems in perspective, due to the nature of the struggles the family goes through on their way to California. I also feel as if "1984" and "Animal Farm" parallel certain things that are going on in our world right now. "Roots" really taught me about the history of slavery, and the challenges minorites face even in modern times. "The Scarlett Letter" showed me the inner strength a woman can possess....I could go on and on! Good question Kristyn! When you are teaching English, you should make your students write an essay on that topic.

  2. What a great blog on Literature through Time: Valuing the Classics? | A Turn of Page !