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  • Literature, Politics, and Character
  • Oliver Conolly and Bashshar Haydar

What is the relationship between literature and politics? We might interpret this question in terms of causality. For example, we might ask whether literature has any effects in the world of politics and if so how. Auden famously proclaimed that poetry makes nothing happen, while it was central to Brecht's dramaturgy that theatre has certain political effects on its audience. Conversely, we might see literature as an effect of political causes and claim that certain political environments give rise to certain types of literature, and that those political backgrounds thereby explain certain aspects of literary phenomena. Both kinds of causal relationship are at the heart of Marxist literary criticism, and of the many schools of academic criticism which share the Marxist assumption that individual consciousness, and its literary manifestations, are subordinate to political environment.

These causal questions are important and interesting, particularly if approached with requisite critical tact. However, in this paper we would like to focus on the epistemological and normative questions of whether literature is suited to communicate political knowledge or insights, and whether we value, or rather ought to value, literature for such communication. These two questions are in our view intimately related. While there is no doubt that literary works can be made to communicate virtually all kinds of knowledge, from knowledge about the Big Bang to knowledge how to smuggle illegal immigrants into First World countries, these kinds of knowledge are not what we go to literature for. We go to literature and value it for giving us knowledge which it is peculiarly suited to communicate. It is natural to praise a novel for its insight into, say, character but odd to praise a novel for its [End Page 87] insight into, say, meteorology. This is because literature is suited at communicating insights into character, and is not suited at communicating insights into meteorology.

The suitability of literature to explore the inner life derives from the expressive and imaginative possibilities inherent in the very medium of literature. For example, Henry James's Portrait of a Lady reveals the inner logic (or psychologic) that underlies the self-destructive behavior of its heroine, Isabel Archer, her disastrous choice of husband being dictated by a desire to prove a point to herself—that she is indifferent to his poverty relative to that of the other suitors—rather than an informed sense of her true interests.1 This is not to say that literature is the only medium in which insight into character can be communicated, but that this is one of the kinds of insight which literature is suited at communicating.

The question of whether literature is suited to impart political insights is thus determinative of the question of whether its doing so counts towards its value as literature.2 This is the question to which we now turn.


The question of whether literature is suited to impart political insights presupposes an understanding of the scope of the political, and the kinds of phenomena that can properly be called political. The scope of the political can be conceived more or less broadly. The narrow view is that politics is concerned with the nature and legitimacy of the state, government, legal and other coercive institutions. The broad view is that politics is concerned with power relations between social groups that are mediated not through institutions but through attitudes.

The distinction can be illustrated with reference to two kinds of feminist argument. Feminist arguments for laws on sex discrimination and equal pay, and their proper implementation, are political in the narrow sense. However, feminists may also argue, irrespective of such institutional changes, that social attitudes towards women—the attitudes of a given society, including those of women—should be changed in certain ways. For example, a generally held view that emphasizes the importance of women's appearance, their role as adjuncts to their husbands—the kinds of views that were prevalent in the 1950's, say—is open to challenge by feminists outside a narrow institutional framework. The reason this [End Page 88] stance is political is that it concerns systemic attitudes which underpin power relations between one group...


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