The Role of Literature in Society

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  • 0:03 What Is the Role of…
  • 0:48 Transgress/Defamiliarize
  • 2:02 Improve Empathy
  • 2:37 Examine Consciousness
  • 3:19 Create Social Change
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

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

This lesson analyzes literature's diverse roles in contemporary culture and society, from the perspective of different literary critics and cultural theorists.

What Is the Role of Literature?

A few days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a German composer shocked the world when he called the events of September 11th 'the greatest work of art imaginable.' But Karlheinz Stockhausen was simply expressing a very common conception of art, one that many novelists share. By calling the terrorist attacks a work of art, Stockhausen suggested that the purpose of art is to penetrate the cultural psyche.

Many novelists share this view, suggesting that literature's real power is its ability to be transgressive. However, literature serves many other roles in society today. It can also cultivate empathy and theory of mind, defamiliarize reality, reflect on human nature, and enact social change.


Many novelists and literary critics celebrate literature for its ability to transgress. A fictional novelist in Don DeLillo's novel, Mao II, comments about this when he worries that terror is usurping this role:

'Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.'

Here, this character suggests that the purpose of literature is to provoke thought through shock-effect. This is a very modernist notion of literature. According to modernists, literature should rebel against tradition, creating new forms and techniques. The modernists dictate to 'make it new,' which suggests this transgressive aesthetic.


According to literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, the purpose of literature (art, more broadly) is to defamiliarize, or make the familiar feel strange. It causes the reader to regard reality from a different perspective. This can be unsettling for the reader, who is attached to familiar ways of knowing to the world. But, by provoking the reader to see the world as strange, literature allows the reader to see the world anew. Defamiliarity, thus, leads to new insights.

Empathy and Theory of Mind

Literature also helps to create empathy and understanding. In fact, according to many literary critics, literature improves Theory of Mind, which is the capacity to read the minds of others. When someone reads, he or she literally reads the mind of others, since they have access to character's internal thoughts.

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