The term ‘literature’ is difficult to define in one fell swoop. Indeed, there are as many definitions of literature as there are scholars, critics, schools of thoughts, perspectives and orientations. To begin with, the word ‘literature’ originated from the Latin word ‘litteraturae’ which means ‘writings’. The Latinate root of the word ‘literature’ is ‘littera’ which means ‘letter’. By this definition, the term literature could mean anything that is written down in any field of study; say the Literatures of Medicine, Mathematics, Economics and History.

There is, however, a problem with this definition. The problem is that its scope is rather too wide. Again, if literature refers to all that is written down, what about oral literature? Oral literature is a type of literature that is not written down but is passed on from generation to generation through words of mouth. Clearly, the definition of literature as ‘writing’ only ignores the basic substance of literature, which is oral literature or orature, as Pio Zirimu and Ngugi wa Thiong’O would have it.

To solve the definitional glitches observed above, most scholars agree that literature should be defined in such a way as to accommodate both oral and written traditions. To do this, two terms have been chosen. They are: creativity and imagination. Literature can then be defined as the creative expression of a people or the body of the imaginative expression of a people. The fact that literature is creative and imaginative sets it apart from other areas of study, as well as separating it from what has been penned down in other fields of study. Though other fields of study make use of creative and imaginative thinking, creativity and imagination are central to literature. Literature is creative and imaginative because it is not based on actual or real life occurrences, but on possible and imagined events. This explains why some are wont to refer to literature as fiction.

Literature as Fiction

Plato: The definition of literature as fiction can be traced to the Greek philosopher and literary critic, Plato (429-347 BC) in his famous book, The Republic. In this work, Plato sees literature as being ‘two steps removed from reality’. In the first instance, Plato conceived that the universe was made up of two worlds; the physical world and the world of forms (the spiritual world). Everything that exists in the physical world must first exist in the world of forms, which is the original world. The physical world merely copies from the spiritual world. This means that the physical world is an imitation of the spiritual world.

 But then the writer, according to Plato, copies from the physical world, which is already an imitation. Thus, the world that the writer creates in the literary work is ‘an imitation of imitation’. This way, Plato sees literature as ‘fiction’ (falsehood or lie). All writers of literature were liars, according to Plato, and should, therefore, be exiled from his The Ideal Republic so as not to corrupt the youth.

Literature as Imitation of Reality

Aristotle: Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a student of Plato. He disagreed with some of his teacher’s ideas concerning literature and made a case for the continuous relevance of literature in human society. To achieve this, Aristotle argued that since the world of forms could not be perceived by the five senses, the physical world should be taken as the original world. That way, literature would only be one step removed from reality. Not only this, Aristotle in his work, The Poetics, formalised rules to provide the needed standard for writers and critics of literature.

For instance, Aristotle stated that serious and great writers wrote tragedy while lesser writers wrote comedy. He also argued against the banning of writers and their works from society because of the roles that literature plays in society. Such roles include entertainment, education and information. It is to Aristotle that we owe the survival of literature to this day.

The view of literature as imitation and as fiction persists to this day. Literature is generally considered fiction because it is mostly based on imagined events rather than actual or historical events. However, in recent times, the term fiction has also been used to refer specifically to the Novel.

Literature as Mirror of Society: The extent to which literature can be called fiction is not certain especially as literature is said to be the mirror of society. The idea of literature as mirror means that literature reflects the goings-on in human society. When one reads a book, sees a movie or watches a play on the stage, one encounters not only the image of the world, but also one’s image. This way, literature serves as a tool for self-reflection for the individual and society at large.

The Roles/Functions of Literature

  1. Entertainment: The primary role of literature is to entertain. Whether in poetry, drama or prose, literature aims to delight the individual who reads a book or sees a performance. Even in the recent art of the cinema or the movies, the priority is to delight the audience. It is, therefore, not surprising that once a person feels bored, the next thing will be for him or her to seek entertainment through reading a novel, seeing a film, listening to a piece of music (which is poetry) or dancing (which is a dramatic performance).
  2. Education: Literature is a vehicle for the education of the human mind, as well as the sensitisation of the soul. In the course of reading a work of literature, one is exposed to the writer’s wealth of knowledge. The reader also stands to gain from the writer’s use of language. Indeed, many have learnt a new language or improved their language skills through the constant reading of literary works. The writer does not only narrate a story, he or she also passes on to the reader the cultural values of a people, including norms, mores, morality, religion, custom and tradition, history, fashion and dietary sense, among others things.

All these add to the education of the reader because, as travelling is part of education, what the work of literature does is to carry the individual to different places around the world. Wide reading, therefore, equips the individual for life. No wonder then that Francis Bacon once said that ‘reading maketh a full man’.

  1. Information: The aim of literature is only achieved through the passage of vital information on different areas or fields of life. Already, it has been stated that literature depicts human society in its entirety. This means that, unlike other fields of study, literature is not limited to itself. Its scope covers all affairs of human endeavour. Thus, in reading works of literature, one can gather information on Science, Arts, Economics, Physics and so on. 

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