Good literature is ageless, timeless, and is free to cross all the borders. Obsessions, feelings, fear, are universal and common for all the humans in the world.
An early example of the effect of culture upon literature can be seen in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s many activities in the fourteenth century as auditor, justice of the peace and knight of the shire brought him into association with the ruling classes. A member of King Edward’s personal household, Chaucer would have been influenced on his diplomatic missions by the cultures of Spain, France and Italy. As poet and author, these cultural opportunities must have inspired Chaucer. He wrote lyrical poetry modelled on the famous French and Italian poets. Troilus’s song in Troilus and Criseyde is reportedly Chaucer’s translation of Petrarch’s sonnet. Canterbury Tales observes society and the culture of Chaucer’s epoch, satirising religion and the class system by illustrating stereotypical individuals, often inverting their roles within society. Chaucer’s middle class youth amongst the mercantile atmosphere of London’s Vintry to his elevated position amongst aristocracy gave him an insight into the class structural system. Gaining ideas from Gower and Boccaccio’s tales. Chaucer also drew from the culture around him; The honourable and moral, chivalrous, wealthy knight emphasises the ruling classes impression of themselves, the ironic Pardonner’s Tale, the ridiculed Prioress and the poor Ploughman, who represents the lower classes. The Wife of Bath’s tale presents us with women who are either pristine and virginal, so pure that they are unattainable or cunning and deceitful. The experienced Wife of Bath boasts of her five husbands, pointing out that happiest marriages are where the wife is the boss and that women should have mastery over their husbands, presenting early feminist points of view.
During the difficult journey into the heart of the jungle, Conrad presents the horror, which lies beneath the surface of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. The literature has been produced because of the actual historical occurrences and Conrad’s view that social opinion was lacking, therefore, the novel is a product of its context, communicating the exploitation, imperialistic rule and colonialism. Throughout this novel, we can identify the racist language, descriptions and the inevitability of hierarchal systems being set in place. Chinua Achebe called Conrad ‘a thoroughgoing racist’. Conrad fashioned his historical findings into a novel, entwining albeit racist views of African culture and historical facts, highlighting not only slavery and colonialism but also race and feminist issues. The story focuses on white male dominator’s experience rather than the colonised tribes. Conrad presents his picture of imperialism, ‘a white man in such unexpected elegance of get-up … a high, starched collar, white cuffs … a clean necktie … under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand’, represents an unsoiled and pure culture and symbolises power and superiority over black natives, who are presented as faceless and speechless, ‘black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees … clinging to the earth. ’ Chinua Achebe criticised Conrad for his account in the Congo, calling him a traveller with a closed mind, blinkered by his European views of Africans. Conrad’s descriptions of the natives as ‘niggers’, coupled with his inability to give them a language raises questions of racism. ‘The edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy’, infers that the natives are unintelligible.
The novel is full of ambiguities; everything in the novel is cloaked in darkness, mist, fog or gloom, symbolising the inability to see creates a distortion. The river, described as a snake symbolises deceit and cunning and the underhand activities of the colonisers, the exploiters. Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of hypocritical operations of imperialism that can be explored throughout the novel with inefficient scenes of bureaucracy and prominent scenes of torture and cruelty. The Manager tortures a native boy for allegedly starting a fire. The Company describe their business as ‘trade’ yet it becomes clear that Kurtz rules with violence, intimidation and force. In the treatment of natives, Marlow describes; ‘Black shapes crouched … in all attitudes of pain … fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest’, with the knowledge of history, it is clear these men were left to die.
Some of the key purposes of literature, to entertain, inform, instruct, recommend opinions, make us think or choose and even to uplift society are in force within society’s everyday culture. Literature is more than words on a page, it can present scientific development and exploration and represent amongst others, social, historical, political, feminist and religious views. Literature is a product of culture and is therefore a part of historical culture. Literature is affected by rules of past and present cultural trends. Culture is affected by past and present literature. Literature allows the presentation of culture at a given time and therefore, is part of cultural history.
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