World Literature: Major Authors & Works

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  • 1:48 Don Quixote
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

World literature is writing that goes beyond borders to touch readers worldwide. This lesson will define world literature and give five examples of books that have had a lasting influence.

Defining World Literature

Before we get into the major authors and works of world literature, we have to figure out what that term, 'world literature', even means. The first world literature course I taught in the mid-90s defined it as 'major literary works that were translated into English'. As if the English-speaking countries weren't part of the world!

I'd like to propose a better definition because there has to be a difference between a great book from Nigeria and a masterpiece of world literature like Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. The first example might better be called 'national literature'. It's popular within a nation, but it doesn't make waves beyond the borders of Nigeria. Achebe's novel not only has relevance to Nigerians, but it has also stirred thought across the globe. That's world literature, writing that circulates widely beyond the borders of its country of origin.

The Nobel Institute polled writers around the world to create a list of the top 100 essential selections of world literature. Many of the books on the list are ones of historical or religious significance, as those are some of the most likely to spread beyond the borders of a country. Others have shaped the course of literature. For instance, even though Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 500 years ago, modern movie and television writers can't stay away from this tried-and-true story of murder and betrayal. The same is true for the Greek classic Oedipus, a play about a man and his failed attempts to break away from fate.

To give you a taste for the great, influential works of world literature, here are five books that have had a huge impact beyond their country's borders.

Don Quixote

Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes. This Spanish book from the early 1600s may be the greatest book ever written. When the writers from around the world were polled for the book list, Don Quixote got more votes than any other choice. The title character goes on a series of adventures that include fat doses of romance, comedy, and conflict. In fact, for a book that's over 400 years old, it has a complexity and a range of issues that still speak to modern readers. This text deals with gender issues, morality, the class divide, and what it means to be a hero. That sounds like a list of contemporary topics! The fact that this book deals with so many important themes is one reason it has grown beyond the borders of Spain.

The Odyssey

The next book on our short list is The Odyssey by Homer. The Odyssey isn't actually a work of prose; it's an epic poem, one really long narrative poem about a hero. This one dates all the way back to the 8th century B.C.E. and it's not only a great adventure story, it's part of the first one ever written down.

When thinking of the canon, the body of literature that is generally considered to be great, there are a few ways a book can get accepted as part of that selective group. In the case of Don Quixote, one reason it's in the canon of world literature is that it deals with so many timeless themes.

Another reason for something to make it into the canon is historical significance. The Odyssey certainly has that. But it also pushes readers to consider the nature of humanity, divinity, beauty, pride, and it even takes a deep look at manners. The third reason for a book to make it to the canon is exceptional writing and The Odyssey cleans up by earning this distinction as well. When the main character, Odysseus, is finally reunited with his wife, Penelope, after 20 long years apart, this describes how she hugs him: 'She too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband, her white arms round him pressed as though forever.' Now that's a hug.

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