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Confused Notion of ‘Great’ in Literature

The Notion of ‘Great’ and Literature

What is the notion of ‘great’ in literature? The one that Aristotle says great? Or the one that T. S. Eliot says great? Or for some, the one that Terry Eagleton says great? As many mouths that many notions… such are the notion of this ‘great’ in literature. Today, I will write something about this notion. I kept thinking for this for a while (every day) and could not come to a conclusion. Why do I have to feel or to express that Paradise Lost is a masterpiece in poetry? Why do the students of third years (English honours) have to admit that Charles Dickens was a great novelist and that Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is a great novel? Why was I told in the first year of my graduation that Romantic poets were better than the Victorian poets and their precursors, the neo-classical poets? We are all told by most of the tongues indulged in lecturing that Shakespeare was a great dramatist and the one who cannot be dethroned from the adjective crown – the greatest dramatist of all time. So, this notion of great, which at first instance seems all ‘dodged’ and passive, is somewhat confusing. Do you also feel the same?


Notion of great in literature

I begin with a confession:

Certainly, those who might already have begun to feel that I am being impressed by the canons of Deconstruction or tending towards ‘fascist ideology’ in literature, I am not. I am just posing a scenario in front of the readers. A student of the junior standard cannot argue with a University professor if he comes to know about the position of the latter. Similarly, the ‘conditioned’ teaching and literary practices in our colleges and universities ‘fill up’ the minds of students with the golden lines – Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist of all time; Wordsworth was way better than Arnold and Pope; There is no peer to be found for Dickens; To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece; War and Peace is the greatest Russian novel… and so on…

Now you think:

Take an objective stand; get up and feel that all these statements are on your table. How do you see these? Sounds good, doesn’t it? Next moment, I am sure you will think that it’s kind of ‘conditioning’. By doing this, we are suppressing their free judgment, in a way. Free play of critical perusal will go away if we already come to believe that Gone With The Wind is so and so… 1984 is so and so… Shakespeare cannot be dethroned and so on. Certainly, there is a joy in reading those (and it remains only joy because we already know they are great). Once again, I will stand firm that I am not supporting the ‘let the author die once you begin reading’ argument. I am just posing a scenario in front of my readers.

‘Great’ notion in a nutshell:

What I am suggesting is that the notion of ‘great’ in literature is so complex. The practices in colleges, reading clubs, universities and literary societies have almost made pillars which cannot be jumped off! We all come to know by reading (not the works) that Pope and Dryden were the poets of secondary rank. We all come to know, today or tomorrow or yesterday that postmodern literature is a chaos – it is confusing. A simple analysis will take us back to the original statements made by the contemporaries of the intended literary personalities. You will come to know about Shakespeare’s greatness mostly by Ben Jonson (in his age); Wordsworth’s greatness will be reflected in the words of Coleridge (and vice-versa); Ezra Pound will sing for T. S. Eliot and Shelley for our beloved Keats. (This series will not end.) If not a hear-say, this is all about see-read practices that we have been indulged in for centuries. We read different books of literature; different books with critical approaches by different critics and many books with personal opinions on someone’s literary production. Because that is mostly based on the ‘previous’ statements, what we get is a bunch of statements mixed with a little of the author’s piece of mind. We make our views and then only we decide whether to read someone or not. Is it fair? (I am just posing a scenario in front of my readers.)

Implicit examples:

A mere exchange of letters is still carried like a ‘great’ piece of literature while complex plotted works which discuss the subjects of human tendencies are disposed of with adjectives like ‘piece of S*it and crap’ by the ‘conditioned’ lovers of ‘great’ literature. There is certainly a need to letting loose the readers of literature without and judgments dodged on them. For this, the readers need to go through the work before the go through the critical work (for various purposes). They simply need to make their opinion about a piece by going through the ‘inside text’ rather than coming (or deciding not to come) after going through some ‘outside text’.

Have your say :)

That’s all I had to say about this great notion of ‘great’ in literature. I have also come by the same road you are all coming; however, I just stepped aside and got to the bridge from where I can see things a little clearly and a little distant as well, in both the sides. I would be happy to know what the readers think of my opinion. There is always a joy in interaction which takes place between the readers and the authors.

Alok Mishra

First and foremost a poet, Alok Mishra is an author next. Apart from these credentials, he is founder & Editor-in-Chief of Ashvamegh, an international literary magazine and also the founder of BookBoys PR, a company which helps writers brand themselves and promote their books. On this blog, Alok mostly writes about literary topics which are helpful for literature students and their teachers. He also shares his poems; personal thoughts and book reviews.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this blog post. For me, the definition of greatness in literature hinges on whether or not a work retains its relevance across cultural shifts and the passage of time. Only the works that touch on deep, fundamental human truths can hope to claim greatness. Some of my favorite classics were not considered ‘great’ when they were contemporary. For example, I loved Middlemarch, but it was first published to mixed reviews.

    1. Hi Adrienne,
      many thanks for stopping by and reading this one! I agree with you on that. I share the view that a piece of literature which has something for me, must have something for the readers who would read it a century later.

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