- The intimate relation of literature to society
- The influence of society on literature
- The complex relation
- The belief of some critics in the direct connection between literature and the social situation
- The belief that literature has no relation with social situation
Literature is intimately related to society. Literature is the mirror of the entire culture of a people. 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 the culture. It is an integral part of the entire culture.
Society influences literature in many ways, and the connections of literature with society are integral and pervasive. In fact, the range of social influences on literature is as broad as the entire range of operative social forces. The prevailing system of social organisation, the economic system, the political organisation and the deeply rooted institutions, the dominant ideas the characteristic emotional tone, the sense of the past and the pattern of the future, the driving aspirations and ‘myths’ and their relation to the contemporary realities, there is nothing in the compass of social life that does not play its part.
The relation between literature and society is highly complex. 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 period. In each period in the history of 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 select those elements of that social situation which have managed to produce an impact on him, and weaves them into pattern which is compatible with his own standards of art and his views of human life.
Some critics believed in the direct connection between literature and the social situation or the Spirit of the Age.
They told their readers that literature is the finest expression of contemporary feelings, Those who understand can learn from it the thought of the period. Man’s attitude to things, his ethical valuations and his emotional preferences, are carried over into the direct expression in the literary productions. It was held that in literature the Spirit of the Age gains embodiment and shape. A man of truly sensitive perception can deduce the whole intellectual life of a period from its literature. Such criticism of literature is no more than an exaggeration. Thus it might be shown that Chaucer’s poetry is a poor mirror of the more obvious political issues of the England of his day, and that even Shakespeare was alive to the glory of the victory over the Armada but not to the realities of enclosure movement. But such a line of enquiry assumes a simplicity that does not exist in the functioning of social process. Any appreciable change in the social processes communicates itself to the body of literature not directly but through a ramifying network of social relations.
Some critics are of the opinion that literature has no relation with social situation prevailing at a particular time. For example, Vossler, writing about Dante, remarked, Science and the fine arts may require a rich economic soil.
But imaginative writing is a flower that flourishes merrily among rocks and ice, in frost and storms. It is affected by the history of states and of wars only in so far as they fill the imagination and appeal to the emotions of the people Renan, another critic, goes even further when he shows that the periods of great political and social storms and upheavals are just those that give life to great and fruitful new ideas. Among the many examples he quotes in evidence of this, he points out that it was actually in the time and partly under the yoke of the Napoleon that Germany passed through her classic period in philosophy and art. After the First World War some political observers were taking this fact as their text for consolatory and optimistic comment on Germany’s difficulties after the Treaty of Versailles.
But the history of literature, regarded in its sociological aspect, teaches us to view generalizations of this sort with certain mistrust. That creative literary activity is independent of material circumstances might conceivably be asserted of certain popular forms, but certainly not of any great literature or any literature that bears an individual stamp.