Literature and Tradition

Key words: orality, literacy, tradition, canon, influence, conventions, imitation, re-writing, parody, allusion; (intertextuality, anxiety of influence)


One of the most fascinating and challenging aspects of literature is the vastness of its historic and geographic range. This means that through literary texts, twenty-first century readers like us can have access to the lives and thoughts, sorrows and pleasures, fears and desires not only of men and women around us, but also those of people who lived hundreds of years before us or hundreds of kilometres away from us, and may not even have shared a language with us. Thus, any reader of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey (8th c. B. C.) will gain insight into early Greek views on the extent to which a human being can feel in control of his or her own life, whereas Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) will inform the reader about the values and life of English ‘polite society’ around 1800. As the etymology of literature from the Latin word for letter suggests, this comprehensiveness largely depends on literature relying on writing. As opposed to the oral transmission of information, when knowledge is passed on by way of mouth, writing —or literacy —does not depend on the direct contact between the ‘sender’ and the ‘receiver’. Although none of us can hope to be able to talk to the writers of the Odyssey, the Bible, Beowulf, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice or even Yesterday in this life any more, we can all engage with their views by reading what they wrote. In this sense, literature helps transcend temporal as well as geographic (and even linguistic) discontinuities.

In one sense, literary tradition simply means such an accumulative process of handing down texts for future generations. In another sense, however, tradition often involves a selective process whereby the most important (most ‘valuable’) works are singled out as the ones that each generation should know. Taking a term from biblical studies, where the ‘canon’ means those books which are regarded by authorities as authentic, written under divine inspiration and therefore worthy of inclusion in the Bible, such a selection of literary works has been also called the canon. The literary canon, as defined by literary critical, educational or sometimes political authorities, thus comprises those centrally important and eminently valuable ‘great’ or ‘classic’ works which all educated members of a given community should read. Since, however, judgements of what is important and valuable do undergo changes, and as the number of literary works continues to grow due to new works (and the discovery of temporarily lost works), the canon itself is also subject to revisions. For instance, ballads, which were not regarded as serious literature for centuries, began to be studied and anthologised in the 18th century, and reached fully canonical status as a genre as they were adopted by the Romantics in works like S. T. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). Also, reading Greek and Roman classics in the original used to be seen as an integral part of being properly educated for centuries, but as other readings and skills have claimed place in education, the position of Homer’s Iliad is also weakening as a reference point in the tradition.

The literary works making up the literary tradition, however, are read not only by the educated ‘common reader’ or by students, teachers and critics. As writers tend to have an understandable professional interest in works of other writers, it is difficult to find a literary work which does not show in one way or another the influence of other texts. Indeed, one argument for the positing of something like a literary tradition is the formation of literary conventions, that is, stylistic or formal devices or elements of subject matter which through being repeated in work after work, have become markers of different kinds or genres of writing. Thus, as the influential Italian sonnets of Petrarch were ‘imitated’ and adopted in England in the 16th c by Sir Thomas Wyatt (?1503-42) and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (? 1517-47), the Petrarchan rhyme scheme of abba abba cde cde (or abba abba cdc dcd) was transformed into abab cdcd efef gg. This, in turn, was taken up by a number of English poets — including, famously, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) — and thus helped to establish the generic conventions of the English sonnet. Similarly, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), a novel written in the form of a series of letters, became so popular after its publication all over Europe, that it was widely imitated and thus became largely responsible for the recognition and popularity of the new all-European genre of the epistolary novel.

As mentioned earlier, the passing down of the literary tradition works at many levels, not only the level of formal generic conventions. Equally formidable in this process is the role, for instance, of imagery. When the poetic persona of John Donne’s (c. 1562-1631) Holy Sonnet XIV (beginning “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”) demands that God would “ravish” him as a violent man would a woman, he is relying on the imagery of God as bridegroom and the believer as bride, which goes back to a long tradition of Christian interpretations of the biblical Song of Songs. Similarly, thematic elements can also be handed down. For instance, the theme of the loss of innocence is crucial to not only the biblical book of Genesis or John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), but also to S. T. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) or even the Star Wars sequence of films (1977-2005, especially the 1980 The Empire Strikes Back and the 2005 Revenge of the Sith).

Not infrequent is the borrowing or re-working of plots and plot elements (the latter being also known as stock situations). Plots based on the idea of a journey as self-discovery appear to have been popular since the days of the Odyssey through Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1901) up to Star Wars again. The courtship plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), with its clever steering of the main characters from initial dislike through increasing understanding and respect to mutual acceptance and love, has proved an enduring influence on a range of fictions from Elisabeth Gaskell’s engaging social problem novel North and South (1854-5) through innumerable twentieth-century popular serial romances to recent best-sellers like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996).

There are also some character types which become so influential that they virtually become stock characters and have their own conventions. A case in point is the Byronic hero, which got its name from the heroes of George Gordon, Lord Byron’s narrative poems Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-6) and The Giaour (1813) and dramatic poem Manfred (1817), and was famously characterised by historian and essayist T. B. Macaulay (1800-59) as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”. In spite of being called Byronic, this character type seems in fact to rely on previous literary examples like the cunning but not unattractive Satan of Paradise Lost and cruel but passionate Gothic villains like the hero of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). In turn, the psychologically complex and morally ambiguous Byronic hero continued to be influential long after Byron’s death, giving rise to memorable later fictional protagonists like the Heathcliff of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and the Rochester of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) (as well as, arguably, several heroes of American western films and even the Darth Vader of Star Wars).

Similarly, successful settings have created their following. One such setting is the island, with its archetypal symbolism of isolation and its potential for representing miniature model societies. Island settings have exercised the imagination of writers for centuries, as witnessed by works as various as William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (c. 1611), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and the flock of ‘Robinsonades’ that it gave rise to, up to William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954), the recent film Cast Away (2000), and, arguably, a whole series of science fiction works dealing with space travellers ending up in isolated planets or space stations.

The literary tradition can thus affect many aspects of literary works, and also in many different ways. For centuries of pre-Romantic writing, the imitation of other literary works was not just an exercise in learning the craft of writing, but a legitimate way of preserving the achievements of the past while engaging with present concerns and practices. Thus in borrowing devices like the invocation of the muse or the enumeration of characters in Aeneid (c. 20 B. C.) or Paradise Lost (1667), Roman poet Virgil and English poet John Milton both proudly acknowledged their imitation of and indebtedness to the Homeric tradition dating from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although the term imitation has largely lost its critical currency in this sense since the Romantic insistence on originality, this idea of the repetition with variation, of creative adaptation and up-dated re-creation of other texts has been an undeniable factor at the birth of many important texts. This is rather conspicuously so in the case of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is not only an epic which relies on Homeric precedents, but as its title announces, also an elaborate re-creation of and commentary on the biblical story of the Fall of Man. The title of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) similarly positions the work as a modern version of the Homeric epic Odyssey, in which we can follow the adventures of an Irish-Jewish-Hungarian Odysseus (or Ulysses) as he winds his way through the Dublin of June 16, 1904.

The aim of re-writing texts to add “missing” parts of already existing texts, although perceptible in Milton’s epic, is a slightly different, although no less interesting response to earlier works. A well-known example of this is Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which sets out to fill in a fictional gap left in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847) by presenting the story of the courtship and marriage of Rochester and his first wife Bertha (Antoinette) Mason, and thus recover her voice and personality, both of which are notably suppressed as a result of Charlotte Brontë’s concentration on the Jane Eyre–Rochester relationship. Another recent case of the imaginative ‘completion’ of earlier works is J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986), which not only fictionally ‘recovers’ the story of Robinson Crusoe’s female companion on the island, but also presents her as the real writer of what we know only as Defoe’s work. Similarly, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) provides us with a commentary on Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of two subsidiary characters who do not get to say much in the predecessor play.

A more blatantly critical reaction to earlier works is displayed by parodies. A good example is Shamela, Henry Fielding’s 1741 parody of Samuel Richardson’s seminal epistolary novel Pamela (1740), in which Fielding proposes to reveal the true nature of the modesty and virtue which Richardson’s heroine Pamela is supposed to display as being in fact the scheming pretence (or ‘sham’) of a mercantile ‘Shamela’ and her equally mercantile author. Somewhat more constructively, texts can also move authors to improve on works and themes of others. This is what appears to have happened to Henry Fielding as well, who, having published his Shamela, set out to write his first novel Joseph Andrews (1742), in which the comic adventures of Pamela’s brother and parson Adams provide coherent social and moral commentary which goes beyond a mere parody.

As another extremely widespread form of the engagement with literary tradition, the role of allusion needs to be mentioned, that is, the reference to (aspects of) another work, usually as an example or parallel. A clear example is provided by the hero of James Joyce’s first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Given the conspicuously foreign name Stephen Dedalus, the figure of the young Irishman and prospective artist in exile is an obvious allusion to the Daedalus of Greek mythology, a creative artisan who had to encounter danger and save himself by constructing wings and flying from the island where he was held captive.

Similarly, writers often prefix epigraphs and mottos taken from other works to the beginnings of works or sections of works in order to introduce motifs. The epigraph, for instance, on the title page of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man evokes Roman poet Ovid’s collection of myths Metamorphoses as it announces the craftsman Daedalus’s application of his mind to “unknown arts”. This then serves as a parallel to the narrative of Joyce’s novel, in which the hero Dedalus turns towards similarly unknown arts as he prepares to go and “forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race”.

More generally, several recent literary theorists (like Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes) have argued that the writing and reading of any text happens in the context of various other texts, which results in what has become known as the phenomenon of intertextuality. The idea is that texts are mixtures of other texts or ‘tissues of citations’, which means, in turn, that they rely on different and often conflicting systems of meaning and values, and this should be taken into consideration in our interpretations of these texts as well. (A reading of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for instance, can hardly ignore the interplay of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the 20th century theatre of the absurd in the same text.)

In an effort to discuss the general effect of the literary tradition on authors, American critic Harold Bloom has recently suggested the usefulness of recognising what he termed the “anxiety of influence”. According to this argument, the ideal of originality has forced certain authors (like many Romantic and post-Romanic poets) to exaggerate their independence from predecessor writers by misinterpreting them and thus denying their influence.

Excercises