Why study Literature?
Honorary Fellow of the School of Humanities, Richard Jacobs, has 40 years experience of teaching literature, so The English Association invited him to write about why it’s such an important subject to study . Read the article here.
In Richard’s role he delivers open lectures on literature which students on all our literature courses can attend – find out more about these courses on our Literature, Language and Linguistics subject page.
Why Study Literature? by Richard Jacobs
The question ‘why study literature?’ would rarely have been asked when I
started teaching literature forty years ago. That was the time when, for
instance, George Steiner could confidently pronounce that to teach King
Lear was to have the responsibility of holding students’ souls (or was it
their heart-strings?) in one’s hands. That was the time when even secularists
talked about souls in relation to texts. It’s true that in the early seventies
continental theory, in the form of Derrida’s first books, was already being
heatedly welcomed in the more knowing circles, as I found when I arrived at
Oxford and was shortly afterwards told, at a student essay-society meeting,
that liberal humanism was dead, but then, as a public-school educated
adolescent, I hadn’t even heard of liberal humanism, let alone Derrida. A
few years later, when I was a hardly less callow postgraduate, John Sparrow
of All Souls told me that he didn’t actually agree with anyone at All Souls
studying English literature, but that wasn’t because he belittled the subject
(as might be the case now) but because he thought all properly educated
students (at least at Oxford) were doing it all the time anyway just by reading
books, so there was no need for research grants and prize fellowships for
them to get on with it.
Today the question has urgency for reasons that don’t need much
elaboration, from the instrumentalist-utilitarian ideology infecting all
education in the UK to the predictable effects of getting rid of AS levels
while straight-jacketing the GCSE English curriculum. Numbers taking
A-level literature are in worrying decline and universities like my own are
seriously worried by the consequences.
So it may be timely to reflect on what it is, as teachers of literature, at
schools and universities, we believe about the benefits to students, and
ourselves, of studying our subject – though I’m very aware that there’s
room for considerable disagreement about questions of benefit and value,
and even ‘truth’, in a ‘post-truth’ age, an age of increasingly brazen lies and
deceptions posing as narrative facts, where ‘truth’ has to be bracketed by
quotation (or, in the theory buzz-term, put under erasure), as well as there
being a range of ideas about what it is we’re actually teaching – transferrable
life-skills, cultural heritage, personal growth, critical literacy etc. The
personal growth model is implicit in what follows but I might add that
critical literacy is, in the current cultural moment, perhaps the most urgent
of these aims in our work: the shared experience in class on the individual
text which will empower students with the ability, and the need, to read the
world and its texts on their own, with critical insight and the awareness of
I’ll approach the question ‘why study literature?’ in a personal way
(which I hope will be excused), as a series of examples of how literature,
or moments of (if I can risk the phrase) literary epiphany, have affected
me – and changed my life. For I hope we can agree that great literary texts
simultaneously explore, dramatize and thematise changes in and to lives
(most predictably in hetero-normative marriage in the 19th century novel)
and also enact that process of change upon the reader, a dynamic that is
at the heart of the reading-experience and, of course, central to the notion
of reader-response criticism, which is perhaps the most relevant of critical theoretical
approaches in post-16 literature classrooms.
My first example is from Chaucer, not of course because he chronologically
kicks things off (I assume he’s now hardly ever taught in schools and
colleges – or indeed in most universities: he’s not taught in mine), but
because this is one of the purest examples I know of what this article is most
interested in. It’s also, for me, the most wonderful textual moment in the
entire Canterbury Tales.
It’s the climax of ‘The Franklin’s Tale’ in which the devoted wife Dorigen
has playfully and pityingly indulged her besotted courtly-lover Aurelius
that she will yield to his demands for love if he performs an impossible
task which, of course, he sort-of does. In desperation she confesses to her
husband, the knight Arveragus who, in another wonderful moment, says
(in effect) ‘oh, is that all? Well, you must keep your word as that’s always
our first duty’ – and then bursts into tears. Dorigen starts off to the garden
where the promised assignation is to take place and in the street on the way
bumps into Aurelius whom, in her despair, she doesn’t seem to recognise.
He asks her where she’s going. In Coghill’s translation:
And she replied as one half driven mad,
‘Why, to the garden, as my husband bade
To keep my plighted word, alas, alas!’
This onrush of true feeling so profoundly affects the young lover that he
feels a ‘great surge of pity’ and, under that impulse, he releases her from her
I read this as a teenager but it wasn’t till teaching it at A-level in my first
job that it hit me with the force of revelation. For what became so clear was
that Dorigen, but also Aurelius, were as-if sleepwalking into the coerciveness
of allegory, in the form of the garden beyond the city-street, in imminent
danger of succumbing to a paper-thin fictiveness – the pseudo-world of
courtly love becoming ‘real’, where it suddenly matters and is irrevocable.
Aurelius has occupied that allegory as his daily life, a dream; the threat so
nearly not averted is that Dorigen will be folded into it, as a text into a text.
Of course, the students I was teaching realised that we weren’t talking about
one ‘real’ life or world and one ‘fictive’ life or world, because ‘The Franklin’s
Tale’ is fictive and its characters are made up of Chaucer’s words. But they
saw clearly that the dangers of Dorigen and Aurelius collapsing into allegory
can only be averted by that semi-conscious cry in the street, her tears (and
those of Arveragus), and that onrushing surge of pity. The fact that my own
adolescence, hardly behind me at the time, was, like Aurelius’, a matter of
fictive romantic entanglements, little to do with true feeling, and nothing to
do with pity, sharpened further the revelatory power of this moment.
I was, like everyone else, stunned and astonished by Philip Pullman’s
His Dark Materials (which, both for literary and political reasons, I’d love
to be placed in the hands of all our school-children). At one point, Pullman
makes a crucial distinction which we can compare with the Chaucer passage
we’ve just been looking at.
Lyra and Will have travelled to the world of the dead. Harpies guard
and harry the ghosts in the region and when Lyra offers to tell them a story
to make the Harpies let them through to search for her friend she thinks
she’s on safe ground, being (as her name hints) used to spinning lies. So,
after she does a quick mental check (‘parents dead; family treasure; shipwreck;
escape’), she launches into the fantasy narrative only to be viciously attacked
by the Harpies screaming ‘Liar! Liar!’ Pages later she tries telling stories
again, this time simply drawing on the world she knows, and with legions
of ghosts as well as Harpies listening. This time the Harpies listen, ‘solemn
and spellbound’. Will asks them why. Their leader replies, in a paragraph
that for me is Pullman at his eloquent best.
Because it was true…Because she spoke the truth. Because it was
nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn’t help it.
Because it was true. Because we had no idea that there was anything
but wickedness. Because it brought us news of the world and the sun
and the wind and the rain. Because it was true.
The distinction here is no simple one between true and false, and of
course Pullman is the first to be aware of that (as his fiction, like the
Chaucer tale, like all fiction, is ‘false’), nor is the narrative implying that
only the biographically factual (Lyra’s life) can make for ‘true’ stories. The
distinction, I think, is between narrative as empty fantasy (like courtly love),
manipulative and merely lying for routine and other purposes (as in our
world of Trump and Brexit), and narrative as ‘nourishing’ and ‘feeding’:
and it is literature of that kind that changes lives, as it changes the lives of
the Harpies. And this is the literature that as teachers we celebrate with our
daily work with students.
Alongside some Chaucer and the expected plays of Shakespeare, at
boarding-school my life was changed especially by Waiting for Godot, which
I came across at random and immediately knew I had to act the part of
Estragon and direct – wholly absorbed by the language and comic routines
of two characters staving off silence and emptiness (which I knew about too
well), painfully aware that Estragon and Vladimir need change above all but
that ‘they all change, only we can’t’ – and, this time taught in class, Emma.
I identified guiltily with Emma and fell into all the plot-traps so brilliantly
laid for her and unobservant readers like my adolescent self, convinced, like
Emma, that I was at the centre of a web of romantic intrigues and controlling
it, when of course the opposite was the case. It was a very chastening read
and it took me a long time to recover from it. And one passage, above all,
thudded into me.
It’s the end of the Box Hill scene, following Mr Knightley’s very stern
rebuking of Emma for her cruel treatment of Miss Bates, and that rebuke
itself made me feel differently as a person. In effect, Mr Knightley is not
saying that Emma’s wrong to think of Miss Bates as tiresome and irritating
(he’s pretty short with her himself) but wrong to give voice to that opinion
when she might hear it. It’s a lesson in the necessities of mild hypocrisy
and veiled dishonesty, those being preferable to hurting people outright.
But the aftermath of the scene is what I’d like to turn to now, the novel’s
most emotionally draining moment – and I can still recall my school-boy
While they talked, they were advancing towards the carriage; it was
ready; and, before she could speak again, he had handed her in.
He had misinterpreted the feelings which kept her face averted, and
her tongue motionless. They were combined only of anger against
herself, mortification, and deep concern. She had not been able
to speak; and, on entering the carriage, sunk back for a moment
overcome – then reproaching herself for having taken no leave,
making no acknowledgement, parting in apparent sullenness, she
looked out with voice and hand eager to show a difference; but it was
just too late. He had turned away, and the horses were in motion. She
continued to look back, but in vain; and soon, with what appeared
unusual speed, they were half way down the hill, and everything left
far behind…It was not necessary to speak. There was only Harriet,
who seemed not in spirits herself…and very willing to be silent; and
Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way
home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as
Just typing that out now is to revisit the sheer pain (‘it was just too late’) that
changes Emma, and changed me, for ever. There may be students working
in class with this novel, and I’m sure less self-centred than I was at 17, for
whom the force of this passage may potentially mark a milestone in the
journey towards the fully socialised self that we all have in mind in teaching
for a properly civic society.
I’ve implied already that when lives change – for characters in texts,
for students in reading about them (and indeed in teaching) – there is
a political dimension, even if political issues are not explicitly evoked. I
mean that the kind of enhanced reading that we’re thinking about has the
effect of enlarging our and our students’ consciousness and sympathies –
simply put, our capacities to identify with and feel for others, especially
for those demonised as the ‘other’. An example I’ve written about more
than once is the radical transformation of Melville’s lawyer in Bartleby as he
feels, for the first time in his life, profound sympathy for another human
being. In effect, the elderly lawyer, like Emma and Aurelius, grows up. It’s
a blunt point to make about our cultural moment (Brexit, Trump) that the
successful demonising of the ‘other’ is the ugliest and most dangerous of its
manifestations. We should feel no embarrassment in teaching to counteract
this thinking, or rather the active encouragement, fed in frenzy by the
western world’s most rabidly irresponsible and vindictively partisan press,
not to think properly at all, and certainly not to think about and not to
feel for others different from ourselves. We can subscribe to many aspects
of literary theory without losing sight of how reading can change lives for
others as well as ourselves.
Of my two last examples the first is openly political. The character in
question becomes politicised and as readers we are made to negotiate our
own political responses. This is Stevie in The Secret Agent. I only got to
know this novel when teaching it – and, as it happens, this was during
the miners’ strike which (very belatedly) politicised me. Conrad made the
challenging decision to base his account of a character becoming politicised
on someone himself ‘othered’ (by everyone apart from his sister) because
of being ‘simple’. There’s an attendant comedy lurking in Stevie’s discovery
of the brutal social realities of poverty and exploitation from talking to the
cabby with his suffering horse. Conrad’s flickering ironic narrative voice is
always tempting us to keep our distance from the rawness of the pain. But
he knows we can’t but be moved, not least because, perhaps like Bartleby,
Stevie is missing the usual human layer by which we limit our susceptibility
to the pain of others. Though it’s ‘funny’, Stevie’s wish to take the suffering
cabby and his horse into his bed, and his child-like gnomic utterances, ‘“Bad!
Bad!…Poor! Poor!”’, spoken ‘with convulsive sympathy’ and culminating in
the suddenly flashing accumulated insight ‘“Bad world for poor people…
Beastly!”’, have exactly the ‘simple’ immediacy that can awaken students to
their own enlarged political understanding, as raw and odd and unsettling
as Stevie’s, and more powerful as an agent of change in their lives than an
economics textbook or Guardian leader.
Before my last example, a brief word on two texts that students have
regularly reported back as having had an enormous impact on them, making
their lives feel very different. The power of these texts derives largely from
the fact that they are compressed into the smallest possible space and use
language of the utmost concentration and with almost incantatory powers.
These are Geoffrey Hill’s Holocaust poem ‘September Song’ and Beckett’s
‘Not I’. I’ve written about these (as about other texts in this article) before,
so I’ll just say here that in both instances students are forced to struggle in
language’s grip, in the case of the Hill poem having to negotiate, through
the thorny series of furious puns, issues of history, entitlement, collusion
and guilt, and in the case of Not I being locked into a space and forced
to listen for a few terrible minutes to, to bear witness to, a woman whose
torrent of words is a refusal to own the narrative of her anguished life. The
texture of language, its text-ness, is where the life-changing power inheres,
as in all great poems, as in the textures of music and painting.
My last example is very different and concerns a painting. I came to
Proust late in life and I wouldn’t pretend for a moment that many of
our students, at A-level and university, will be easily urged to climb that
particular mountain. With self-help and other books arguing how Proust
changes our lives you don’t need me to add to the list. But one passage did
change my life in a particularly acute way (rather than cumulatively through
the 3300 pages) and that’s the very moving passage on the death of the
Ailing and only partly aware of how ill he is, he feels he must visit a Paris
exhibition of Dutch art to see a painting he particularly loves and thinks he
knows intimately, Vermeer’s The View of Delft. A review of the exhibition has
mentioned the wonderful effect in the painting of a ‘little patch of yellow
wall’ that Bergotte can’t recall. So, with his head now spinning and on the
edge of a stroke, he goes up to the painting. He sees it afresh, noticing
details he didn’t recognise, especially ‘the precious substance of the tiny
area of wall’.
I’m using Carol Clark’s fine Penguin translation. I’ll end with this as I
think its powers speak for themselves.
His head spun faster; he fixed his gaze, as a child does on a yellow
butterfly he wants to catch, on the precious little patch of wall. ‘That
is how I should have written’, he said to himself. ‘My last books
are too dry, I should have applied several layers of colour, made my
sentences precious in themselves, like that little patch of yellow wall.’
[…] He was repeating to himself, ‘Little patch of yellow wall with a
canopy, little patch of yellow wall’. While saying this he collapsed on
to a circular sofa; then suddenly, he stopped thinking that his life was
in danger and said to himself, ‘It’s just indigestion; those potatoes
were undercooked’. He had a further stroke, rolled off the sofa on to
the ground as all the visitors and guards came running up.
Austen, Jane (1994) Emma (Harmondsworth: Penguin), p.284.
Chaucer, Geoffrey (1977) The Canterbury Tales, trans. Nevill Coghill (Harmondsworth:
Conrad, Joseph (1984) The Secret Agent (Harmondsworth: Penguin), pp.165, 168.
Jacobs, Richard (2001) A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading: An Anthology of Literary
Texts (London: Routledge) for discussions of Melville’s Bartleby, Beckett’s Not I and Hill’s
Jacobs, Richard (2003) ‘Transformed by Godot’ in emagazine 20 (English and Media
Proust, Marcel (2002) The Prisoner, trans. Carol Clark (London: Penguin), p.169.
Pullman, Philip (2000) The Amber Spyglass (London: Scholastic), pp.307-308, 332-333.
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