World Literature of the 17th-19th Centuries: Traits, Influences & Famous Works

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Modern World Literature: Characteristics & Influences

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 The Speed of Literature
  • 1:08 Defining World Literature
  • 1:50 Major Trends in World…
  • 2:45 Four Classics of World…
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

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

From the 17th Century to the 19th Century, world literature saw some profound changes. In this lesson, you'll learn about the major trends in the literature of that era, and you'll see four examples of landmark works.

The Speed of Literature

Let's do a little time travel to think about the history of world literature. Think about how long it takes to spread a story around the world these days. It can happen in seconds. Jump back just 25 years, and a great novel might spread in days, especially if it got some television publicity. If we travel in time back to the 1950s, a good book might take weeks or months - even longer when you consider translation time, and we're still within the lifetime of many adults!

Set the dial on your time machine to 1900, just before the first world war. There's no fast travel to be had - at all. So, even a book that set imaginations aflame could only spread as fast as the speed of the people carrying it.

We're going to focus on that time before modern transportation and communication and before many books broke the boundaries of their countries of origin. Let's look at world literature from the 1600s to the 1800s.

Defining World Literature

Before we go any further, let's be clear on one thing. That term 'world literature' may not be completely obvious. It doesn't just mean literature written in countries around the world, it refers to books that have a readership beyond their home country. While that is wide open for literature in the past 25 years, it severely limits the books from the 17th - 19th centuries.

Many great books during that time may not have had a chance to be read much beyond the borders of their home countries, and they faded into obscurity. However, there are some notable books that not only spread during their time but remain popular. Before we get into the examples, let's get the big picture and look at major trends.

Major Trends in World Literature

Just as the '80s had hair and metal and the '70s had disco, literature has trends that characterize specific time periods. The period from the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th century is what we call the Neoclassical period, a time when writers wanted to revive the classic style of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassical literature is known for order, structure and intelligence. We can go back to our music analogy for what came next.

Just as the punk rockers rebelled against the sweet sounds of the folk era, so, too, did the romantics rebel against the intellect of the Neoclassical writers. Romanticism was a literary era marked by emotion rather than reason.

Romanticism began in 1798 and lasted into the late 19th century. Now that you have the broad strokes, let's look at some of the standouts from these eras.

Four Classics of World Literature

Jonathan Swift, an influential Irish writer, scored a major hit with his book Gulliver's Travels. The book was immediately popular, and it has remained in print for nearly 300 years. Not only is the book highly imaginative with its giants, talking horses and miniature societies, but it's also sharp political satire, a style of writing in which the author makes jokes designed to get the readers thinking.

Moving into the early 1800s, Denmark's Hans Christian Anderson wrote our next example, Fairy Tales. Anderson's stories won the hearts of children and adults, and his writing spread around the world. These short tales remain relevant because versions of them have found their way into so many cultures that they're the basis of many modern stories. How many tales of transformation had their roots in The Ugly Duckling?

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account