Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
About Lesson


Literature and Society

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. become familiarized with English literature, and how the historical contexts influence the works of literature
  2. become aware that intersections among race, gender, class, sexuality, and/or national and global history play an important role in literary works
  3. get acquainted with with how literature has influenced society


There is a wide range of books available in the market and you are sure to find one easily, be it on education or entertainment. Have you ever thought about how literature influences people? Has it ever influenced you in any way? Literature is a very influential tool that can either help or mislead society. Getting exposure to good works of literature is like getting education in a non-formal way. It enriches our soul.

 Literature opens our eyes to new worlds. We read books, enjoy the comedies, weep reading the tragedies, appreciate poems, relish short stories, novels and plays, and may even evolve with the books. The incidents and characters in the books have the power to influence us deeply. If it influences a single reader, what will be its effect on a society? Literature influences the readers, what about the influence of society on the works of literature? Let us move forward to get an idea of how literature and society are interrelated.


Society, Culture, Values, Morals, Functions


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” This is the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. This observation depicts the behaviour of the wealthy men of nineteenth century England, whose sole aim in life was to accumulate wealth and get married. This novel portrays a society which encouraged women to look for ‘good’ marriages and find wealthy and propertied husbands.

Literature is a mirror which reflects the true life and culture of people. The distinct features that discriminate the literatures of a particular society from that of other societies are the characteristics of the societies themselves. The subject matters, premises and problems portrayed by each piece of literature are in-fact, the reflections of the activities and situations that occur in that particular community. The greatness of a literary work is determined by the magnitude with which it communicates the culture of the society to the world.

Society imposes its influence on literary works in different ways. Literature is integrally related to society, and the relationship is universal. The extent of the impact of society on literature is on par with the dominant social systems, the operative social forces: the prevailing system of social organisation – including the class structure, the economic system, the political organisation, and the inherent customs and conventions, the governing viewpoints; the distinctive feelings and emotions, the notions about the traditions and the existing realities.

There exists an extremely complicated as-sociation between literature and society, and hence it will be a very hard task to identify which element in the society has influenced literature. So, it will be difficult to choose a single element, economic or philosophical, and delegate it the status of influencing a particular literary work. The complete set of elements that determine the culture of a society, the values, beliefs, customs, and traditions, may perhaps be considered and found to be encompassing the power to decide the way a literary work should be written, or a particular character should be created. Thus, society plays the role of a model for the writers. Literary works not only embody both abstract as well as concrete notions of the society, and portrays subjects like alienation, assimilation and transformation in society, but also mirrors the social, political, and economic conditions of the society. The intention of any writer will be to present the society with all its genuine-ness through his work. Hence, it can be said that literature and society cannot exist without each other.

On examining literary works, whether it be of a poet, a dramatist, a novelist, or an essayist of any period, being the by-products of their period, it can be noted that a social incident or situation of the time has commonly affected the writers. Their writings distinctly present the images of the society. It is found to be mirroring the characteristic features of the society of the particular period when it is created.

The writers chose those elements of the society that cause deep impact on them, and pattern them in such a way that it satisfies their own views of art and life. A good ex-ample of the influence of the society on the literary works of a period can be found in the literature of the Elizabethan period. There is a marked difference between the drama and poetry of the Elizabethan period. The drama of the period enjoyed, and still enjoys a prominent position in the history of literature. It had the privilege of speaking directly to the audience, and it portrayed the true life of the people of the time, with all its psychological aspects. The destiny of any literary work was in the hands of the upper classes, the lords. Any poet who aimed to get his work published had to procure the patronage of a great lord. Any bard who wanted to get an income from the printing was able to obtain it only as gifts for their efforts. They were able to find the means for their living only from the castles of their lords.

Thus Spenser, the chief poet of the Elizabethan period, in his celebrated work, The Faerie Queene, states that the aim of the work is “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline.” His only intention behind the work was to educate the high-class society only. When compared to the poetry of the period, the Elizabethan play-wrights enjoyed a freedom that the poets were denied. They were free from the fetters of the dependence on the patrons. The Elizabethan playwright was no longer dependent on the benevolence of a single patron. Although the companies of actors were thought of as being under the service of the lords, this was nothing but a formality to assure legality.

The lords and nobles continued to exert their power upon literature until the eighteenth century, when society began to be exposed to reading. Although the aristocrats were, as a result of this, replaced by the publishers, the condition of the writers continued to be the same.

A good example of the influence of social situations upon literature can be seen in the literature of the Romantic Period. The French Revolution caused a deep impact on the lit-erature of the time. The Revolution gave Eu-rope the optimistic feeling of political inde-pendence and social reforms. Despite the fact that this optimistic feeling was shattered with the power being handed over to Napoleon, its place was taken by the interest in the strug-gle of the nations against outdated customs. William Wordsworth was intensely affected by the doctrines of the French Revolution. His great work, The Prelude, is a portrayal of the advancement of his political considerations. S.T. Coleridge, like Wordsworth, also under-went such a stage of revolutionary passion. The influence of the French Revolution can be seen in most of his works. It made him look at things with a cynical attitude, which resulted in his redirecting his thoughts to spiritual idealism which delivered emotional fulfilment to him. The influence of the Revolution is also strikingly noticeable in the poems of P.B. Shelley.

Although it can be seen that sociological set-tings play a major role upon the writer and his works, it does not end there. The influence happens in the reverse manner too. It is not only the writer who is affected by the society and its settings, but the society is also influenced by the literary works. Literature not only has the power to portray life and situations, but also has the potential to mould it. Society has always been influenced by the lives of the characters in many literary works. The excitement caused in the readers, by a great poem cannot be ignored. Shelley has aptly, in his Defence of Poetry, addressed poets as, “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.”

Novels have been thought of as having the power to make people think. They have helped people in creating movements that have transformed the lives of many. The impact of literary works on society can either be direct or indirect. The direct influence can be perceived in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This novel was account-able for stirring the movement against slavery in America. The same influence, although an indirect one, can be seen in the novels writ-ten by Charles Dickens. His novels, like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, produced in the people of his period an urge to control and eliminate the social evils prevailing in the society. His novels proclaimed the inevitability of social reforms. Shashi Deshpande’s novels have gone a long way in breaking the shack-les of conservative attitudes towards women in Indian society.

1.3.1 Functions of Literature on the Society

Educational Function:

Literature teaches society about many aspects of life. It is used to present the facets of life that can be seen by the people, and even those that they can never dream of. It teaches people about the prevailing social, political and economic systems. For example, the strong political allegory in George Orwell’s novel The Animal Farm makes us aware of the corruption of socialist ideals in the Soviet Union at that time.

Cultural Function

Literature has an inseparable relationship with culture. It portrays the life and culture of people of a particular place or society. It presents the traditional notions and conventions that have been handled down from one generation to another. For example, a reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart opens the eyes of the readers to the customs and traditions of the Igbo community.

Ideological Function:

Literature influences society by inculcating revolutionary ideas and diverse means of thinking in its members. W.B. Yeats’ poems present strong revolutionary ideals which were prevalent during the time of the Irish Revolution.

Linguistic Function:

Every literary work makes use of language. Hence, literature acts as a means of development in the language skills of the readers. Apart from this, it also helps in enhancing their vocabulary and grammar.

To Entertain People:

Other than the educational function, literature has a function of imparting pleasure to the readers. It transforms the readers to imaginary worlds. S.T. Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” transports the readers to the supernatural world of Xanadu.

To Liberate People:

A literary work acts as a source for the liberation of minds from the fetters of unfavourable conditions. It also helps people in identifying and overcoming political oppression, social injustice, inequalities of gender, caste, creed and colour. For example, after reading Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, a person who faces or confronts the social evil of untouchability can be awakened against enduring or practising that tradition.

To Critique the Society:

Literary works can serve as a means to critique the society by alluding to the social in-justices and evils. On reading them, the society becomes aware of these, and it determines to take prevention measures. Osman Conteh’s novel, Unanswered Cries condemns the practice of female genital mutilation in some African societies.

Thus, it can be seen that literature is a means to reinforce the culture and tradition of the society it takes into consideration. The assumptions, beliefs, caste, creed, myths, and religion, together with historical, political, and social factors, influence a work of literature. Apart from this, the revolutionary power of literature in reforming society cannot be over-looked.


  • Society – influences literature.
  • Literature – causes impact on society
  • Writers- influenced by the prominent incidents of their period.
  • Different functions of literature
  • Educational function
  • Cultural function
  • Ideological function
  • Linguistic function
  • Entertainment function


Objective Questions

  1. P.B. Shelley’s revolutionary poem “Ode to the West Wind” can be considered as an example of which function of poetry?
  2. Which societal influence caused the lack of freedom for the writers of the Elizabethan poets?
  3. Give an example of the entertainment function of literature.
  4. What can be considered a mirror to society?
  5. What does the linguistic function of literature help to improve?
  6. Give an example of a novel that portrays the society after industrialization.
  7. Which function of literature does Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart serve?
  8. Whose poems depict the ideological function of literature?



  1. Ideological function
  2. Patronage
  3. S.T. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”
  4. Literature
  5. Language skills
  6. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist
  7. Cultural function
  8. W.B. Yeats’



  1. Write a paragraph on how Indian culture has influenced literature.
  2. Write a note on the adverse effects of literature on society.
  3. What are the functions of literature in society?


Suggested Readings


  1. Glicksberg, Charles I. Literature and Society. Martinus, 1972.
  2. Halsey, A. H. A History of Sociology in Britain: Science, Literature and Society. Oxford    UP, 2004.
  3. Lowenthal, Leo. Literature and Mass Culture: Communication in Society. Transaction, 1984.
  4. Milner, Andrew. Literature, Culture and Society. NYU, 1996.