Literature as a Response to Culture

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson analyzes how literature responds to various aspects of culture, such as historical events, social conditions, scientific developments, and religious movements. This lesson offers examples from British and American literature.

Literature as a Response to Culture

Literature is a significant source for cultural commentary. Literature responds to various aspects of culture both thematically and formally. In other words, literature may challenge or integrate certain attitudes or beliefs through plot, form, and structure. For instance, while realist literature is known for integrating themes at the level of plot, modernist literature is known for conveying ideas through formal innovation.

Historical Events

Literature responds to history by using narrative to make sense of events. Modernist literature, for instance, emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century in response to the events of World War I. The modernist aesthetic attempts to represent the sense of alienation and confusion that individuals experienced in the wake of the First World War. It does so by adapting traditional forms. For instance, modernists rejected chronological plot structure in favor of fragmented forms.

T. S. Eliot's poem 'The Waste Land' is an example of fragmented form. The poem is disjointed and disconnected, leaving the reader to reassemble the pieces into some kind of coherent form. The poem is set up to parallel the reader with the speaker of the poem, who is sifting through the ruins of a wasteland. Modernists also use stream-of-conscious narration (interior monologue) to portray the fragmentation of a modern subject's psyche.

Social Conditions

Literature also responds to broader social concerns, such as class warfare or social inequity. The realist tradition, fiction that mirrors reality, is particularly known for its response to social evils. Charles Dickens' realist novels, for instance, respond to the evils of Victorian society.

Oliver Twist responds to the severe penal system in England during the nineteenth century. The book shows how the poorer classes are subjected to punishments by virtue of their poverty. Great Expectations explores how Victorian society perpetuates class inequalities by denying relief to the poor.


Literature has also tended to respond to scientific developments. Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley responded to the impact of the Scientific Revolution in their novels, questioning the authority of reason and rationalism. Both Hard Times and Frankenstein, for instance, portray how an emphasis on 'facts' and literal meanings can discourage alternative ways of thinking about and understanding the world.

More recently, literature has responded to the developments in neuroscience. In the twenty-first century, there is a burgeoning genre of 'neuro-novels,' which integrate neuroscientific discourse into narrative, often by portraying a character with a neurological disorder. Neuro-novels respond to the neuroscientific notion that personhood can be reduced to measuring neural activity.

Religious Movements

Over the last few centuries, literature has also offered a meaningful response to religious movements. For instance, in the nineteenth century, a new movement of literature emerged in response to transformations within the Unitarian church in the United States.

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